Sometimes, I spend too much time in front of a mirror. It’s not vanity, not exactly. I used to really avoid it. I used to avoid the mirror for a long time. I wasn’t happy with what I saw there unless I wore my armor. Sometimes, people need masks to be who they really are, and sometimes people need them to keep from seeing what they are without one. I used to see someone I wanted to kill, interspersed with who I could be. A flicker of imagining what a bit of makeup would do, or thinking of what a lack of hair in the right place would do. Or worse changes. Ideas that burrowed into me because of a teacher once, and again thanks to Venus’s tenacity.
This time, I was waiting while she ran and got my medicine. Maybe being off kilter like I am helps deal with some pretty fucked-up situations. I’ve tended to think of it as an advantage, but the danger sense kicked in at Qiang’s birthday party. I was trying an appetizer and everything just became more focused and… there. It’s like when the bullets start flying but you know where everything is, but I only felt like someone was after me. Qiang came running up to me and lunged to meet her, but I was able to recognize her enough to turn it into a hug. She loved the clowns I got. Good girl. This world discriminates against clowns too much as-is.
And they’re sexy as hell.
But at that moment, I was looking around, tense. “I want to learn to juggle and do balloon animals like he did!” she insisted. I patted Qiang on the back and kissed her head. Venus came up and patted her as well.
“That sounds great! I’m sure your mom will teach you all she knows, but I need to speak to her, alright?”
Qiang wiggled free of my hug and jumped up and down, clapping. Then she saw one of her school friends and ran off to that part of the palace courtyard to go play or something. I dunno, we had bouncy things all around.
Venus held her hands up, looking at me. “Hey, what’s wrong?”
I checked around. “I just need my medicine.” I said, looking around. “It’s like they want to kill me, but no one is.” I laughed and added, “At the moment.”
Venus put her arm around me and guided me to a bathroom, then went to go get my meds from Max. And just me, looking in the mirror at a pretty face with runny eyeshadow, wondering if that’s even me. If this is just me playing pretend. If I’m too fucked up to know what I am. Maybe they’re right. Maybe I’m just a warped, sick man who hates the sight of himself.
I smashed the mirror. It didn’t even have the decency to cut my skin. Be a hero? No, never. I’ve made sure of that. I shouldn’t be saving the world. It’d be so much better if I molded it. Wash clean the corruption and all the people who aren’t the madmen. Because a madman’s a loner. If it’s a group of them, a government of them, then they aren’t madmen. Mass delusions are perfectly acceptable. I could use all this chaos to my advantage. Let this invader wreck the powers that be for me, so I can swoop in and set a new order.
Nice sentiment. It disappeared when the door swung open and my nemesis stood there. The woman I thought would kill me. My perfect hero, who let me down again and again. The grin fell off my face. When did it get there?
I hugged onto her. She hugged me back. She stroked my hair. “You’re ok. You’re safe. I will not hurt you.”
Even though I’ve lost a damn limb to this woman before, I believed her. She held up a glass of water and a couple of caplets. “I’m not sure I want to take them now,” I said. “I can do so much. They’re so corrupt out there and I can fix it. You can too. You were going to save political prisoners. You have to hate what they did to your country.”
She nodded. “I do. I didn’t want to defend that anymore. I want to make the world a better place.” She looked me deep in my eyes. She set the water and caplets down on the counter by the sink, then grabbed a towel to dab at my eyes. I let her clean me up. “Your head is not in a good place to do that right.”
“No, it’s cool. There are so many possibilities I hadn’t thought about. I could fake evidence of traitors. Let them bomb the biggest threats to the stone age. All it takes to improve the world is to remove the bad ones from it.”
She shook her head. “You would leave the good ones to die. You’d kill them too, to get the bad ones. Look at you. Look what can happen to good people having a bad life.” She picked up my pills again and held them up for me. “This is what you asked me to get you. You know you need them.”
I closed my eyes and sighed, then held open my mouth for them. It’s a good thing Max’s stuff kicks in really quick. That left me in considerably better mental state to give my daughter more presents, like a beautiful Damascus steel shortsword. I went with more of a straight, thin jian design. It works better with what I’ve taught her, though I plan on having her tutored by people a lot better than me. She needs to know more than 1,001 ways to aim for the crotch. Way 322: turn your back to the enemy and stab between your legs so as to miss your own junk.
I was going to give her a large birdasaur, but it died.
The party was a welcome distraction. It helped ease tensions on the island, which was especially good for the refugees. A lot of free nations are taking in people. As much effort as boats are for people, Riccan waters are known to be safe. Deep Ones make awesome marines.
I have no problem giving them bread and circuses. Keep them fed, and keep reminding them their life hasn’t become fight, flight, or freeze.
Even the villains are feeling it. Ouroboros has the drinks and shows flowing at his casino in for the villains who are having difficulties with everything. It’s something of a safe zone. He’s announced on VillainNet that he’s using the weather control devices around the city defensively. He’s not that theatrical of a guy, but you’d never know that from the video of him holding a fucking hammer while it zaps the bastard child of a triceratops and a hedgehog. If it were me, I’d add a fake beard.
The day after Qiang’s birthday party, Ouroboros dropped me a message about needing some help. Someone showed up at the casino, a villain from Tallahassee named Carnivore. “Tallahassee is occupied. They have separated out everyone with powers. They’re being held separately and experimented on.” He attached an aerial image of the place, a hospital, with scribbled annotations. Guards here, a fence around the whole thing. Carnivore’s typed-out notes said they were being drugged. His heroic rival, a man named Snakecharmer, resisted whatever they gave him enough to grab Carnivore and try to escape.
“He dragged me through half the hospital until I could move on my own. At the last gate, he drew off the guards so I could get away and tell everyone. Said I was in no shape to fight. He took a sword to the back so I could get away. Why would he do that?”
A lot harder for a hero to run away and get help. Who would he get? Ouroboros arranges for the guy to get medical treatment and as many joints as he wants to clear his head, but he can’t go see to anyone.
This looks like a job for Psychopomp Gecko. I suppose it’s a decent enough reason to waive my “no breaking you out” rule.
Security matched what Carnivore had to say. The remote-controlled cameras of the closest Dudebot around took it all from behind a projection of the environment around it. A fence around the place, with eight-person patrols marching along it. Raiders, the guys with a facial hair fetish and pale, segmented armor, handled the perimeter. A foursome of robotmen stood in the parking lot relatively near the entrance of the hospital. There were more over by the parking garage that I could see. I headed off after one of the patrols in that direction.
I stalked up behind the rear two, wishing I could move faster. The heavier armor isn’t optimal for moving as stealthily. I tapped the one on the right on his right shoulder. When he turned to look, I punched through the left one’s throat. When the other turned toward me, I put my fist through his mouth.
The rest of the unit turned around at the sound of dropping bodies. They drew their swords all together. I grabbed the heads of the ones who had just been in front before that turn and smashed them together hard enough to send bits flying. The remaining four turned to that, which is when I grabbed the arms of the ones in back and pulled their swords into the backs of their friends. I took the wounded mens’ swords then, one in each hand, and lopped off their heads. The ones behind them pulled their swords out and might have raised a cry of alarm if I hadn’t tipped over the headless guys so that the blood sprayed into their faces.
I impaled one of them on a sword. Right up through the taint. I picked up the other and beat him down onto his friend until the impaled one’s back was bent back at a broken angle and left my unwilling weapon impaled on the same sword still embedded in his friend. Then came the boring work of carrying them all off to dump behind some bushes before the next patrol arrived.
I did a pretty good job thinning things out before I headed inside, looking for the fifth floor. It was quiet. Not too quiet. The fluorescents and air vents made plenty on their own without people there to hide it with coughing and talking. I didn’t see anyone though. I wouldn’t until I made it to floor five, when I heard the sound of loud pumping. The door to the pump noise was left open, so I let myself in.
It had been several rooms until someone knocked the walls down. Now, it held tum a bunch of people in tubes, clear tubes with people squeezed in with pale green fluid. Some wore regular, everyday clothes while others had costumes on . I’d say it was two dozen, easy, and probably way more than should have been in a place like Tallahassee.
Standing in front of them was a man in a white suit. Next to him and slightly behind, a woman in a black lab coat scribbled notes as the man dictated. I got closer, enough to hear him finish, “You got that last part, Cupernia? The measurements are precise. If you have a question, ask now.”
“Are they did?” I asked, a hologram of myself appearing behind them. The man turned and reached into the white jacket he wore over a sky blue turtleneck and pulled out a ray gun with a bulging body and a thin barrel with a large fin on the end as a sight. He fired it through the hologram. I grabbed the gun away from him with one hand and lifted him aloft with the other. “More importantly, why don’t you tell me what you’re doing here?”
“C- Cupernia,” he said.
The woman next to me flexed and grew larger, punching me through a wall. Considering how far she had to hit me to make that happen, that was a hell of a punch. Good thing the Dudebot can’t feel it. When I recovered, I looked at the man in my hands. He went through a wall without armor. He was missing the top half of his head.
Cupernia came walking in, a bulging muscle woman. She glared at her dead boss, then picked up a piece of the wall I’d gone through. She raised it over head. I launched the Dudebot toward her and rolled beneath her legs a she slammed the wall down on the floor. I turned and raised the ray gun I’d taken, squeezing the trigger. The bent device sparked once, that’s it. Cupernia smirked, then fell when the floor opened up from her careful attempt to smoosh me.
I tossed aside the dead body and the broken ray gun to see what other weapons I could harness when the big bad assistant came back for me. Oh look, a room full of supers. I began to smash open tubes. “Bring out your dead! Up and at’em, Atom Ant!”
They were lethargic, slow to stand up. I didn’t know how long I had until Cupernia got back up there. I had to think of something. Luckily I had plenty of sleeves to pull tricks out of. When Cupernia peeked in the room, she saw me standing in the middle of a good dozen supers all standing and eyeing her. I held out my hand and gave her the “bring it” gesture. “Still want to stay and play?”
She ducked out of the door. I heard a crash that sounded like an external wall. I had to let the holograms that hid the recovering, blinking supers who couldn’t stand on their own yet. That changed by the time the robotmen stomped their way out of the elevator and were promptly sprayed with lava from a vengeful captive villain.
Snakecharmer wasn’t with them, though. Carnivore seemed to figure that out fairly soon after we all arrived at Ouroboros’s casino. The others, heroes included, had a pint in celebration. Carnivore had one in mourning for the hero that saved his life.
Ugh, terrible. See how horrible war is? Heroes saving villains, villains saving heroes. It’s like cats and dogs living together. It’s just not right.
With the destruction of the Directory building, it’s a good thing we still had the tent originally used instead. Just had to bulldoze some rubble out of the way, haul in the half-melted remains of my throne, and we were good to go. We packed this one with communications equipment and monitors, to keep anyone in there informed of the situation. There weren’t so many of us sticking around to watch events at the moment. The Rangers had insisted they help guard Ricca, a message they communicated through Venus. I think she realized the volatility of the situation, so she stayed with me.
I wanted to go help out, but my underlings made the case that I shouldn’t go out and risk my life. Me, going out and risking my life for others? Preposterous. People would get a warped impression of me if that happened. Arachnoid, Shark, Rhino, and Raptor accompanied my forces over to the Korean peninsula to aid Beetrice and her Buzzkills. A lot of the intricacies of strategy and tactics were out of my hands. I have military officers for that sort of thing. That’s why I had the freedom to slaughter at my own discretion. The people trained to direct people did so, and I killed folks. They’re handling the situation in Korea better than I can.
That doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it. I stayed active instead. Intel was working over our prisoners, except the big birdasaur. That thing had a negative reaction to Max’s anesthesia. Something about the size of the heart. It ended up comatose and brain dead. “Would you like me to put it down for you?” he asked me as he showed me the cage we had it secured in.
“No, no… I can do that myself,” I told him. I stepped up to the cage. “You’re an ugly son of a bitch and you smell like rotting fish carcasses. We’re an island. We have a fishing industry here, and you still stink. Do you just roll around in the things? Do you fuck fish? Is it their sexy gaping mouths and glassy eyes that does it for you? You a fish-fucking egg-sucking dinosaur?”
Max put his hands around my shoulder. “That’s enough. I’ll put it out of its misery.”
“Put it out of my misery. Its face is killin’ me, Max.” He nodded along as he guided me away. The next time I saw him, at the command tent, he had a fancy feathered coat with him like he’d raided Elton John’s closet.
Note to self: see about selling Elton John a dinobird feather coat if he survives the invasion.
“How’s the war?” Max asked.
I shrugged. “Too much border to try and secure, especially with how useless border protection is. They can come in by air or sea that easily. Instead, Beetrice’s forces are divided up in either a defensive group to handle incursions from the north, and an offensive group coordinating with the South Koreans to push the invaders toward the DMZ.” I pointed to a map which showed most of the two countries in green. Red marked enemy concentrations. As they’d gotten closer to the DMZ, the two main concentrations in either Korea began to pull toward the western shore.
The Missile Command folks were on the edge of their seat. It was a three-way joint taskforce ready to deploy nuclear assets right down the damn barrel of gunships if any more showed up. Ricca wasn’t the only place where the invaders had decided to be sore losers. With a little bit more time for us to see what was happening, the invaders were withdrawing from most countries they couldn’t achieve a quick victory. They teleported in, caused chaos for a bit with some quick destruction, and were either defeated or left to consolidate with victorious groups or aiding the fighting in countries they found it more important to fight for. Withdrawal tended to be accompanied by the arrival of a gunship to blast concentrated defenders or important cities before disappearing.
In the case of Iran, it turned out the exterior was pretty well capable of standing up to a nuclear attack, but one shot right up the pipe did the trick. I didn’t think they had the ability to make that work, but I suspect they’ve got their own homo machina by now. The High Technolutionary, who I worked with to figure out how to transform folks into the same offshoot of humanity I belong to, is still out there somewhere.
The Koreans let the invaders withdraw, easing up. Most of them took to the water instead of the air. A pair of gunships came this time, facing each other but adjusting their aim to fire past the other. They were making the shot more difficult on us, especially because most tend to go off upon close enough proximity. This kind of shot is way more exact for a missile to make. For all their furious activity leading up to it, Missile Command was incredibly calm in making quick calculations and calling out orders. I suppose most of the work had already been done by then. In the end, North Korea launched a nuclear missile into South Korea, and South Korea into North Korea, destroying the gunships.
As soon as it was done, Missile Command broke out the beer and the cheery girl group pop music. My military are suckers for some bunch called Mamamoo. Let them have their fun. They’ll be helping deal with the liberation of our Belgian allies soon enough.
I called up Beetrice first. “Congratulations on victory, honeybee.”
She laughed. “We owe a lot to the South Koreans. I think this war might secure further reconciliation. It will be a difficult process because we are loyal to you, Empress.”
“Something to figure out through the rebuilding process. What’s the damage? We got plenty of nanites, and Cape Diem might be able to spare some people. With the bulk of the fighting over, we can get more medical personnel in. We’re mostly stabilized on our end.” I sat forward in my deformed throne.
“Pyongyang has two of those flying machines downed in it. They destroyed every hospital they came across. The agricultural expansion was going so well, but the fields are trashed. Anything you can give us would be appreciated, but I will make any aid you give us available to the South Koreans,” she told me.
“Deal,” I told her. I suppose I should be more conniving of an evil ruler, but I hardly think this is a situation for settling petty grudges that aren’t mine.
Emphasis on “that aren’t mine.” For a lot of leaders at this point, there’s not a lot they can do as individuals to contribute to the war effort. Most of it boils down to making sure the people fighting can do what they need to, or keeping morale up. Most leaders aren’t one of the world’s best assassins. A lot of these breakaway factions some of the other countries have are likely to crumble with a sudden loss of leadership. We send in an swarm of Buzzkills or a Psycho Flyer, it could look like the government’s beholden to me. Sometimes knives are superior to guns.
Thing is, the Rangers want to stay on my ass. Sure, they break off in one or twos to go assist other countries, but there’s always some of them here. I don’t think Pink’s ever left. I had a pretty good idea how to get around that problem when I left the command center to have lunch with Venus and Qiang. Just the three of us, sitting around, eating food, my daughter and I getting into a chopstick fight. “Obi-Wan lied. I am your father.”
“Nooooo!” she yelled, letting herself flop to her back on the carpet. She laid there like that, not moving.
I poked her belly with a chopstick. “Well, she’s dead. Guess I get all her stuff now.”
“Nuh uh!” she sat up and tried to fake a glare.
“Are you finished eating?” Venus asked. When Qiang nodded, my nemesis added, “Isn’t it time to get back to school then?”
“Mooooom…” she begged, looking at Venus. Venus giggled and ruffled her hair. Qiang turned to me then, “Do I have to?”
“School’s important, dearheart. Lots of fun things to learn. There’s a story behind everything.” I helped her straighten her hair out, then ruffled it for her again. She did a better glare this time.
“Fine!” she huffed and put her helmet back on. The ability to leap small buildings in a single bound and run faster than normal help with a lunchtime commute.
When she was gone, I scooted over to sit beside Venus and sat my bowl down. “She’s adorable,” Venus said. “You should tell her I’m not Citra. We have to be honest that I’m not her mother.”
“Citra isn’t either. Wouldn’t be surprised if Qiang knows. Mmm, but I need a nap.” I laid my head in her lap and looked up into her face. Her not objecting is still wild.
“I have places I need to go too.” She didn’t push me away though. “Promise me we’ll talk about it later.”
“Sure thing,” I said. I wonder if I should use her pet name. I learned it way back from her interactions with her boyfriend at the time, The Human Sloth. I’ve killed him twice, which is one reason I don’t think she’s over her hatred of me. And I really ought to check on Psychsaur. The scaly psychic heroine and I made a real connection when she was playing around in my head for awhile there, then she started dating Venus. Now Venus is over here, trying to be a conscience I can snuggle with.
Over in Georgia, a Riccan agent delivered a weapons shipment to Tbilisi. The President of Georgia, unperturbed by the devastation in the country, got into an armored SUV with his personal security detail. The SUV stalled, and shut off. Cursing, the driver popped the hood and got out to check on it. A drone flew into his open door. Someone in the rear popped a door open and threw the President out just before the drone detonated. The one at the hood was knocked off his feet and slow to stand back up. The President tried to crawl and call for help.
My Dudebot appeared in front of him, holding the severed arm of an invader robotman. “Who are you?” the man asked.
“I’m an awesomesauce enema. This is gonna get messy.”
I punched the arm through the President’s spine and neck. A couple of bullets ricocheted off my robot double’s armor from the surviving bodyguard. I jumped over the President’s corpse and shoved the robot arm through the man’s chest. The Dudebot’s invisibility measures activated again, letting it blend in and leaving the appearance that a man who intended to side with the invaders had instead been murdered by them. I’m sympathetic with their desire for revenge, but I’m pretty sure they could just help themselves to Russian-occupied lands at the moment without turning on everyone else.
Over in Georgia, meanwhile, a bunch of separatists with Punisher patches on their department-store camo jackets met with a Riccan agent who assured them this shipment of weapons could keep the tax man from ever treading on them again. The agent had backed a truck with a large crate in it right up to the gate of their compound. They raised their ARs and fired into the air, whooping. One of them with an exceptionally big cross around his neck even added a, “God bless you, son.”
The agent unscrewed the crate and pulled the lid off, then dove behind the truck off the bed of the truck to hide away from them. The Dudebot inside jumped out, taking the head off the one with the cross with its Nasty Surprise minisaw. I jumped and spinkicked the head into the face of one of his buddies, who dropped his gun. I grabbed one out of the hands of a nearby man, spun it upside down, and ran it through is stomach. “Time for a shishkebob!” I lifted him up and pointed him toward one of his palls who was shooting at me, jabbing it through him next. “And a shiskeRandy.” And on through another one. “ShishkeDaryl.”
The whole compound scrambled to investigate what was going on while my agent drove off. All I had to do was keep the Dudebot hidden with the help of its active camo and wait until I found the self-styles commander of the bunch, who went from hiding in the rear to marching in front when he realized all the fighting had stopped. The bunch not being particularly careful with their arm, all I had to do was slip the safety off one guy’s rifle, point it squarely at the commander, and squeeze the trigger. The shot the soldier, too. They almost found out I was there from all the bullets flying, but I got out of the way and let the paranoia take over. When I left, the survivors were all pointing firearms at one another.
I awoke in Venus’s arms. I once heard a man say that a power nap is when you sleep on someone who is weaker than you. I prefer to think it’s what happens when I kill a bunch of people while catching some Zs. There’s a war on. I’m just being efficient.
You could cut the tension as the invasion day approached, but most people were saving their knives for the invaders. We got most of the civilians rounded up. The old geothermal power plant had space, as did the tunnels for the underground high speed rail. Others took shelter in old black sites. Anyone who wished to leave the island was allowed. I’d have pushed for a general evacuation, but there’s really no telling where all will be hit. That’s the same reason I didn’t recall all my agents or my wife. Informing us of the invasion ahead of time may be of questionable strategy, but it created a lot of uncertainty and confusion that can work against us in the initial strike.
Those who wanted to fight were given the opportunity for that as well. The training kept my soldiers ready and helped them focus. We could always use the manpower. Beetrice didn’t stay, but at least we have VelocityRaptor back, mostly healed from that business in Africa. He failed to kill Velociraptor. We’ve also still got Silver Shark, who decided to take up position near the beach with the Deep One militia. Bronze Rhino, another Claw creation, was pulled out of his homestead in the wilderness and sobered up to help defend the city. We needed him to fight, and his alcohol for Molotovs.
So the clocks tick-tocked away, bringing us closer and closer to a clash. I finished doing what I could to my armor. Plenty of integrated nanite-holding quilt on the inner layer, spiked blades on knees and elbows, and as many chicken grenades and explosive throwing knives as I could pack.
Venus watched me as I worked in my study. “Are you ready?”
I laughed. “Is anybody truly ready?”
“Did you have one of Max’s brownies he’s passing around? You shouldn’t have dulled reactions right now,” she said.
I shook my head and turned to look at her, “I am fully in control of my own faculties. Razor sharp, you might say.”
“You look tense.” She walked over and ran her hands through my hair. “How do you feel?”
I closed my eyes, enjoying the feeling. “A little tense and excited. You?”
“The same. The big fights don’t announce when they’re coming. I had the Academy send me my exoskeleton through Cape Diem. Don’t worry, I repainted it in my new colors.” She stopped running my head and I reached up to hold her hand.
We stayed like that for several seconds, then I smiled and made the situation worse with singing. “It’s an emergency, call the police, you left me and abandoned the lease.” The guitar, bass, and drums started up when I put on the actual song to cover up my disastrous singing voice.
Venus giggled, then started dancing when I stood up. I heard a squeal from the doorway to find Qiang dancing there to “Gave You Everything” by The Interrupters. I pulled Venus over so I could grab Qiang and lift her up. Further down the hall, Sam rocked out, then hopped on something and played an imaginary guitar.
It was just stupid fun to music. It was right. It was what we needed and it broke the tension. And it was just in time, because pretty much everything we were using to detect an incursion went off at once. I didn’t know whether to expect a portal or a craft of some sort. We got both, but the portals were temporary and the craft were floating and flying. The things in the sky had hull like ship with a narrow angle. Could have been some sort of floating battleship or destroyer for all I know ship designations. The ones in the water were wider and more round, like if someone made a circular aircraft carrier and loaded the deck with guns.
Some of those ended up cut into pieces when the barrier went up. Explosions rippled across it from where the flying ships had fired already. Some were inside the dome of the shield already when it went up.
I dropped everything and began to suit up, sending out an address while I did so. “People of Ricca, the invasion is incoming. Stay in the shelters unless they’re compromised. If possible, we will evacuate you to areas of the world not under attack. I will not leave you. I’ll keep fighting. You might doubt me as a benevolent leader. Honestly, I don’t think any good leader can be a good person. Ha! By that metric, I’d be an excellent leader. Don’t trust me because of morality. Trust me to be a monster unleashed on your enemies. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go set a new world record for most bowels perforated with a single fist.”
This is why people hire speechwriters. More competent speakers give these events a certain gravitas.
I flexed my armor and reached for my helmet. Qiang held it up for me, in a smaller, less spiky version of my armor. She didn’t have her helmet on either and smiled at me. Mindful of the spikes, I grabbed her for a hug. “I love you.”
“Love you too, mommy,” she said, setting it on my head. It sealed into place and she walked over to the desk where I’d left my helmet, grabbing her knife and helmet.
“I want you underground, staying safe,” I told her. “And keep your armor on.”
“Yes mama!” she yelled, running off with her helmet past Venus. The heroine rested against the doorway, a smile visible underneath the chrome visor obscuring most of her face.
“You ready?” she asked.
I nodded. “You?”
“Yeah. Time to fight the good fight,” she said, as if that line wasn’t designed to make my eyes roll.
Sam and Holly stayed behind, so it was just the three of us setting out from the palace: Max, Venus, and Gecko. Max twirled a syringe gun in one hand, a spray gun in the other, careful of the bandoleer full of smoke grenades. Venus scanned the area and pulled out a staff that extended. I called over a larger drone that attached underneath the armored battery pack on my back, adding a large pair of lasers designed for heavy use hanging off each side of me, and a stand on my shoulder on which a pair of my normal-sized drones settled with their smaller beam weapons.
Out in the waters, Silver Shark and the Deep One marines had capsized a trio of the invading ships, which shot a lot of empty buildings on the waterfront. Some of those inside tried to swim to shore despite segmented armor, but I had more Deep Ones than they had exceptional swimmers.
The seafaring ships outside the barrier had pressed against it. They were glowing some orange color and slowly easing through. I contacted my submarine, who assured me they had everything in hand. The message came through about the time I saw the explosions tear through the ships. My admiral figured that the natural compliment to a shield around the island is a minefield around the shield. There weren’t many living invaders left to argue the efficacy of that.
I was beginning to think I wouldn’t even get to use my armor when white portals began to swallow the battleship aircraft outside the shield. New white portals opened in the air over the water, spitting them back out. They began to adjust targets.
The Intercept team was on it with surface-to-air missiles and drones. The first shots of the battlecraft crashed into the Directory building and probably wrecked my favorite chair. They turned to adjust aim once the first of our missiles began to blow holes in them. My guys focused on three of these things equally for way too long before concentrating fire on the closest. Whatever kept the battlecraft afloat in the air didn’t compensate for the hits and it rocked back and forth until something gave out and it crashed into the water. The other two focused on the military base. Note to self: when rebuilding the military base, include its own shield. Same for the new Directory building and the Palace.
The next craft to go down was dissected in a fucking grid pattern by laser drones. It was beautiful. It swung and dipped, just barely missing the remaining battlecraft. Gotta give them points for trying. That craft ended up smacking into shallower water, part of the hull crumpling on the beach.
The invaders changed tactics. Four portals began to open up at ground level and stayed open for thirty seconds. “Anyone left at Intercept who sees where these things are coming in?” I asked over my command channel.
“Affirmative, Empress. Intercept Field Unit is deployed. We have eyes on rifts and are passing the locations on, triaging per your orders.”
All are equal under the Empress, but some places are more equal than others. The base’s capabilities are reduced, but we need the power plant and the shield. We need the people in the shelters if they threaten any of them.
After that, more opened. I wasn’t paying so much attention to those, because one of those first sets of portals opened right in front of my group. The ones most eager to die were a bunch of guys who must have interrupted their beard-growing contest to get killed being the most prominent group. There were a few others mixed in. It was a pretty diverse bunch.
I giggled and began to dance, pumping out the next song on my murder playlist, Coolio’s Fantastic Voyage. I spun and slid onto my knees, hands in the air, waving like I just didn’t care, while the heavy lasers and the laser drones I personally commanded went to town on them. The first wave just died. Whatever segmented armor they had wasn’t that good at handling light. Some of the ones to survive were grey guys in tights and vests. A small blossom of light appeared where they were hit. Max tossed one of his grenades and hid behind me. They didn’t come out the other side of the thick blue smoke that spread all over the edge of the courtyard. The stream of enemies came around the sides, but something did walk out of the smoke. I caught a glimpse in between mowing down their buddies.
There were three clunky robots. Heavy metal plating and bolts on the torso chest, head, arms, and legs. It had a thick support connecting the chest to the legs, but didn’t bother with all those delicious parts of living critters. These were some old school robots, staring out at us through slots in their heads that glowed with red lights. Venus stepped up in front of myself and Max. She held her staff in her right hand, angled to avoid the metal spike she extended from the gauntlet. Electricity arced from it, then up along the staff which she swept over the robots. Ball lighting flew forth, throwing off smaller tendrils on its way into the middle of the robots. The others who got too close didn’t take it any better than the miraculous metal men did.
We were barely done with that group when another portal opened behind us. The future corpses who ran out of that one included some in old wool outfits and flintlocks, of all things. I held out a hand and gestured for them to bring it. Venus grabbed my arm and tugged me to the side when one of them fired at me, with Max diving behind me. Behind me, a person-sized hole appeared in the wall around the courtyard.
I targeted the flintlock shooters first after that. Max ducked beneath my legs to fire into the crowd with his gun and called out, “Thanks Venus!”
“Yeah, thanks,” I said, a bit grumbly. Ugh, my nemesis I’m in love with saved my life. Time to go write in my diary about how unfair my life is and how I’m so embarrassed I’m just gonna DIE. Wait, is this not the teen drama portion of the narrative? Oh, right, I was murdering folks.
Intercept contacted me for an update after we’d finished with that bunch. “Empress, we have reports of dinosaurs loose in the city. The food growers are under siege and summoned a giant demon plant for assistance. Additionally, VelocityRaptor has responded. The Institute is under attack as well. Dr. Creeper, Bronze Rhino, and Arachnoid are defending. All fronts are holding. The sea battle is over. Silver Shark is bringing the Deep Ones ashore to flank the enemy.”
“Anywhere look like it could stand some reinforcement?” I asked.
“The skeleton crew at the water treatment plant reported an attack. We have dispatched a Flyer and squad to take it back, but we are low on available manpower.”
“I thought we told them to evacuate with the rest…” I looked to Venus and Max. “We’re heading to the water treatment plant to expel some waste. Don’t let them touch the water there if you want to keep them down for good.”
Venus nodded, but I caught something moving toward us out of the corner of my eye. By the time I turned to look, one of those grey fucks was right up in my face, pushing me. The wall we passed through stunned me a bit. You know, like they do. Wrecked my big drone, I think. The grey speedster let me go and I crashed through another wall, and another, and into a small refrigerator in someone’s kitchen. The family left a pot on the stove and rice in a bag nearby. And a superspeedster coming through a hole to stop right in front of me and punch the crap out of my armor. He grabbed my throat. I tried to put a spike through his eye, but he dodged it. I sent a straight at his gut, but he was elsewhere the moment it would have hit. I brought my arm down on his elbow and instead he was choking me with his other hand.
I looked him in his blank eyes and raised my arms. “Really dude?” I asked, despite the tightening grip that threatened to shut off my air supply. But you know what’s faster than super speed most of the time? Light. Guess who has a laser built into her helmet? This bitch. I fired the trio of lasers in my helmet into his eyes and face, for just a moment. The speedy fucker clutched his head.
I laughed my ass off and grabbed him. I pulled open the refrigerator door and pulled him in, smashing the door against his head. He stumbled back away, pushing at me. I caught a beer before it fell out and smashed it over his cranium. I put my heel into his crotch, grabbed him, and threw him against the stovetop. I didn’t need to be a speedster to stick the pot on his head and hit the lasers again. I fried his noggin in the pot. I’d have done it slow, but he was fast. Now he’s a past tense person.
I stepped out, checking on the situation. Venus and Max were on their way to the water treatment plant. I figured I could rendezvous with them, or I could turn right and see why it was suddenly a shady day. I looked, and there stood a sixteen foot tall bird staring down at me with hungry eyes. It opened its beak and roared, showing off a mouth full of rows of sharp teeth.
Command channel time. “I might kill this one, but if we happen to have a spare giant dino bird after this is all over with, I would be happy to have a new pet.” Its beaky maw snatched me up. “This one wants to play already!” It tried to chew me. I put my hands up and stopped it, then stood up on its tongue. I cut the comms channel and addressed the bird directly. “You need to remain calm and stop trying to eat me, or this relationship is never going to work. And it can work! Just look at how things turned out with Venus! All I had to do was change my life, kill fewer people, medicate, have a kid, take responsibility for a bunch of people I don’t know, set up rules for supervillains, and save the world like a dozen times.”
More crap for the diary, in between talking about who I have a crush on and what I want my prom dress to look like, like ohmigosh.
I punched the top of the birdasaur’s mouth. It opened wider and tried again. This time, it caught an elbow blade. It roared and shook its head. I fell out. I hopped up on the birdasaur’s beak and stared it in the eye. “Hey there, critter. I’m your new best friend. I’m gonna hug you and clean up after you and ride you to slaughter my enemies.”
The bird shook its head, then smashed me into the side of the building. I pulled myself up and flipped around to sit on its neck. It hopped and flapped its tiny arms, trying to get rid of me. It rolled over in the street. I don’t crush so easy. I stayed on and gave a “Yippee-ki-yay!” when we came up.
On the street below us, scaly emu things ran along, hissing and growling. I pointed down at them. “Chow down!”
The birdasaur tried to shake me off, but it knew a meal when it saw it. It snatched one up for a meal. At the end of the street, a group of the bearded soldiers and grey men stepped out. They swiped at the emus to chase them off. A soldier raised his sword to point at me. One of the grey men stepped up and raised his hands. A purple ray shot from his hands and singed the feathers on my mount.
I laughed. “Kill, my pretty! Slaughter every last one of them and feast on their bones!” It didn’t seem to need much encouragement after those pitiful attempts to shoot me. It ran into them and started biting. I even hopped down to go after that one grey guy. “That all you got? I killed a guy with super speed earlier. I’ve seen some of your buddies fly and take missiles. ‘Sup?”
He tried shooting me and all the blast did was leave a dark mark on my armor. He tried again and still did nothing. A raider sung at me from the side. I caught the blade and pulled it free from his hands, flipped it around to take the grip, and shoved it through his mouth. I grabbed the blade again and pulled it free, then kicked the body up into the air where my new pet chomped on it. When I turned back to the grey guy who shot at me, he was running. I jumped over him to land in his way. He skidded short and raised his hands in front of his face. “Please-!”
I punched him in the gut just enough to double him over. “I like it when they beg. You want me to like you? Beg more. Tell me things.” I laughed and grabbed him. “Why are you so weak when some of you things are so strong?”
“We are clones,” it told me. It shook as the birdasaur roared.
I slapped its face. “Don’t pay attention to that thing, pay attention to me. You’re clones, right?”
“We are made. Some of us have strong powers. If we are loyal and strong, we are promoted to serve the masters. If not, we serve with the vassals from the provinces.”
I brushed off his tights. “There you go. Good guy, telling me things.” I punched him and knocked him out. I saw a car nearby and carried him over. He fit pretty well into the trunk. My new pet roared at me, read for another go, but then squad of robotmen rounded the corner. I yelled back, “Tag, you’re it!” and ran for them. They raised their arms and shot bolts of molten metal at me. I could feel that, whatever it was. I could also turn invisible, and did so. Shooting like that didn’t make the birdasaur happy, and it couldn’t even eat these ones.
I watched it have fun with them from a rooftop nearby. I glanced up to look around, seeing Psycho Flyers all about. Some of them fired down on hotspots, like one over by the water treatment plant. “This is the Empress. Status update?”
“The portals have stopped, your eminence. The enemy is divided, but most large groups are breaking off to concentrate on the shield building.”
“Reinforce the building as best you can to make sure it doesn’t fall. Let them gather,” I said. I hate that kind of wait. The Institute, farm, and water treatment detachments never made it to the rally point because they got fed pavement with some serious velocity with the help of my guys. The Deep Ones and soldiers used the big gathering to start clearing sections of the city. The weird dino-bird things were the main trouble there. It’s like someone opened up portals to an alternate dinosaur era and let the wildlife run through.
And then, with more than a thousand people banging away at the power plant’s gates, water rose from manholes and drains outside of it. The army might have taken it for a minor inconvenience until the itching started. Being taken apart piece by piece will do that to you. Some tried even harder to break in, but the Psycho Flyers massed to drop my people in there and to concentrate firepower on that front. The ones who tried to run found out hard that is when your feet are falling apart. Whoops, then they fell into the water.
I guided my new feathered friend as best as I could to watch, making sure the nanites knew not to eat this one. Sure, it still tried to fight me and throw me into things, but I think we were getting used to one another. It was a good enough place to watch as the invaders found out that I am quite literally the master of this island.
When the screaming was over, I called up Max. “I got a big boy for you to tranquilize. Or girl. I don’t know how to sex a bird.”
“Come now,” Max said with a chuckle in his voice.
“I was drunk that time,” I reminded him.
“Hey, butting in here, what’s going on?” asked Venus. “Did we win?”
I added Command to the line. “Well, did we win?”
The voice on the other line gave a rundown. “The enemy is no longer a coherent force at anything but the squad level. The city has been 24% cleared. The portals are stopped, the craft are in retreat. The Battle of Ricca appears to be over.”
I clapped my hands. “Very good. I’m guessing, not everyone was as lucky?”
“The United States, France, United Kingdom, Russia, and China were all invaded by significantly larger forces of differing effectiveness. In addition, the United States and Russia are fighting traitors. There are other nations fighting, including North Korea. Some have surrendered. We are assembling a list of others who repelled their invasions.”
“There’s your answer then, Venus,” I told her. “Today, Ricca. Tomorrow… the world!”
My ambition blinded me. It lit up the sky, though Intercept broke in with and explained things differently. “Large rift opening outside the dome.”
The image I saw was basically a giant gun with engines on it to keep it afloat. And maybe something loose in the water way behind it, but the big weapon might just do it for me here. The huge barrel pointed at us glowed, then shot what looked like a miniature sun at our shield.
“Brace your sphincters, everyone,” I told announced.
The energy blast blinded us as it approached, even though the tinting functionality on my helmet’s display. It struck the shield and lashed out like it was releasing solar flares. The shield went red in a ripple that rolled out from that point, audibly crackling loud enough to drown out even the communication device sealed to my head. The shield and the sun both disappeared at once.
“Casualties at the power plant!” I heard someone call out. “Evacuate and triage!”
I didn’t tell them not to bother. I patted the birdasaur and pulled at its neck feathers until its head turned in the right direction and it began to run for the gun. “Status on our D-bomb stockpile?”
Creeper answered, “It appears an infiltrator reached Bomb Storage with an incendiary device. We have no functional D-Bombs.”
“I’m moving to intercept,” I announced.
“That’s crazy,” Venus said.
“Looks like I’m perfect for it,” I told her. I saw the gun’s barrel glowing again. I knew perfectly well I’d never make it, and never be able to do anything to it. But when there’s nothing left but death, might as well let it know you’re not afraid of it.
I had regrets, though. Plenty, including for my daughter.
A beam from high in the sky struck the rear of the gun, pushing the barrel upward. The enormous energy blast it fired went well overhead, but close enough we felt the heat. I couldn’t tell if it was going to angle back to Earth and make someone’s day infinitely more shitty, but it missed us. The gunship began to slowly turn to face whatever hit it.
A blue satellite with a barrel of its own in between a trio of large solar panel arms lowered from the sky. Below it, a yellow aircraft carrier carried a humongous green tank. A pink submarine broke the surface with a jump, and a red fighter jet soared overheard.
“Oh no,” I said.
The aircraft carrier rose up like it was flipping forward. The tank backed up it while its deck split apart. The tank reached the end and fitting onto it. A fore section of the carrier bent at a 90 degree angle as it finished becoming a pair of legs attached to a green tank torso. The sub leaped into the air again, splitting apart. One half attached to the upper left of the tank. The other caught on the upper right and swiveled around. The jet flew up and curved back down, aimed at the rear of the tank. It somehow slowed, the fighter shifting to reveal a metal face as it slid into the rear of the tank, slotted in. Finally, the satellite. The giant robot reached for the tank’s cannon. The cannon split off easily, as did the barrel of the satellite as it came down. The satellite attached to the back of the robot, two of its panels forming wings that hung down behind it. The other panel arm broke off and attached to the barrel that had come undone from the satellite, then that section fitted into the end of the tank’s cannon to form a sort of sword.
“Venus, what did you do?” I asked.
“I asked them for help, like you said,” she informed me, a hunt of smugness in her voice.
The gunship fired again, this time trying to destroy the Justice Rangers. The robot batted it away with its sword, then raised it high. The sword glowed as bright as the sun. The robot went into a stance like it was taking a step to sprint toward it. The robot flew along the surface of the water, kicking up a spray of water to either side as it closed on the gunship, then past it. The sword stopped and the robot straightened up, standing in the shallow water by the beach. Behind it, the gunship fell apart into halves that exploded.
I was saved by the Phenomenal Fighting Justice Rangers.
Praetor M didn’t come alone. I counted five like him. I don’t know if Praetor’s a title or part of a name. He and his buddies flew around the world, stopping off in every country and in places important to supers. Master Academy’s campuses got their own visit, as did Paradise City, Cape Diem’s headquarters, and so on. These people are amazingly well-informed for people who claim to be from another dimension. I hope they don’t read my blog.
VillainNet was abuzz. Some of the bars were being visited. Kingscrow’s Low Earthy Bar burned when someone tried to take one of them. Most didn’t fight, at least then. So while Venus called in to double check on the Master Academy and some of her friends, I called up Ouroboros, out of Paradise City.
“Empress Gecko, I’ve expected you to call,” he said. I paced in my personal office.
“Yeah, I imagine a lot of people are calling around now. Somebody’s flying around, telling the world it’s going to be invaded, and asking people to pick a side. Those low enough down with nothing to lose might just take that offer. We villains are known for our ambition occasionally overcoming our prudence. I guess because heroes don’t normally have much to do with ambition,” I said with a laugh. It had come to mind as a funny thought that could disarm him a bit.
He shared a chuckle with me. “Heroes, and others, could be so worried about protecting those they’re responsible for that they’d take that deal. Betraying the rest of the world for power and protection? Who does that sound like?”
“Crap, they probably have visited the government over there already, haven’t they?” I asked.
“There are rumblings from state governments that they don’t know what side they’ll be on when this starts. Everyone’s calling up armies and militias, but they’re not coordinating. They’re pointing guns at each other and asking ‘are we on the same side?’” He put a lot of emphasis on the last part, the question.
“It is the official policy of Ricca that the only person allowed to invade this dimension from another Earth is me. You side with them, maybe they’ll play fair with you. You better hope they can protect you from me, though. Well, not you. You’re too smart to fall for this divide and conquer cockwax. But people on the desperate side, people with grudges, they might be willing to catch bullets for some laughing interdimensional bunch.”
“What do you have planned?” he asked.
There was the rub, as Shakespeare would have put it. The phrase probably originated from him trying to discuss difficulties masturbating, the ol’ pervert. Pretty sure that’s how he came up with the ending to Romeo and Juliet, at least. “They’re watching us somehow. The places they’re going, they know a lot more than they should. Planning for an enemy that sees everything you do is tricky.”
I expect plenty of casualties, so the nanites are being cranked out as fast as we can get the materials. We’ve started taking payment in the metals we need. China, Russia, and the South American bloc give up some fairly common ores and get plasma and laser small arms in return. The power armor’s less popular. People are throwing together militias, and it’s more valuable to have a weak target with a gun to fire back, than someone who can take a couple shots but can’t do anything back.
“Do you have anything that can find out where they’re from?” Ouroboros asked.
“I’m afraid not. Maybe my old world would, but myself and that Earth aren’t on speaking terms,” I said.
“Have the heroes talk to them,” Ouroboros said. From elsewhere in the residence, I heard a familiar squee of happiness as Beetrice arrived. The Queen Bee of North Korea would love me to death if I still had a cock to let her try. Switching to the V-brand didn’t stop her from laying hundreds of eggs with stored sperm. Hundreds of humanoid bee people who serve her and me and I have no clue what to do about having that many kids. I try not to think about them. Or her. I… readers, do you think they all expect birthday presents?
“You better break out some of the toys in that vault of yours. I gotta go. Probably oughta be me who calls up Spinetingler,” I told him.
He laughed. After thirty seconds, I stopped waiting on him to get over it and hung up. I ran to the door and pushed a chair against it. Then I dragged a bust in front of it. It’s a unique one, the only stone depiction of Queen Victoria’s boobs I’ve ever heard of, but sacrifices have to be made for the greater good. I grabbed a nearby bookcase and started to pull it down, but I had to stop. Because how will my enemies learn to fear Psycho Gecko if even I’ve forgotten?
I pushed the bust aside, determined to give Beetrice, Citra, and Venus all a part of my mind, the unwell part. I tossed the bust and chair aside, then pulled the door open. Stepping out, I yelled, “Beetrice! Enough is eno-oof!” The giant bee woman hug-tackled me to the floor, then lifted me up like I was some snuggly kid. I get a size thing every once awhile, but I’m an Empress, dammit! Not a cuddle toy!
She hugged me tight. “Are those pigtails? So cute!”
“Put. Me. Down,” I ordered.
“Not until I get kisses!” she exclaimed, pressing her mandibled mouth close.
My follow-up to the order was quiet. “Now.” She stopped and looked at me, then set me down.
“Good. Glad you’re here. We need to coordinate a response. Follow me,” I headed down the hall for the main living area. Sam and Holly watched the news while Max sniffed a bottle and set it in a centrifuge. “Max, that better not be more of my medicine. This is no time for sanity.”
The edges of his smile retreated, but he saluted all the same.
“I’m so glad to-!” Beetrice started. My hand shot up to cover her lips.
“You can be glad to see me alive. Shit’s a little more important than you treating me like a cat. This disrespect ends here and now. I am not a toy. I’m not someone fun to prank. I am the Empress. Someone has threatened to invade. I need us to get everyone and everything,” I said.
“What’s everything?” she asked.
I smiled, glad she was focused on the important questions. “Any nuclear weapons, MOABs, artillery, experimental weapons, doomsday devices; anything North Korea’s been packing to cause the apocalypse, I need it as a resource.”
She pouted. The mandibles dip a certain way. She nodded. “Tell you what, give me a couple hours to get things rolling, we’ll spend time together. Just send the orders, let’s start prepping everything.”
“Want me to bring it here?” she asked.
I shook my head. “No, keep it spread out. Maybe I’m being completely foolish, but I’d rather not have everything on one little island that could be taken out.”
I had to rush around to meet that deadline. Dr. Creeper was so excited at getting permission to ready everything they could find left in the archives that it was hard to keep him on task. Securing The Gralz was making more adjustments on Arachnoid. I had my armor loaded up in a new maintenance pod to be upgraded, if I could find anything else to add to the thing. Plus, I had to schedule things for my daughter’s birthday party. It’s coming up. It’d be nice if I had everything wrapped up in time, but sometimes birthdays happen when people are trying to kill you.
In the middle of rushing around like this, I stopped to go out with Beetrice. She met me outside the residence and picked me up in her arms, cradling me against her gently for someone with her strength. It occurred to me I might be as strong now. I had the arms to match her. The giggle slipped out a little more easily than I’d have expected.
She rose into the air and took off with me over the city. “Where are we going?” I asked over the flowing of the air and the flutter of her wings.
I felt her mandibles trace over the skin on the back of my neck as she whispered, “Shush. Relax.” She shifted and “Take One Me” began to play from a speaker between our bodies. The Ninja Sex Party cover. I howled with laughter as she carried me over the dark waters of the Pacific.
It was nice. I don’t like her obsession with me in ways that suggests problems with intimacy and relationships with insects in human shape, but I can trust her. I relaxed in her arms and let her carry me, knowing I had nothing to fear from her and her gentle kisses on the back of my neck. When we were far enough out, we arced up into the air. There was a lovely moment where she turned me around and held me. Just held me. I was the on who kissed her.
Then the entire internet focused on one thing and brought me out of it. The Praetor and the others stopped. Safe in Beetrice’s arms, I tossed my consciousness elsewhere. Wasn’t hard to find satellites focused on them high in the atmosphere over either Istanbul or Constantinople.
The order went out. The missile was loaded, then fired. Contrary to popular media, those things fly pretty fast. One noticed it and flew to intercept before it could detonate over them. He rammed into it halfway down the fuselage, so I set it off early and released a giant puff of nanites into the air. The other four were nowhere near it, but the one who ruined my little plan got drenched.
It was less a kill, more an autopsy. Working little by little, the nanomachines transmitted back data about the material of the grey man’s uniform, tissues, and organs. Fast enough to stop a missile? Sure, whatever. Able to survive being taken apart, cell by cell? The answer was no. Just imagine all the fun answers my Institute or Mix N’Max will have to their biology.
The others arrived behind one spewing flames from his hands. It cleared away the nanobot cloud and took out some on his infected friend’s skin. The one with the fire powers focused the gouts on the infected grey man and held it there. I lost most of the nanites, but myself and everyone else spying got data on the heat tolerances of our enemies. When the flames stopped, the man floating there shivered and clutched at himself, skin and clothing completely burnt off. Another floated toward him, eyes glowing, then reversed course suddenly. I lost the remaining nanites when the herald incinerated his compatriot down to the skeleton. It plummeted to the Earth, now nobody’s business but the Turks’.
It was just one. But it was blood in the water. Instead of doubting and waiting on some enemy to bring the fight to them, the world’s powers launched. Missiles flew in waves. The grey men tried to scatter, with one heading into space and another diving to the ground. The other two died in fire.
On the other side of the world, Beetrice held me. The world was silent except for her wings. She asked, “What are you thinking about?”
I smiled. “I think I needed this. This has been such wonderful fun, and it’s just beginning.”
I feel like Venus might be a reality warper. Somehow, she slid into the whole group with ease. I know Qiang likes her. They have some good history together from Qiang’s time at Master Academy. I didn’t expect Max to be cool with her though. Even his assistants, Holly and Sam, are more accepting of her than they were of me for a long time. I pulled Max aside to talk about that, “You were a real asshole to them at first.”
“I don’t see how,” I said.
“You were an asshole to me too,” he said.
“You said that was cocaine, too,” I reminded Max.
He looked around, “That’s neither here nor there. Besides, the erection went away eventually.”
“After four months. You told me I had to bone guys,” I said. It wasn’t all bad. I still have some fond memories. Sometimes, it’s just so much easier with guys. You never have to wonder if they’re in the mood, for instance.
He shrugged. “I said it had something to do with being the same gender, and I’ve learned new things about you since then.” He motioned to my boobs and crotch.
I folded all four of my arms across my chest, unamused.
I remain unamused. And confused. Maybe it’s her plan. Maybe that’s just how messed up I am. At least, that was Sam’s take on it. I was asking her about her thoughts on Venus. “Why are you so interested in what we think of her?”
Next thing I knew, I was laying on the couch. “I suppose I’m seeking outside confirmation that she’s untrustowrthy and this whole situation is fucked up. Because even though I want her to like me, I recognize that people actually liking me, or even loving me, usually means they want something from me or are so messed-up that I don’t bother them.”
Sam nodded. “I can see why you’d believe that based on everyone I’ve ever seen in your life, and that includes your daughter. I’m wondering why you jumped on your own couch and started talking when I asked you a question?”
I wiggled into the cushions to get comfy. “I can’t really say what started it, I guess. The first real romantic relationship I ever had followed this pattern.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Sam asked. “I don’t care.”
“The fact that you don’t care is why you’re the perfect person to tell,” I informed her.
She facepalmed. “Fuck, that makes sense.”
“After everything I went through on my home Earth, the fights and my own government cutting ties with me, at some point I ended up involved in a revolutionary movement. The pay sucked, but I was doing it for the art. Killing someone with a pencil is easy; it takes an artist’s soul to murder someone with a crayon. Or it takes slamming an artist’s head into a crayon over and over again. It helps that I used the brick color.”
Sam cleared her throat, eager to be done. “Ok, fine,” I continued, “I got involved with a woman who was my number two. She had it all… boobs, ass, legs, a pretty mouth… in retrospect, I might have been a bit shallow. Smart, too. Looking back, it might even make more sense. I really didn’t think I was unclear on my goal to use the dimension bomb to pretty much end all life on Earth. You wouldn’t even need to take half the planet’s mass away. It’s really more a matter of location. She betrayed me right at the end of it all and stopped me.”
“It’s my expert opinion as someone who doesn’t care that one of the things Max and Qiang get from you is that they care about you and people who care about each other act certain ways. If they’re fucked up people, that means they need it even more. Speaking of which, Venus isn’t like that. You used to go on about her being your ideal hero, the one destined to kill you, and then she was too good a hero to do that. Take a hint. She likes you even though you’re only person weird enough to run the show on this island. Enjoy being with her while she still puts up with you.” Sam stood up and headed for the office door, unlocking it.
I raised a finger. “You seem to be under the impression we’re dating.”
She raised a middle finger before she left. “Yeah, figure that out, genius.”
I didn’t have time to, as Venus attached herself to me pretty quickly and asked, “What are we doing today?”
“Oh, just a demonstration of a science project. Anything new on the hero front?” I asked.
She cocked her head. “Yeah. Old friends told me about some political prisoners in Egypt.”
“Oh? Is Venus dipping her toe into villainy for realsies, not as undercover work?” I asked.
She laughed. “This is how I’m making this work for me. I have an opportunity to do some good I don’t normally get to do.” She kinda swung her shoulders forward and back, looking cute and excited. “Mind if I come with you? I need to grab something to eat, so I can split off from you when we get to where we’re going if you don’t want me there.”
I shrugged. “Sure, we can pick up something on the way. There are some good street food carts near the Institute if you don’t mind spicy food.”
“Any taquerias?” asked Venus.
I shook my head. “Not a lot of that here, but plenty of spicy food if you’re a fan.”
“Sure, let’s make it spicy,” she said, taking my hand as we started walking.
We went over the prison in question. She had access to the city’s augmented reality network, so we were able to go over a 3D blueprint of the prison she had. When she saw my surprise she’d somehow slotted into that so easily as well, she told me, “Citra set up clearance before she went back to college. My friends sent me the blueprints and Qiang showed me how you find programs to do this.” She spun the image around, then stopped it and pointed to a basement section under one corner of the rectangular complex. “They only hide it enough to satisfy the Americans.”
“The world is built on open secrets as much as real ones,” I observed. “Floor looks kinda thin there. Could blow the place open on that side and blast a way through, but that risks damage to the staircase. Carve your way through, I guess.”
“Any ideas that minimize danger to the inmates?” she asked, as if that was a ever my major concern.
I shook my head. “Not if you want a big opening. You want to protect anyone, you’re going to have to take your time. Or, and this can be somewhat riskier, you need to blast your way out, not in.”
By the time we got our food and were approaching the Institute, we’d laid out a plan to use her local contacts to smuggle her. They think she’s food, she pops out and starts handing out asses like she’s on the campaign trail for chief butthole surfer. Plastic explosives are cheap enough coming through here and we get stuff from all over.
At the Institute, Dr. Gralz was more than happy to show us the progress made on the Arachnoid exoskeleton. They had a full-sized model ready with a volunteer, a fellow of African descent in a wheelchair he pushed along using cybernetic arm prosthetics. “Empress Gecko, this is Cassius Isaac. Mr. Isaac will be piloting the armor for us. Mr. Isaac, this is her Imperial Majesty Psychopomp Gecko and her wife, the Empress-Consort.”
I shook hands with our Arachnoid user, faking a smile at Gralz’s introduction. “Someone certainly did a number on you.”
He smiled. “It’s an honor to meet you. I’m here because of these legs. I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to have my spine healed and to extract revenge from the people responsible.”
“May I ask who that is?” Venus asked.
Cassius bobbed his chin up at her. “Routine traffic stop. They didn’t even charge the officer. Insurance company refused to pay. I thought I had a way out when your majesty,” he nodded to me, “took over, but my brother and my mother convinced my wife to keep me from the hospital when healthcare was free. I finally got the money to visit here.”
“You must feel it’s pretty extreme circumstances to put yourself at the mercy of Gecko,” Venus said. See, that’s what gives me trust issues. Statements like that.
“All due respect, ma’am, I faced possible execution every time I went to get groceries. This is my chance to be made whole, physically and spiritually. I’d risk death for that,” he said.
Dr. Gralz motioned us toward the elevator. “If you please, I have a demonstration room set up. We can talk further on the way.”
I lagged behind with Venus for a quiet conversation as we walked., “I didn’t tell people you were my wife.”
She gave me a knowing look with a little smile. “Lots of people think I am. I understand you had Citra look like me?”
“She did that on her own to appeal to me. She thought it would help us as a couple,” I said.
She raised her eyebrows, but instead of commenting on my marital issues, she said, “Irregardless, we talked about it. She’s fine letting me borrow her identity.”
“The question is more whether you can stomach agreeing to be known as my wife,” I told her, stopping so we wouldn’t walk right into the elevator where Gralz and Cassius Isaac waited for us.
She winked at me. “You forgot. I’m not locked this with you.” She brought her forehead to mine and spoke in a faux-gravely voice. “You’re locked in this with me.”
The Arachnoid exoskeleton was beautiful. Gralz showed it to us while lab techs prepped Cassius for it. It rested on gleaming limbs that looked more than capable of impaling a human body. The antigrav system had been integrated into the thorax, which made the bottom more vulnerable. “The arms are capable of reaching beneath it,” Gralz assured us.
“What other weapons we got here?” I asked.
“The rear contains a grappling hook and line. We built them with the possibility of being fired into people to pull them closer. We have a webbing spray system on the front. It fires a net of foam that hardens and constricts movement. The original design called for the spray system and a pair of modular mandibles that could serve as bladed weapons or be replaced with other mission-specific loadouts: machineguns, flamethrowers, rocket pods. However, the prototype was built when we were working on the integration of plasma-based weaponry. It will be more precise, but space and power requirements forced us to leave off mandibles and have the plasma cannon mounted above the net system.”
“You up for running this bad boy?” I asked Cassius.
He had a custom-built suit with armor on the back and a helmet. He had waved off the pulley system they had and used his arms to climb up the thing and set his legs into slots, then removed the prosthetic arms. Underneath were stumps that stopped a little past the elbows. He looked down at me. “Ma’am, my country trained me before it threw me away. In addition, I have passed multiple qualifications and other tests with the Arachnoid prototype exoskeleton and integrated weapons systems. I can say with 100% confidence I am the most-qualified person to pilot this armor.”
I nodded to him. “Have at it, then.”
He dropped down into the groove where his body was meant to lay, arms sliding into their slots. The armor on his back blended with the smooth edges of the exoskeleton. As it powered up, four pairs of lights on the top of his helmet began to glow, one pair at a time.
“We’re going to remove the lights,” said Gralz. “There’s no need for a visual indicator of the system’s activation to anyone who isn’t piloting it.”
Arachnoid rose on its hind legs in the small gymnasium-sized room we were in. Arachnoid pawed at the air with his front legs. The weapons were shown off first. The legs punched through a cinderblock wall to impale a mannequin on the other side. Another was dragged from fifty feet away while wearing a set of plate mail, the barb on the hook having penetrated the armor. When it got close, the cable detached and he fired another into the mannequin’s helmet, then detached it as well. A third mannequin was sprayed with net spray, the gunk net clinging to his front and legs before hardening. A fourth got picked up, sprayed with the net, then wrapped up entirely like spider with a fly. It was then set down in front of the third one and Arachnoid fired its plasma weapon. It left a flaming hole through the chests of the dummies.
Cassius put the armor through its paces, scrabbling around the floor. After a bit of experimenting, he even found a way to do it without gauging the floor. It got up to a pretty good speed, too. For as big as it was, it jumped hurdles with ease, and he pulled off a nifty move taking a corner using a grappling hook to maintain speed and swing around.
They didn’t have room for the climbing test itself, so he squeezed it out through the door, down the corridor. We ran after and watched as Arachnoid pried open the maintenance elevator and began climbing the shaft. I tapped Gralz on the shoulder, “Is that thing below or above us?”
“I made sure it would be held at the top floor,” he informed me as we approached the shaft. Looking up, we watched him climbing the shaft with ease. Then a grappling bolt shot down and stabbed into the floor by us. Arachnoid let go and started pulling himself down the line as if he had to climb it. “That is the antigravity on now.”
“Was it on for the climb?” Venus asked.
“No,” Gralz answered, pointing to gauges in the wall. “It can be much gentler with the antigravity on, but it has to be more careful in its movement. Imagine taking a step and not being able to put your foot back down.”
An alert interrupted me. Some sort of unidentified super that appeared in the skies above the island. “I need to go,” I told.
“What is it?” Venus asked.
“I have to go deal with something. My island, my responsibility.” I told her, walking over to Arachnoid’s cable. I called up to him. “I need a lift to the surface.”
“I’m coming with you,” Venus said.
“Well, I can’t stop you from following.” I grabbed hold of the cable and kicked the barb loose. I just sorta drifted up slowly for a moment. Looking up, I saw Arachnoid still getting its footing underneath it on the sides of the elevator. That left plenty of time for Venus to run up and wrap her arms around me, beaming at me even when Arachnoid pulled us up quickly. He pried open the ground floor’s elevator and swung us onto it.
He followed us outside.
There, a grey man in a simple white leotard floated above the city. “Intercept detected something screwy, then this guy came flying in. Hasn’t done anything so far.”
Way off in the sky, the grey guy surveyed the city, head shooting around in quick and jerky motions until he got to me. He turned his whole body in my direction and begin floating down. “Well, crap. There goes sneaking off and grabbing the armor.”
“Can’t you use nanomachines to form a personal armor around you?” Arachnoid asked.
I snorted. “That’s not armor, that’s just a bunch of tiny robots surrounding me, and it’s not like nanites magically form different computer systems or lasers when they fit together.”
By then the grey guy got close enough where I was pretty sure he’d hear us talking. I stepped forward. “Hail, visitor. As Empress of the great Empire of Ricca, I would like to extent my greetings and ask you what the fuck you’re doing here.”
He was an odd duck. His skin was grey, as I said, and he was hairless. Not one piece of fur on his noggin. His eyes seemed normal brown, though they stared through me like he wasn’t really using them. “I am designated Praetor M. I have been dispatched to inform you of the imminent invasion of your universe by my master, Chief Executor Paldrin.”
I waved him away dismissively. “I’m not home right now. Shoo. Tell him to come back another time.”
“You may surrender now and see yourself spared. You will be given position in the new order. Or you can die when my master lays waste to your planet,” Praetor M said, still not looking at me so much as through my head.
I laughed. “Like I haven’t heard that one before, pal. Nobody’s laying waste to this planet but me, you hear me?” I paused as Venus whispered something in my ear, then added, “And climate change. I mean to get around to that too, I’ve just been busy fighting for my life for six years on a near-constant basis.”
“Your answer is noted. Be warned, my fellow Praetors are extending this offer to those worthy. It is doubtful your defiance is as unyielding, their ambitions so checked. You have five days to prepare.” Without moving, a bubble appeared around him with little waves of blue moving over its surface. It expanded quickly, knocking Venus, Arachnoid, and myself back, and cracking the ground beneath the Praetor. He flew up quickly and turned at a sharp right angle to speed out of there faster than a locomotive.
Venus raised a fist at his fleeing form. “Yeah, we don’t negotiate with terrorists!”
I helped her up, but had to correct her. “What are you talking about? Of course we negotiate with terrorists: always money down, no financing.”
I’d cue the spinning newspaper headlines, but a supervillain kidnapping a superhero isn’t that big of news. And who reads newspapers anymore? Ricca’s moved to an all-digital format for the news. For those who prefer a hands-on approach, a digital ghost copy serves just as well. So, aside from the heroes at the Master Academy, there weren’t really too many people giving a shit about my love life or capture of Venus.
That’s probably a condition you share with the rest of this world, dear reader. Hey, trust me, I feel stupid too. I got played, in the seat of my own power.
I held off on visiting Venus until I had answers. It’s a good reason. It has nothing to do with any confusing feelings that I might have left over which, once again, nobody wants to hear about.
Answers came thanks to Pagan. The Intel chief was enthusiastic about understanding the events of the past couple few weeks. The weak point turned out to be a foursome of spies in particular.
Pagan had the footage for me and everything. Yeah, cameras saw what happened, but nobody watches all the cameras. I can’t, that’s for sure. An AI might manage it, but I’m the last person who should be programming a brand new mind. On the day in question, Medusa visited a tailor. One of the better ones, too. The man in the playing card shirt walked along casually behind her as if he wasn’t a superhero.
Medusa went into the building. The guy did too, briefly. He came out a couple minutes later, texting away, looking like he was feeling his pulse. He must have had the same type of transceiver we removed from Venus. We gassed her one night long enough to have it extracted from her neck. It’s got the range for a city, but what made it so clever and undetectable is how it’s built. With no pressure applied, no power reaches the transceiver. The battery can only power it up to send and receive messages when someone presses on it. It keeps me from detecting it unless it’s actually in use, and they have very simple programming meant to try and keep them communicating only to one another.
Venus appeared soon afterward, as did their larger friend who resembles a minotaur. Both were being tailed by agents. Here’s where the mistake happens, and it’s a big one. The first team of spies spot the second team of spies when they’re stopped watching the heroes talk outside. After an argument, video shows the spies and the spies who are spying on the spies got into an argument. The argument turnd into a fight, spy versus spy. This attracted the attention of the heroes who beat the snot out of them, stole all their clothes except for underwear, tied them up, and tossed them in a dumpster. Then they used cable ties they happen to keep on them to tie the dumpster closed.
After that, the heroes had time to go into the tailors. When they left, Venus had taken Medusa’s place and costume. The minotaur carried out a lumpy black garment bag like you’d use to hold a costume or suit. The spies didn’t see it because, again, they were beat up, tied up, and laying in a dumpster. Unfortunately, my spies are competent enough to free themselves upon waking up from a beatdown. They untied themselves and sawed through the cable tie on the dumpster lid before they could end up added to the biochar.
Biochar is part of our waste management here. We turn a lot of our waste and food trash into this stuff called biochar. Really good for plants and stuff. The cult that grows so much of our food loves it, along with anyone else growing stuff around. We’ve got shitloads of the stuff going to Mu, and we’re trying to open up the Americna market. The only people who want the stuff over there are people obsessed with organics who keep wanting the really crappy stuff made from only wood.
The reason for the big fancy explanation is that the heroes almost accidentally arranged to turn my spies into a nutritional soil additive. It would have been better all the way around. When we didn’t hear back from the spies, Pagan would have known something was up and we might have uncovered the whole mess. Even the spies would probably be better off.
See, it wasn’t great that they let themselves get caught and beat up, or that they had their squabble between spies. The real issue is that none of them informed anybody about it. They agreed to keep it among themselves. Pagan is at least as unhappy as I am. He didn’t give me all the details, but he requested a large number of medical nanomachines. When I asked what he had in mind, he graced me with a lovely explanation,“I trained in the Japanese branch. The Yakuza know how to make amends.”
“Going to make an example of them?” I asked. “I’d very much like if they are not an issue in the future, but it’s crucial that nobody repeat their mistake. I care more about getting the job done than embarrassment. I’m more merciful toward the latter than I am the former.”
“That is completely understood, Empress. I think you would enjoy what I will do. Four rounds of bidding. The loser is the one who bids the fewest fingers. If they fail to provide all the fingers they bid, or all are provided and someone has less than the others, that person loses the round and is punished. The winner of a round gets to sit and watch. The punishment of the final round is truly final.”
“Aren’t you worried everyone will just bid all their fingers each round?” I asked.
He laughed. “I doubt everyone will manage to part with all that they bid. And if they do, it will be a memorable experience for them.”
“You’re an evil bastard,” I told him. “Keep up the great work.”
I mean, I may be slightly toned down as an Empress, but there’s really no moral way to lead a country. I have responsibilities and I don’t like it when people fuck with them.
Which leads me to my own interrogation. I sat there, across the table from Venus, glaring at her. She smiled at me. “It looks delicious,” she said.
Citra, sitting next to me, spooned an extra helping of the broccoli and mushrooms onto her noodles and turned to address Venus, “It is wonderful to have you join us for this formal dinner prepared by my wife, but I am afraid I do not know if we have met.”
“We have,” Venus said, folding up her napkin into her own lap. She’d been provided a dress for the occasion. “I was impersonating Medusa, but I helped you with the gifts. I’m known to Gecko and everyone else as Venus.”
Citra smiled wide. “You’re the hero my wife is in love with!”
So fucking glad I sent everyone else out of the palace for this confrontation right about then.
Venus looked at me, then laughed at my expression. I can only imagine what such a glare looks like with a bright red blush going on. “No, I’m not,” I said slowly.
“This is wonderful,” Citra said, taking my hand. “Are you two going to stay together?”
“We’re not together,” I told her. “She was lying to me and playing with my trust.”
Like I wasn’t even fucking there, Citra continued, “I want to thank you for your advice with the First Lady of Peru. It was the perfect gift. I think we will have a trade agreement soon.”
“What’s all this trade agreement and gift stuff?” I asked.
Citra turned to finally address me instead of the elephant in the room. “I have the Foreign Director keep me aware of the birthdays of wives of other heads of states. I send them gifts you can only get from the island. Venus helped.”
I closed my eyes and rested my head on my elbow. “Dear, you can’t go letting my nemesis handle the duties you took on you as my consort and wife.”
I heard her lean closer as she teased me. “Oh? You had no problem with her taking on those duties then.”
“Dear, I’m trying intimidate my nemesis,” I told my wife, opening my eyes to look into the foolish grin of the troll I apparently married.
“The Empress Gecko does not wear glitter on her lips to intimidate people,” she responded.
“Wrong!” I said, looking to Venus, who was getting dinner and a show. “I’ve killed people set to Celine Dion. I can wear glitter makeup if I want to!” I totally can. I can leave my friends behind. ‘Cause my friends don’t dance, and if they don’t dance, then they’re no friends of mine.
Venus coughed away from the table, and took a moment looking down to gather her thoughts. “I’m glad that worked out, Citra. Gecko, relax. You know I know you’ve had a crush on me for years, and you know I’m happy to help.”
Citra held her hands up, palms together like she’d clapped. I held up a hand, “Don’t expect any more help. Venus is the enemy.”
Citra, having gained some sort deathwish, continued her defiance of me. “Last week she was your snugglebunny, this week she’s the enemy. Next week, she will be a part of our family and you will call her snugglebunny again.”
I pointed a finger at Citra. “That’s enough.” I pointed with another hand at Venus, who was looking down into her own lap, hair falling over her face so I couldn’t see her reactions. “She’s not part of our family. She hates me. I kill people. I killed her boyfriend, twice. I annoyed her, stalked her like a creep. The only reason she hasn’t killed me is because her morals are worth more to her than my life. If I wasn’t some stupid villain for her to pity and throw in jail, she wouldn’t even look at me. I’ll never be good enough for her!” I blinked, thinking back over the last part of that and explaining, “In her eyes.”
I looked between the two women. Citra bowed her head, hiding her feelings behind the neutral expression she’d long since mastered. Venus looked down still for whatever reason. I didn’t know what she was thinking. And, fuck it, at that point I just didn’t care. Even just being here, as herself, she was kicking my ass. I stood up and stormed out, plate in hand because I was hungry and wanted something to do with my mouth right then.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get very far down the hall before growled and smashed the plate and its contents onto the floor. How DARE?! And then to come up and hug me from behind, to nuzzle into the hair at the back of my neck. Well, check out the ovaries on the former maid-turned-Imperial consort, daring to come up behind me and cuddle after that shit in there. After a deep breath, I took her hand and squeezed it for comfort, trying to explain. “You might think it’s cute, but it isn’t. Venus doesn’t like me at all. This is just toying with me. Tempting me with ideas like she does, because she’s happy to put up with her nightmare if it means saving someone. That’s all I am. She’s my weakness, because I love her, and I’m just another random person. I just wanted to get rid of the obsession. Great Jupiter’s sphincter piercing, woman, after what you pulled in there, I’m glad she’s probably escaped and got halfway across the island by now.”
I went ramrod straight when the woman holding me spoke, because it wasn’t Citra’s voice. “I’m not going anywhere yet, snugglebunny,” Venus said, holding me tight to her.
“Fuck you,” I responded.
“That’s no way to talk about your new partner,” she told me.
“Stop it,” I said. “Why are you saying this?”
“Because you need someone to be the angel on your shoulder,” she said.
“I should lock you back up,” I told her.
It was her turn to squeeze my hand. “I think I can get out, and you know I can beat you up. Being here, I’ve seen how much you changed.”
I scoffed, still not turning around. “You want to do this for yourself. Feel good about setting some other lost soul on the ‘right’ path.”
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the vacation and other benefits, but I want to do this for you. I don’t want to be put on a pedestal, but if I am, I can lift you up here with me. I couldn’t do that as Venus, but I think I can as Medusa.”
“You’re just a hero with a plan,” I said, turning around in her arms, my fingers tracing over her soft skin.
“If I wanted to run, you think I would have run to you?” she asked, gracing me with a sheepish smile. “What do you say? Medusa and Gecko, partners in crime?”
Medusa’s come a long way. I gave her a couple of daily quizzes on Venus and some of the events on this world, even if she didn’t realize it. We had a lot of time to talk. We talked over dinner, while walking, and while watching Qiang play with some friends she made. They’re having a hell of a time on the obstacle course.
I paused for a bit, just looking at Medusa. Then I put my head on her shoulder. “Hey. I wish I’d spent more of this time learning about you. I’m just… planning shit. I get caught up in things, and it feels like I’ve nothing but exposite all over your pretty little face.”
Medusa nuzzled her cheek against the top of my head. “Oh no, I love hearing how obsessed you are with Venus. It never gets old.”
I shut up and watched Qiang hang by her legs from the monkey bars, swinging back and forth. It felt nice like that. You know how hard it is for things to feel nice that don’t involve hurting someone?
It was Medusa that broke the silence between us. Plenty of non-silence with kids around, what with their bodies’ natural cocaine production keeping them active and loud. Medusa said, “It’s good that we can find peace like this.” She must have felt my body tense a little at that. “You don’t like peace?”
“It’s always only temporary,” I said.
She patted me on the cheek. “Just shut up and enjoy it.”
“Noooo,” I whined. “I can’t enjoy things. I’m too much of a bitch.”
“A little bitch or a big bitch?” Medusa asked, forcing a grin out of me.
I sighed in contentment. “The kind of bitch who hates someone for giving me hope.”
“Here we go again,” she said. “You’re sitting here with me. We’re fine. This is peace. You can have peace with me. You have to have some hope from that.”
“I guess,” I said.
“When I first came to the Master Academy, I saw people with powers and costumes. It was amazing. I thought there was no way I could measure up. I found out that they weren’t better just because they had power and saved people. A lot are messed up. I know some shitbag heroes because that’s who they are and I know some who make bad choices. Like dating a supervillain.” She took my hand.
I squeezed it back. Her skin still feels so soft, despite the layers of bulletproof nanoweave added inside her skin. More than that, I could feel the engagement ring. I had to make the whole lie look good, and I guess Medusa approves. “Then you became a villain yourself in the coup. Now, someone gets to say superheroes make a mistake if they date you. Even if you wanted to change, you couldn’t. Too much punishment over any past mistake. Can’t even get away from it by going to a whole new world.”
“You did,” was her laconic answer to our little conversation.
From there, things got significantly lighter. Turns out they have The Orville over there, too. Or she’s caught up on our version of it. It made good filler, if nothing worth going into depth about here. Nor was our night out worth going into all the detail. Especially when those details involve me looking up at the stars and trying to compare Medusa to a distant ball of flaming gas and sound smooth while doing so. My understanding of English doesn’t extend to the notion of poetry. Then again, I consistently mess up haiku, so I’m incapable of being poetic in multiple cultures.
And there was talking, about movies, podcasts, books. She heard someone claim there’s a universe where time moves backwards. I suggested we invade it to get Game Of Thrones spoilers. We could make a fortune off them, but more importantly, we’d get to see the Cleganes go at it. Despite all the early difficulty, it was easy to talk to her. And I like her.
The next day, though. Ugh.
I was having a spar with Medusa. I didn’t even plan one, but she insisted. Me, I thought we were ready. I just had to figure out where they all were. The nanites showed nobody in the housing I’d so generously dumped them in. I was frowning to myself and calling up the spies I had on them when I walked into the gym area and took a kick to the face from Medusa.
“Fucking hell,” I said, holding up a pair of hands to my face.
“Oh, I thought you’d block it!” Medusa said, grimacing.
I waved her off and tried to keep the blood from dripping too much. “It’s fine. Just let me get under the shower and get some of this loose blood out. I’ll be fine after that.”
So while I shoved my head under some water to get the nanites to close off a wound, I finally got through to the spies in a conference call. “Where the hell are the superheroes?”
“They are still present at the villa,” Intelligence Chief Pagan answered.
“Why can’t I feel any nanites in any of them?” I asked.
“That is revealing,” said another voice. “There was a temporary power outage the other night.”
“EMP,” Pagan commented.
“So they fried the nanites within themselves,” I said.
“That explains the excessive purchases of prepackaged foods and water,” said the other voice on the line.
“Venus is there, right? We have a count on every single one of them?” I asked.
“It is a large group and they stay spread out,” said the other voice.
“Empress, give me five minutes and I will confirm for you their locations,” Pagan said
“Thank you, Pagan. I’ll be expecting it.” I hung up, my nose good as new, and dried off my hair. I could use the time waiting on them to hit my girlfriend. It’d be fun!
I walked out there, giddy at the thought. Not about the hitting, not entirely. Just about the thought of Medusa as my girlfriend. She was even supposed to marry me.
“You want a free hit?” she offered as I stepped out.
I raised my hands. “Now, now, I don’t know why we might have to res-” I hit her in the ear.
She stumbled back, holding her ear. “Ah! Crap, that hurts! Ow.” She took a minute to recover from my vicious ear bashing, then got into a defensive stance.
It was close, but I ended up tossing her on her back, smiling down at her with sweat already building up. I straddled her and pinned her arms down, upper arms ready to smack her. She winked up at me. I looked down at her then, wondering at the plan I had to force this wonderful woman to try and be Venus. I shook my head, stood, and helped her up.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
I sighed. “Just thinking how much I’d miss you if we do this. Getting second thoughts.”
“We should really sit down and talk,” she said.
I got a call earlier than expected, though. “Hold up on that. I gotta take this. Important call.” It was a direct call from my Intel guys in Empyreal City. I told them to get me on the line if they saw anyone entering or exiting the portal. I sat on the mat to take the call. They’ve sent me updates about the pace of the lab cleanup over there, and what they saw of Taskforce Manticore’s activity on this side of the portal. Some of their actions showed up in the news as the otherworldly law enforcement acted as vigilantes. Villains who tried to probe the portal grounds were particularly prone to getting an crossbow bolt in a sensitive body part.
“Empress, heroes from the Master Academy have arrived with a prisoner. They are handing over one of their own. Venus.”
I don’t know about y’all, but those words caused a series of strange reactions. Anger, for example. Rage. I detected a hint of fury as well. Cold blood and ears with a heartbeat. “What kind of manpower do you have available?” I asked.
“Eight agents with small arms and bulletproof vests. We are not an assault team. The Manticores outnumber us, and there are five hero besides.”
I closed my eyes to get a better feel for things. Satellite imaging confirmed that some sort of meeting was taking place, but I couldn’t get a good look at the person they were carrying in some sort of secured sleeping bag. I had a Dudebot in the city. I sent a notice to the Intel guys that they were going to come up at least one person short in their survey of the heroes. And I was going to want answers.
A kick leveled me just as I attempted to activate the Dudebot, coincidentally reminding me that there was someone present who had a lot to answer for. I blinked and looked up, checking to see if I needed to roll. Who I thought had been Medusa stood there, fingers pressed to her neck. “I’ll be fine.” She met my eyes as I stood, continuing. “Just go.”
“How long?” I asked.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” she said.
Too late? I laughed in spite of everything. “The first thing you did when I walked in was hit me.”
“I’ve been waiting to get back at you for that tattoo you gave me,” she said.
“How long?” I repeated the question. “You were the one I had enhanced, but…?” I left it hanging in the air, looking her over. She had no active nanites in her system as well. It’d… how… she’s played me magnificently. This beautiful hero I’d spent so much time with and grown comfortable with, and the whole time it was just a game.
“We captured my doppelganger when she went to get a costume,” she said. “I’m-” she stepped toward me, hands up, but stopped when I moved back away from her. “I’m sorry.”
I scrambled everyone: Security officers, Intel agents, the Riccan military. I did it while looking into her eyes. “Nothing personal, eh? Gecko’s obsessed. Gecko’s creepy. Just use it. Makes sense. Good job, Venus. Fantastic job tricking me.” I gave her a thumbs-up.
“You were going to replace me and dump me in another universe,” she said.
I laughed. “I was doing it to finally be rid of you. You think I like you living in my head rent-free?” I pointed to said noggin with a finger gun. Instead I had to watch as Medusa was carried through the portal. What made it worse was knowing I didn’t actually care about her. “You were the turning point again. I didn’t get along with Medusa until you took her place. I actually thought you cared.”
Curiously, she wasn’t in a stance. She stood there wide open. I snarled and launched myself at her, throwing a punch. She redirected it to the side with strength I gave her and shifted her body to avoid a follow-up from my lower left. I aimed my left knee at her belly. She locked her leg with mine and shifted around to stand next to me, then elbowed me in the stomach. I hopped to keep standing and grab onto her. My upper left grabbed her hair. She growled and stomped her and my legs down to the mat and ducked, pushing her back against me. She lifted me up on her shoulders. I tried to roll off when she threw herself back in my direction but I landed on my side with all of her weight on top of me.
We separated and I spun as I came up, throwing a kick at her head. Instead of waiting to get my feet under me, I used my four arms to push off and throw myself at her. I straddled her again and punched her in the face. The second punch sounded like it broke her nose. Still, she slid her legs up between my pairs of arms. She grabbed my upper arms and pulled them across one at a time, using the momentum from pulling my left across to the right side of my body to roll me over and come up on top. I tried to kick up with my legs to catch her neck but she leaned in close. I winced preemptively for the headbutt, but she stopped short. “Does this mean you’re calling off the wedding?”
“What?” I asked. As fight stopping moments go, it’s better than “Martha!” I growled up at her. “You were throwing our sparring sessions, too.”
She smiled at me. I gritted my teeth and told her, “I’m going to kill your friends.”
Her smile turned into a grimace of effort as she held me down. “I know you’re hurting right now. I’m sorry. I had to stop you. We were supposed to meet up and fight our way out together. Now they’re screaming in my ear wondering where I am. If I let you go to tell them I’m not coming, will you be cool?”
“I think we’ve established I can’t trust you,” I told her.
“Fine,” Venus said. She let go of my arms got up off me. She held her arms up, backing away. I took to my feet again and got into a stance. She pressed a finger to her neck. “Go, team. Leave me.”
I checked to see what the score was. There were heroes all over the place. This wasn’t an organized retreat. They were spread out. I saw one group near the power plant. Another had gotten close to the Institute of Science. But, wait a minute… I switched between cameras in both places. Heroes were in two places at once. As I watched, I saw a power-suited Riccan soldier grab one of them, Ball Boy. He slid a sword into the kid under his ribs. Instead of blood, playing cards fell out.
I pulled back to the room where Venus finished telling them, “No. I made a deal. I surrender and you go free.”
She looked to me. “Why?” I asked.
“It’s the right thing to do,” she said. Venus held her free hand out to me.
“How do you know I won’t destroy their plane out of here?” I asked.
“They aren’t taking a plane,” Venus said. “You already lost. I’m trusting that you don’t want revenge, but you have me if you do. I hurt you. I lied to you. I messed with feelings you try to hide and I truly am sorry. I owe you this.”
It’s so easy to believe her.
I reached out and… took her hand. In my head, I passed along new order: disengage. See to the wounded and any destruction caused by the conflict. Begin the disaster relief protocols. Also, Pagan’s number one priority was to debrief the people I had on the heroes and find out what went wrong. I don’t wanna have to put spies on the spies I have on my spies, but I’ll do it.
Venus squeezed my hand, which made me wonder how much she was playing me again. My thumb wandered over her hand as I tried to figure her out and came across a metal band on her ring finger. I turned her hand around. She still wore the showy, shiny engagement ring I’d first presented to Medusa.
“You’ll be held in our highest-security prison,” I told her, keeping my face calm because I was a mess of emotions at this time. I hated her. I had some very un-hate-like feelings toward her. She hurt me and deceived me in a huge way. She gave me hope. She’d defeated me, twice. If I wanted to, I could kill everyone she cares about. “I’ll make sure you’re comfortable.”
I looked back down at her hand again before adding, “We’re going to have to talk about a lot of confusing shit, aren’t we?”
“Yeah,” she told me. “But today, nobody dies. I’m ending this the way that’s best for everyone and relying on your mercy.”
Ever the hero.
For all my teasing, I didn’t think Venus would show. I know, I know, I’m trying to piss her off. Anyone can see it, and she’s used to it. As much as I insult her intelligence for keeping me alive, she really isn’t so brainless. Medusa didn’t consider it. I think, like me, she’s been too willing to take their honor and principal for idiocy. Medusa’s a disappointment like that. And Venus might have outdone her.
I was playing with Qiang in her new playset that’s totally not an obstacle course and starter lair. She might someday realize she can use it as such, but it’s a fun thing for her to enjoy until then. I should really just let her be a kid and let me be a parent, but I don’t think I know how. I got a call in, which almost caused me to drop the water guns I was shooting at my girl while I crossed the monkey bars. Extra arms means extra awesome, but being Empress means I gotta hang in there sometimes.
“This Empress Gecko,” I said.
“This is the Customs Authority, Empress. We have an unusual arrival we felt we should alert you about?”
“If I tell you I’m spending time with my daughter, does it become any less urgent?” I asked.
“Your new fiance just arrived with a lot of superheroes,” said the voice on the other side of the line.
I instantly tapped into the cameras around the airport. They were all standing around the tarmac, a group of twenty or so teen or adult supers.
“Empress, would you like us to deny entry to the superheroes?” asked the Customs Authoritarian on the other end of the line.
“No… they can come through, but there’ll have to be a thorough inspection before they enter,” I smiled, thinking of some of our protocols.
“Going through every piece of luggage?” asked the Customs agent.
“Full body scans?”
“Tearing up their plane looking for smuggled contraband.”
After a moment, he whispered the final part with his own glee at the thought of enacting this protocol. “Cavity searches?”
I was going to confirm the order, but I heard a scuffle on the other side, then Venus grabbed the phone. “You are not going to stick any gloves inside any of our bodies, Gecko!”
“Relax, Boopsie. I was going to have other people do that for me. I don’t know what you could be bringing to my little island. You know how violent you heroes get, constantly blowing stuff up and fighting people in the streets.”
“We fight crime,” she said.
“You’re on my island now. I decide what’s crime. But I’m still checking the luggage and the plane. If you remember, I’ve already had one group sneak a deadly infection and power dampening collars onto this island. Collars like I know you yourself now have. Unless you seek to have the full force of the Ricca’s law enforcement used against you, you will comply.”
“Fine, but only if you agree not to steal our stuff,” she said.
I scoffed over the phone. “First you show up unannounced, now you demand VIP treatment without even bribing us? So inconsiderate. I can hardly believe I’m going to marry you.”
I hung up on her, but kept an eye out, bringing up some of the Security guys. They already had pretty good armor in their uniforms, but I had them assemble in riot gear. That included grenade launchers and the “thunder tower” spikes. Cool shit. Stand them up on the ground and they form an electrical arc between them to cut people off from going a certain direction. Some of the crowd control grenades do something similar for a second in a smaller area. That’s less about containment and more about stunning folks. My favorite part is the shield. It’s normally attached to the rear of the torso armor, but can be deployed with a release that swings it overhead on the end of an arm. The Security people retain full use of their hands and get a shield rated for small arms fire short of anything that can crack a safe.
My power-armored infantry were on standby in case they were needed. The heroes better hope it doesn’t come down to that.
After making those arrangements, I hugged Qiang and told her I needed to go see to some more business involving her old school. She hopped up and down. “I wanna come! Is it Kayla? I wanna see Kayla again.”
“No, sweetie, Kayla’s not with them. She’s probably back in Empyreal City.”
She calmed down then, her face falling. “Oh.”
“Still want to come with me, or do you want to play on your own?” I asked.
“I think I want to paint,” she said.
I patted her on the head. “Paint away then, dearheart. I’ll tell them you said ‘hi’.” She blew me a kiss as she ran into the palace. I dislike her affinity for the heroes, but at least I know she’s capable of stealing hearts.
I didn’t bother with armor and the outfit I was in was a more functional form of regal dress with some sturdy leggings, so perfectly suited to keep anyone from catching a peek when I jumped on one of the personal use rockets outside the palace. It shot me through the air, hair and sleeves streaming behind me. Minutes later, I stepped into the airport with my Security officers flanking me.
Venus and her bunch didn’t look amused. She tapped her foot, arms akimbo. “You’re late.”
“I took a rocket here, how can I be late?” I asked, shaking my hair out.
“We saw. You took too long after landing it. What do you have planned?” she asked.
I rolled my eyes. “You always assume the worst about me. If you must know what took so long, I was parallel parking.” I paid no mind to the shaking helmets of some of the Security personnel on either side of me as they tried not to laugh.
“A rocket?” asked a guy in a Hawaiian shirt with playing card designs on it and a lei around his neck. My HUD reminded me he was called Wildcard.
Smiling, I dangled a key fob in one hand and raised it while pressing a button. My guys lost it at the beep from the parking lot, and even some of the heroes joined in. The tension was just gone at that point.
“Why are you here?” I asked Venus.
She raised an eyebrow. “You’re getting married to my double. Don’t I get an invitation?”
“As if this involves you?” I asked. “And twenty of your closest friends.”
“What better way to show we’re no threat than to house the wedding party?” she asked. “Come on, I enjoy a good wedding. I missed your first one, and no way am I going to let you marry my evil twin sister without keeping an eye on her.”
Lady boner activated. The image of Venus watching me and her evil twin sister wasn’t the reason why, though it followed closely on the heels.
“Fine,” I said, pointing at her. “I’ll tell you exactly where you can stick these masked crusaders!”
A half hour later, I walked into the middle of the housing division used by the supervillains when we met and established VillainNet. They remained temporary housing for villains passing through or waiting out heat, but most were empty. “Here. Here’s where you can stick them.”
Venus and the others looked around, not really objecting. “You surprise me still,” she said. “I thought you were going to show us to the resident proctologist.”
“As careful as I am, I’d never pull a plan like that out of my ass,” I responded. I turned to her in particular as all her friends spread out. “I could kick y’all out at any time, you know.”
She smiled. “Yeah, but then you’d be publicly expelling your fiance and her friends from the island. I don’t know what you’re trying to pull, but I’m guessing that’s not what you want to get out.” She winked. “I know better than to think your weird stalker harassment doesn’t happen on its own. You’re up to something that you’re using me to cover for. To answer your question back at the airport, that’s why this involves me.”
Clever woman. She’s right that I’m up to something and that it involves her. I wonder if she knows how much it involves her, because that could better explain why she pulled this stunt. “I prefer not to think of myself as your harassing stalker,” I said, feigning that I was wounded.
“You can prefer whatever you want,” Venus said, the tone of her voice making a lie out of the smile on her face. “Mind if I have a word with my doppelganger?”
I patted her on the head. “She’s busy, I’m afraid. Spa day and beauty treatments. Have to get ready for the big day.”
“Right. I’ll be here then, with all my friends who know exactly where I am at all times,” she said, walking off to join the others in picking out a house.
I, on the other three hands, headed over to the Institute of Science and double parked my rocket. I skipped in, humming to myself, finding the turn of events interesting and advantageous. I was still skipping when the doctors showed me to Medusa’s recovery room where she was testing out her new form.
I bounded in the door. “Guess what?!”
Medusa was starring down at her six pack. “Oh my god, my abs!”
“That’s not what,” I said. “I thought you’d be more interested in the powers, anyway.”
“I am, they’re awesome, but have you seen my fucking abs?” she pointed down to them. In addition to treatment to transform her into a homo machina the same as Venus has been made, the doctors used the nanomachines to get rid of revealing scars and to bring Medusa’s fat and musculature to match with Venus. “What’s your good news?” she asked.
“We don’t have to plan an actual wedding for one thing,” I said. Which was great. Citra’s been a bit cold about that lately. I guess that’s how you describe it when your wife finds out you pretended to ask another woman to marry you so she comes back from college to slap you upside the face. On the plus side, she’s enjoying her economics course and is thinking of trying out for the debate team.
“Good,” Medusa said, about the scrapped wedding instead of my wife troubles. She dropped her shirt and picked up a cell phone, letting her newfound abilities merge her nervous system with it. The screen flashed as she tried messing around with it.
“Yeah,” I followed up with. “Because Venus and a shitload of heroes are here to attend it.”
Medusa frowned and tried to set the phone down. She waved her hand a bit to get it free. “That sounds like we have to fake it for them, doesn’t it?”
I took her hand and tugged gently, easing the phone away from Medusa without hurting her. “No. We just have to swap you and Venus while she’s here. We toss her in a Flyer, drop her off with your Taskforce Manticore buddies, and find some excuse for you and the other heroes to leave the island. This way, we don’t have to hunt her down for the switch while tricking people into thinking your here.”
She nodded. “Fine, whatever. Just as long as the one who reads minds isn’t here.”
I thought back to it. “Huh, yeah it is odd Psychsaur wasn’t here, but that doesn’t matter now.” I poked Medusa in the head. She squinted and pushed my finger away. “Your new powers make you tougher to read that way,” I explained.
She walked up to me, wrapping her arms around my neck. “Show me what I can do, sugarmomma. I feel great. Come on, let’s go tear something up together.”
Sploo- aww who am I kidding? She’s still no Venus.
There’s something very odd being treated like some sort of broken, delicate thing. Moreso when the ones doing the treating are people I’ve spent years fighting, sometimes killing. In a timeline where I’d never come to this world, the hero population hadn’t been properly culled. Kids ran and flew around outside, holding a snowball fight. I watched as a couple boys tossed snowballs at a girl, chasing her into an igloo. The igloo’s entrance closed. A block opened to reveal a barrel. Tank treads popped out of the sides of the igloo and it began to roll. With a fwoom, it fired a snowball that knocked one of the boys on his ass.
“Awful lot of snow for Cali,” I said to Forcelight. She pointed to a pole that poked out of the ground and reached up over all the buildings. A large disk on top generated snow. “Weather control seems like it’d be useful for more than just playing around at school.”
“I asked them about that. My friend, Venus, told me it only makes snow. Nowhere else wants it other than Hollywood. Everyone thinks snow is too much trouble.”
It was a festive place. Lights adorned the outside of the buildings. Even the statue of Oscar Romero in the courtyard had a red and white hat on it. We moved past a foyer and front hall with rugs and its own smaller Christmas trees decorated about, and to the noisy part of the main buildings. Formerly dead and hostile faces welcomed me when Forcelight ushered me through the door of the Master Academy’s California campus cafeteria, where children, teens, and a lot of adults milled about around a two-story Christmas tree.
Venus came bounding up, out of costume, to hug Forcelight. “You made it! Everything wrapped up in Washington?”
Forcelight nodded. “Yeah. Once the big domino was destroyed, the others fell like a house of cards. Checkmate.” Venus smiled at the joke and turned to me. Forcelight turned to introduce me. “This is Gecko. She was a huge help. She’s some sort of technopath, so she turned the big one off. Gecko, this is Venus.”
“That’s amazing. Nice to meet you,” my nemesis said as she shook my hand. I wonder if I could hit that in this continuity… I mean, is still cheating if it’s in a different timeline? The only example I can think of involved another universe, and I still don’t think I’m in one. I’m in the same one that’s been altered significantly.
“Charmed, dear Venus,” I said. “It’s quite the place you have here. The food smells delicious. I can’t wait to have something other than highway snacks and hospital food.”
“She was injured while saving Washington,” Forcelight volunteered. “She had someone who helped her with that. He fought alongside us. Put a pin it that for later. For now, go eat Gecko. Go on!”
Thus commenced an evening of feasting with my foes. I ate too much, I was flirted with, and I even got asked to dance by Sixgun. I killed him, too. Not tonight. I’m talking about in the old continuity. Tonight, he just tried to get in my new dress. There was no killing to worry about… until it got later.
My history with Christmas being what it is, I kept my guard up even as others drank and cavorted. That’s why I was paying attention when wine in a glass started rippling. Someone else, a man with pointy ears, looked up. “Something’s coming,” he said in a soft voice
He ran to go warn someone. I ran out to the yard to see what was the matter. It had become deserted as the night went on and the children were forced into beds to have nightmares about sugarplum fairies.
A giant robot with pincers for hands came to a halt outside. We’re talking a good thirty, maybe thirty-five feet tall. Very similar old-style Nazi design aesthetic, but with a visor for a windshield on the head and a pair of gun barrels poking out from underneath it like a nose. It didn’t come alone. I spotted others near its feet.
On the one hand, the upcoming fight would be none of my business and nothing’s going to be permanent over here once I give it a good editing. On the other, I wanted to punch something.
“Master Academy, come out and face your doom at the hands of Dr. Creeper and his Ho-Ho-Horrors!”
Huh. So that’s what he got up to over here. I zoomed in for a closer look at the Ho-Ho-Horrors themselves. The one that stood out the most was the gargantuan of a man covered in scars and medical staples. He had a pair of metal bolts from each neck, shot fire from a flamethrower with 8 openings. Another looked like a regular guy until he concentrated and grew into a white-furred ape-thing. Next to him stood a man in a pilgrim outfit with a face covered in a black mask with white eye holes. On the opposite side of the flamethrower-wielding Frankenstein’s monster rolled up a cylindrical robot with a facsimile for a metal head planted on top of the cylinder, which held several arms. One of the arms lit up with an electrical arc between two ends of it, while the others were an assortment of claws, drills, and at least one plunger.
Then the ninjas dropped down between us the Ho-Ho-Horrors and the school. They had the cloth head coverings like you’d expect, but with goggles and metal lower face guards. The rest of their costume was less “black pajamas” as the stereotype goes and more like winter camo with body armor and sheaths for swords and other weapons. “Also, I’ve hired the services of the Ronin-Go. They aren’t my usual minions, but these are the only ones I could find willing to work Christmas Eve.”
Yet another reason why most people don’t bother attacking on Christmas Eve: better shit to do than get into a fight with supervillains. Like getting into a fight with family.
By now, I wasn’t the only one looking at the group. I rushed to the front hall and grabbed some ornaments off the trees. Most of them were those stupid plastic non-breakable ones, but a few were the classic glass. I broke several of those up and laid them out on the floor, then waited by the welcome rug.
The door burst in and ninjas came through it, yelling and waving swords. I waited until I got a good sized group and pulled the rug out from under them. A half dozen of them found their legs no longer underneath them and a short drop to a granite floor welcoming instead. I tossed the rug back over them before they could get up and ran over the top of them to the next wave. A good four of them tried to swing at me at once from the same direction and ended up getting in each other’s way. “Should have come at me one at a time,” I said with a laugh and grabbed away their swords in each hand.
They looked to me, then two bent and fired grappling lines on either side, forming a little corridor of rope at about knee level. One of the others jumped over me, knocking down one of his lumpy friends under the rug, and whipped out a pair of sai. The other who hand’t so far done anything squeezed his hands. Long metal claws popped out of winter digital-camo colored gauntlets. “Hi-ya!” the ones on either side of me yelled. Because when you hire ninjas, you want the classic ninja experience.
“Hiya,” I said, then hocked a loogie onto the clawed-ones visor. I turned around to the one behind me. I planted all four swords I held in the floor rug, and in someone I was standing on, and used them to lever myself into a flip over that one. He turned quickly and barely managed to catch two of the blades with his sais. I grinned and winked at him as the other two swords cut his pants so they fell down his legs. “Ever been circumcised before?”
The ninjas on either side of this little rope corridor they hoped to restrict my movements with came at me but soon found themselves crunching over broken orbs and stars and such. The one in front of me turned to run and tripped through a combination of his pants being around his ankles and the fact that we were still on top of a welcome mat covering six of his now-irritated and potentially wounded friends. The one I’d spat in the face of flipped over him and landed on the pommel of one sword I held up when I figured out where he was coming down at. He fell to the floor moaning and cradling a nut that’d need to be popped out later.
A shot caught me in the chest and knocked me back until I fell off the rug. There in the doorway was the smoking old-time flintlock. And behind it stood the guy in the pilgrim costume and mask.
I coughed and felt for my wound. My hand came back bloody and holding a round metal ball that had flattened where it ran into the bulletproof subdermis of my body. Still hurt like I’d been hung by my figgin. Before I could stand, one of the ropes was cut by Sixgun and his Bowie knife. He twirled it into a sheath and looked to me. “You alright, ma’am?”
I coughed and nodded. He nodded back, then turned and squared up with the Pilgrim, throwing his coat back. “Howdy Pilgrim. That’s no way to treat a lady. Mayhap you have a shot with me instead?” The Pilgrim tossed aside his spent pistol and shifted another couple around to the front of his belt.
One of the ninjas that had hurt his feet on broken decorations fell over on one of the little Christmas trees out there, knocking off a big red bow that rolled lazily between the two gunfighters. After a moment, the Pilgrim drew. Sixgun was faster. He shot the pistol out of the Pilgrim’s hand, then popped him in the shoulder, spinning him around into the cold, dark night.
By now, fighting had erupted all over. Once I managed to get to my fight, I spotted the Were-Yeti tangling with a huge, half-man, half-sloth that I knew as the Human Sloth from my own experience. Forcelight, meanwhile, had destroyed the flamethrower of the Frankenstein and was trying to put him down before he could overpower her. I spotted cylindrical robot with the treads circle around behind her.
I jumped it and stuck my fingers to its head. “What are you doing?” it asked. “I am Qwanzaar! Release me at once. No, do not stick that in there. That is not where fingers goOO!” It voiced surprise as my nervous system joined with its computerized brain and stopped it.
“Okily Qwanzaar, you’re mine now,” I said. I looked up at the giant robot, which traded blows with a woman in a pink and black costume with butterfly wings on it. It managed to catch the Pink Pixie by a wing and tore it off, sending the heroine spinning. And I couldn’t do anything about it from the ground. Dr. Creeper’s robots were based on old analog Nazi designs meant to be worked with levers and buttons and no computer elements at all. Nothing about this big one suggested he’d upgraded that part of it.
Instead, I looked to its knees, then at a cluster of downed ninjas. It was easy to appropriate their grappling hooks and ropes, then hop back on top of Qwanzaar. Firing and latching on with a grappling hook didn’t take a lot of work either.
No, by far the worst part was waiting for Qwanzaar to slowly circle through the snow for longer than it would have taken to watch the entire opening of Empire Strikes Back’s Hoth scenes. Pink Pixie, then Forcelight, managed to keep the big guy distracted long enough, especially once they saw what I was doing. Creeper didn’t noticed I’d tied up his robot’s knees until he went to step back and it caught. “What is this?!” his voice boomed from the speaker just before the robot began to fall.
The robot knocked off the disk that made the snow as it fell onto it, then the chest began to poke upward where the pole underneath had stabbed into it and the fall damaged the chest plate from the inside. A piece of metal fell off the top of the robot’s head and a rotor popped out. The head pulled off and began to fly away.
Instead of going after it, Pink Pixie, Forcelight, and the other heroes worked on rounding up the remaining Ho-Ho-Horrors and Ronin-Go. They might have thought they had longer, but the escape pod head’s sides opened up to reveal wings and jet engines. The rotors fell off as it shot away with a sonic boom.
All in all, not a bad party.
Merry Christmas, a belated Happy Hannukah, Io Saturnalia, and an early Joyous Kwanzaa, dear readers. Remember, so long as you’re still alive, doesn’t matter if they trap you in another world, you’ve still got a chance.
“…and after we finish pulling your arms off, we pull the remaining bone out and insert rods of jagged crystal salt into the stumps,” someone said. The walls of my containment cube were still opaque.
I just sat back and spoke aloud. “What the prison lacks in personal accommodations, it more than makes up for in efficiency. Beds? Toilets? Masseuse’s? They’ve done away with all of that in favor of a hard, level floor. The color of black marble behind a thin layer of glass, it provides both a firm, supportive structure for sleep, and a versatile shit surface. While circumstances often vary by stool to stool… viscosity, color, length, firmness… I could go on and on. And have, in the bestseller I’m writing, ‘Everybody’s Poop’. It’s a children’s book. I’ve gotten sidetracked though. The floor holds the shit well, and cleanup is as easy as hitting the floor really hard.”
I smacked my fist against the floor near the shit corner, prompting its anti-kinetic properties to activate and causing my fist and the nearby feces to bounce. The surface underneath it looked good enough to not even think about eating off of. “The unique properties of the material used in the construction of this prison is fascinating. The fact that they don’t use it more often implies some weakness.”
Another voice joined in, different from the outside. “I hear you’re a woman now. Guess it was too hard being a man. Now you need your proper place. You’ve degenerated.”
I continued on with my involuntary hotel review. “The food service appears to be implemented using superspeed, or perhaps some form of teleportation related to whatever force brought me here as opposed to ground zero of my D-Bomb, this Fort Memorial. When it comes to the guards, I’ve had more intelligent. Most prison guards are more polite to genocidal dictators they know will be released.”
They started talking over me before I even finished. I think it was something like, “You’re not going nowhere no time.”
They abruptly shut up as more voices approached. I stopped hearing anything, suggesting some sound canceling barrier to go along with the impediment to my sight. The walls went clear a moment later, showing me two horrified looking guys standing side by side just in front of the cube. Another sat behind the guard desk near me. Standing next to that guy now was the general who was so happy to have me here, along with Titan, Venus, and a short-haired woman in a red uniform of a sort.
“Do you have those restraints?” asked the general in accented English.
Titan nodded. He held up a foursome of shackles. “These will disable her powers.”
“Fine,” said the woman in red, looking like she’s swallowed something that disagreed with her.
The general patted the sitting guard’s shoulder. The gun emplacements stopped following my eveyr move and stayed in place. Three of the walls of the cube swung down like a skirt while the last held up the ceiling. I slid down the slope in front of me to land right in front of the two guards. “Evenin’, fellas. You had something to say about what you were going to do to me? Salt rods and showing me my proper place?”
One was thicker, fatter, but clearly muscular underneath that. He pissed himself.
Titan stepped around in front of me. “Stop playing with them.”
“Nice to see ya, big guy.” I said, projecting a wink. “Not that the stay hasn’t been refreshing, but it’ll be good to get home.”
He held up the cuffs. “Someone had to come rescue you,” he said.
I rolled my eyes under my armor, then started violently coughing. I held up a hand and turned away. As I hacked the last two times, my helmet’s lasers fired scarlet beams that carved through the wall that remained standing, toppling it and the ceiling of the cube. I shook my head and turned back to Titan, where I now saw the remaining heckler being helped down, passed out in the arms of his colleague in the wet pants. I held my arms out for Titan. “Yeah, not like I could have gotten out of here anytime.”
The secret, if y’all are wondering, is light. It passed right on through instead of pouncing off, which suggested lasers could handle this. Possibly nanites and chemical weapons. The former because I use them for everything, the latter because they got air in their somehow.
I let Titan put the shackles on over my gauntlets. I was pleasantly surprised they did nothing to me, but that makes more sense than the things working through my armor. He grabbed one of my elbows and led me around the desk to where Venus and the person in red were chatting quietly. “We’d be happy to have the new team visit while they train,” Venus told her. She nodded to me, “We will try to keep them away from Ricca.”
“Our leaders must be flat-out retarded letting you take her,” Red said to Venus.
Venus’s smile got a little sharper as she looked Red in the eyes. “If someone saved your world and everyone you loved, would you let them be locked away in a cage and then executed?”
“You may lose us all our best chance ever to kill this psycho and be done with it.” Red nodded over her shoulder at me.
Venus didn’t have anything really to say to that, but she has a mean glare on her. She grabbed my arm to escort me out of there with Titan. We passed side doors every now and then as we headed down a straight corridor. One looked to be nothing more than a storage closet for machine parts and ammo. If there was any other reason for the building’s existence than myself, I saw no evidence of it.
The infonet of my homeworld opened up to me along with the door that allowed us to exit. Outside, we saw a trench with metal laid over it for us to cross over. Then it was around the barricade, past more disarmed guns, and out a wall. There waited for us a six-wheeled small armored car. Two seats up front, a small truck-style bed behind it. The kind officers over here like for personal conveyance in an official capacity. Capable of a diverse set of roles with room for a gun in the back. The driver looked like he’d just shat a pine cone when he saw who he was driving back. Titan took up most of the back and tried to hunch down to keep from slowing us with his wings’ wind resistance. Despite that, there was a little bit of room up front for me while Venus sat in the cab.
“I don’t think I’ve seen anyone so universally hated,” Titan yelled over the rushing air as we got going.
“I’m sure they’ll warm up to Venus before they get to know her!” I called back to him. I pinpointed the highest-traffic area of data in the area and looked over to the nearby metropolis. Buildings reached into the sky, with ribbons of suspended roads and walkways after about the midway point, painting the lower parts of the city with shadows. The rust and dirt added to the image. Half the city in the sun, the other in shadow.
I had so much new stuff downloading, but some things hadn’t changed. I turned out to have more than enough time. Our half hour ride shouldn’t have been possible. We ended up in an area with a gentle, shallow crater and a few walls. I didn’t realize until we’d driven down into the cleared space that this was the place where my memorial had been. Aww. They’ll never give me another one, either.
Everything around suggested they’d fortified the area the memorial. My repeated trips across the divide had left it a bridge to our world, which further justified the defenses. They were gone, but there was a part in the middle where you could see through to Canada.
“I hope there isn’t a vigorous customs process. I carry a lot of baggage. ‘Do you have anything dangerous to declare?’” I shared a laugh with Titan.
“I know we have every reason, for everyone’s good, to see you locked away,” he said. “You did right by us. What’s it say if we leave your feet in the fire after what you did? Mot was a tough mother.”
“He didn’t appear again or anything, did he?” I asked. We rolled to a stop.
Titan shook his head. “Not since you disappeared.”
I smiled under my armor and let them pick me up. No big ceremony, just being muscled through the portal while anyone around helping rebuild the place tried to kill me with their eyes. We emerged to a smal checkpoint with Canadian customs agents. “Ha!” I said.
Venus nudged me with her elbow. “You might shut up. We pulled a lot of strings to get you back.”
One customs agent waved us forward with a clipboard in hand. “We just sent you two in, didnt’t we?” He asked of Titan and Venus.
“Told you it was a short visit,” Titan said.
“I see you brought back someone in cuffs,” he said, looking me over from atop his light brown mustache.
“Extradition,” Venus said.
“This looks like that Psychopomp Gecko fellow. Do you have citizenship here?” He asked me.
“Probably no-” Venus went to answer for me.
I holographically projected several forms of ID into the air. “American, Argentinian, Peruvian, Brazil, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Irish, Ukrainian, Holy See, Belgian, North Korean, South Korean thanks to some talks that are going on, Riccan, Russian if you don’t look too closely. Oh, and Molossian.” One last, more crude ID popped up, over top of me shaking hands with an older white man in a fake general’s outfit.
“Molossia?” The Customs agent asked.
I shrugged. “Small country, best known for its tourism industry and burgeoning salt mines.”
Venus pointed to the Vatican one. “How in the world do you have citizenship with the Vatican?”
“That’s between me and the Pope,” I told her.
“There are a lot of passports there I don’t want the full story about,” Titan said.
“I’m sorry, but I see here you’re listed as one of our exceptions. You’re not allowed,” the agent said while looking down at his clipboard.
“Really? Don’t even have to look that up on computer?” I asked.
He shook his head and held up the clipboard. It had a list of guidelines and questions, with a column titled Absolute Exceptions: Do Not Let In at the bottom. “I’m not the Black Plague, nuclear weapons, or maple syrup,” I said. “Also, maple syrup?”
“We’re protecting our citizens from inferior syrups that have stabbed other nations. Non-Canadian maple syrups are the reason all the banks are working against us, and they started all the wars. Also, your name’s second to last.”
I looked down. Yep, Psychopomp Gecko, then Jordan B. Peterson. “Huh. Can’t argue with that. Quick question, though, Customs dude. How, exactly, are you going to enforce it?”
He smiled at me. “I’m going to ask you nicely to please leave through the portal.”
I reached out and pushed his chest, knocking him over. I went to step past him and found my head ringing from three gunshots. All to the head. From different directions. One of them from right where Titan stood. He looked at the flattened bullet on the ground, the mark of the helmet, and then down at his chest, feeling for holes or anything.
I sighed as a missile headed down right for me. “Stand back, everyone.”
Titan grabbed Venus and took off. I just stepped aside as the missile’s pointed tip rammed into the walk and stuck there. I popped a hatch open that bore the seal of the Empire of Ricca. Inside, I strapped myself into a seat. The rear thruster nozzle of the missile popped off to allow the second, internal missile to fire, carrying me up into the air. The snipers tried, but still couldn’t penetrate my missile-carried escape missile, specially designed to carry me out of hostile situations. Like myself, it had been armored to resist all small arms, even the really big ones.
I smiled as I dropped the visual shades on my helmet’s camera feed, allowing me to get a clear look at the bright sun as I once again made my escape. The fact that my path to escape left a contrail in the form of the words, “Deal With It” is just icing on the cake.