Lots of lost sleep. It’s the memories. I’m there, back in the other world. Back as a kid, or back at the original dimension bomb. I almost snapped Qiang’s neck. I woke up and I didn’t know who she was. I only knew something was going on and I was being attacked. After all, I’d just been back in the old world, surrounded by enemies. And once I realized where I was, I seriously considered going ahead and breaking her little neck anyway. It might have been the better thing to do.
That whole thing where I was of two minds about everything wasn’t something as nonsensical as a split personality. Just the closest thing I had to a conscience. I don’t know if that was the part telling me to go ahead and kill her. I can’t tell anymore.
I couldn’t get back to sleep until I’d scratched a certain itch. I left one of my eyes to keep watch over Qiang and Citra, then headed out. I ran across a custodian cleaning up the place in the hours when most were asleep. “Hey, good job,” I told him, then pointed behind him. “What’s that?!”
They found him in the morning, hung to death off a balcony of the palace by his underwear, which had been pulled far up his backside, deep into his crack, and around his neck. When I do an atomic wedgie, Japanese people die.
That made me feel better, like I could get back to bed. But then, I realized I’d hit upon a decent solution. I soon skipped along until I found a crew setting up in the kitchens, getting them clean and prepped for the day. “You there!” I shouted. “No one’s in the chair! Come and visit your old friend Sweeney.”
I didn’t get a lot of sleep that night, but I had a good time, and that’s what counts. Sent some messages out. Stuff for Master Academy in the event things went badly. Like how to fix supers brainwashed by the Unity chemical. Still none around here after the island lost power and all the others were sent to the supers and soldiers of the front line.
At the meeting the next day, I had to represent Claw’s interests. That meant only going back to pre-war, not pre-expansion, in terms of territory. I didn’t mind if the Empire went to some sort of democratic system, and figured I’d use that as a concession for better terms, but now I’ve got to insist on remaining in power as a way to protect the institution of the Empire. Or some crap like that. The rest of it is crap about economics, trade, and UN seats.
I smiled up at the glass of tea dropped off for me by the servant in the room. “Thank you. Please, don’t leave. We may need more orders. Just stand to the side, if you will.” He nodded and did as ordered while I addressed the others. “Listen, folks, these talks are fascinating. Truly, they are. I’m just a bit bored by threats at the moment, so why are these guys still here?” I asked, pointing to the Dimension Rangers.
The red one looked me in the eye. The Rangers tend to assign that color to the field leader of their teams, though at least one team was led by the pink one. It’s not unheard of for a later member to take over the team, as well. Still, the red one’s as good a person to talk to as any. “We are here to keep you from causing trouble. We are here to see that peace is achieved. We will then take you back.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Why would you ever want me back?”
Red continued. “We did not know you were still alive. You can’t be allowed to run free and ruin this dimension. These people don’t want you here disturbing their lives and destroying their world.”
I looked to the edge of the chamber, where I’d ordered Citra and, more important, Qiang to attend. I called Qiang over. She ran over, doing a great job at keeping that knife of hers hidden. I took her hand and pulled her onto my lap, where I took her hand and felt the trademark connection of a homo machina. Everyone else around here could die. I kissed Qiang’s head, then looked to the Red Ranger. “This world is my home now.”
“Our world doesn’t want you back, but we can contain you. You have corrupted this world with knowledge beyond its natural development and killed untold numbers in the process. This world is not yours to play with. It does not revolve around you, nor do they want it to. We can move onto the important work after we clean up this nuisance you have created.” It’s a good thing the language we spoke wasn’t the same. Some people might take offence to that part about restricting knowledge.
“What if I just want to be left here in peace?” I asked.
He scoffed at that. The one in black laughed outright. I smiled and said, “Who doesn’t like a good joke? Isn’t it enough that I don’t want to destroy this world and kill everyone?”
Red wasted no time on a response. “No.”
“You do not get a pass because you are a mildly better person here,” said the outraged Black ranger. “This world is better off without you saving it.”
Now it was my turn to laugh. “I’m sorry,” I said in English, so more people would understand. “You’re right. I’m a horrible person. I shouldn’t try the save the world. I shouldn’t do that anymore. I tried, and ended up creating the devices the Claw used to help wash some brains. Oh, and he had the White House destroyed. And I shouldn’t run a country. I’m just negotiating here because I killed the last guy and figured I could at least get some peace goin’. Of course, then it turned out the Claw set me up to kill a body double and probably snuck me some poison that can kill me if he manages to get any more to me.”
I paused here to hook my cup of tea with me finger and raise it to my mouth. Eyes went wide around the table as I did so. I lowered it some and smiled. “Don’t worry. This wouldn’t be the catalyst that kills me. Not when I’m supposed to be doing the Claw’s bidding here. Because he’s already given it to my daughter, and to that lady,” I nodded my head back toward Citra, who looked horrified. Lip quivering, eyes wide, all that. I added, “I mean, it could be. But life involves a gamble or two.”
I paused here and looked down at little Qiang. Wish I had that little thing inside me to give me a little guidance, even if it meant I’d listen and do the opposite. I looked to the Black ranger. “Take care of my daughter, please? I have to kill the man who tried to kill her twice already and almost ruined my world.”
I stood up. So did the Rangers. They took a defensive position as I held Qiang out to them. The Red one took her, though Blue and Black stayed on guard because I would gladly use that opportunity to punch them most of the time.
Instead, as soon as they did so, I lunged toward the servant who brought me the tea and put my fist through his chest. The speed of movement and contact caused the illusion around my arm to fail, allowing the black and blue of my armor to show through. He trembled and stared, mouth agape, at my fist. “Come on and change back, you bastard,” I said. “I killed this servant this morning, shoved him onto a bidet and forced the water through him until he died. Anal water boarding.”
One of the Buzzkills chimed in, “My Emperor, he has a twin brother.”
Then the door opened and in walked the same servant with an assortment of finger foods on a tray. Every head in the room turned to him, except the guy I’d fist impaled. The man himself looked at me and his dead doppelganger. “My twin brother!”
I held the corpse out between he and I and pulled my arm out, disappearing. Before the body hit the floor, my next punch flew toward the Claw’s face. He slapped it aside, disrupting the hologram and allowing everyone to see up to my elbow. My follow-up to his gut hit nothing. One second his stomach was there, the next my left went through a hole. I pulled it out before he could clamp down. He deflected more punches, didn’t react to ball shot, and I might as well have headbutted George Washington on Mt. Rushmore for all the good it did. In retrospect, the nut punch was a dumb idea in someone who can relocate his nuts. I should shift mine around sometime.
I directed energy from the batteries to my right fist and pulled back, telegraphing. The Claw didn’t bother reacting. Of course, I just had to open my big mouth in the middle of a fight. I did it to release a scream on the frequency that short circuits human motor functions and paralyzes them instead of bragging, though. My helmet and ears protected me from the effects while he was wide open. And while it’d be a great time to shove an explosive down his throat, I had stronger explosives than I had space in the same room as my kid. Shouldn’t matter. Not like he could dodge.
He dodged it and let me tear up the door instead. Then he grabbed my arm and jerked it back. “You think you are clever. What innovation! Punch me. Scream at me. Betray me. Pretend you can keep your loved ones safe from me.” His head transformed into the bulbous, yellow, many-folded form I’d seen in the old photos. His eyes were large red slits on black, and he had more fangs than the Tepes family in that mouth of his. “You are not the hero of some story, just a cunt.”
He squeezed my arm, bending metal and breaking bones. When Buzzkill guards stepped forward to try and impale him with their stinger swords, he swiped at the air. He didn’t need to touch them to carve lines right through them. I jumped up and tried kicking off from him. I flipped back, but he didn’t let go. I landed on my head, shoulder popped out of its socket. He picked me up by the afflicted limb and slammed me into the ground several more times for good measure, then brought one of his titular claws down on my back. It pierced my armor and spine with ease. “Hey, you dick. I need that to walk,” I coughed out.
He stepped over me and toward the Rangers and Qiang, who started to stir. I popped the Unexpected Surprise, the molecular-edged blade, and sliced through his ankle. He grabbed the table and turned around. He opened his mouth and a glowing beam slammed into me, grinding me along the floor and leaving me smoking by the wall. He simply regrew the leg and turned back to the Black Ranger and Qiang. He reached for her slowly, getting a knife to the hand. When Black tried to push him away, Claw backhanded the man upside his jaw with a hard crack.
Claw went for another chance. It must have surprised him when I came running for him. He turned and sliced the air in anticipation of catching me. He lost that claw, then his head. The head rolled forward before his other hand caught it. I tried stabbing it with the blade, but he raised it up. I hit chest instead, and then the stump of his severed hand hit the side of the blade and snapped right through it even as it tore the stump to pieces as well. I tried to grab it, but it was sucked through his body, shooting out the back and leaving a hole in the wall behind him. His head grinned as he set it back on his neck, his hand regrowing.
You know, it’s mildly frustrating being the one on the other side of the constant regenerating.
“Get out of here already!” I yelled at the damn Rangers, mainly because they were supposed to be keeping my kid out of this. I didn’t give a damn about everyone else, who were also trying to get out after their brief paralysis. Then I looked Claw right into his furiously unkillable eyes and said, “Come on, you bastard. You’re not getting to her while I’m alive. Go ahead. I’ll even broadcast it. Get you some attention. You’ll always be known as the man who killed Psycho Gecko. That’s a lot more impressive than killing a little girl.”
Another mouth beam knocked the delicious chocolate pudding out of me and left me gasping for breath in my Psycho Gecko-shaped impression in the wall. He grabbed a chair then and threw it into me with enough strength to lodge three of the legs through my chest and pin me in there. At that point, everything below the hair hurt. Air eluded me, and blood was running like rats from a sinking ship.
“I will be the one to break you and hear you whimper,” he said calmly.
“I mean, if that’s all you wanted, I’m not a big fan of the bondage stuff, but-”
“Before this day is through, it will be cemented in the minds of all that you are just a weak little man with a reputation far greater than your means or ability. Who are you to challenge me?”
“Dimension Squad, Transport!” yelled three voices, followed by an explosion. I looked up to see the three Rangers had called their shiny costumes. The resulting explosion from their morph had wrecked the wall of the room. Instead of standing, they fled through the hole with Qiang, calling for everyone around to evacuate. They left me, but that’s no big loss.
“I think you missed your chance. Even now, I feel my salvation close at hand,” I meant to chuckle, but something solid lodged in my throat. Spat it out. Odd shade of pinkish-orange. Are there orange organs?
The Claw looked back at me, but stepped out after them, cutting his way through walls to follow after. I tried moving, but my body didn’t cooperate. I tried thinking of Qiang, or inspirational power up music, or something like that. But that kind of thing happens to heroes, and I’m not the hero.
I projected my consciousness outward, along the networked devices of the palace. Like a security camera nuclear alarm system. “Hey, Claw, whatcha doin’? Hunting down Rangers?”
He sneered and cut through that intercom, but at least the cameras had sound. “No more stolen nanomachines, no more stolen weapons. The Gecko thief has only cameras and speakers to steal. I doubt you burgled anything that can stop me now. Is there any part of you not stolen from someone else? From my understanding, your name is not your own. You have nothing to save yourself or your stolen daughter now.”
He pushed down the doors of the palace. Outside stood the diplomats, my few supporters such as Silver Shark and Beetrice, and the Dimension Rangers in what should have been the sunlight. But the sun behind them was blotted out. A veritable horde of supers crowded around outside the palace, all facing the Claw.
“This too is something of mine. You stole my Empire, but it is mine, and my subjects answer to me,” he said to mock me. I heard it perfectly, through so many ears. War Man stepped forward holding a grenade launcher more fit to be mounted on a tank.
“About that,” I said from a nearby phone being held by one of the Chinese peace envoys. “I have stolen many things, but not the Unity drug, nor the memories of so many superheroes. I am indeed a right cunt. But didn’t you ever wonder why I didn’t bring in nanites to replace those you destroyed, purse myself of your poison? They were sent to the front lines instead, to heal those who fought for you. You’re right. I was not strong enough, but I think they are. It doesn’t throw off your big finale if that memory block’s gone, does it?”
I went to laugh back in my little wall cradle, but the coughing started, and the distant thunder and multitude of lights and beams and lasers aimed at the Claw and directed by a bunch of very pissed and eager people. But I couldn’t stop coughing, and shaking and just before I lost co-
I have been hard at work building bombs. And while building bombs, I’ve been keeping Qiang with me to learn. It started when she ate something that disagreed with her. The color also disagreed with the carpet, so I brought her with me to keep an eye on while I work. These things are easy enough to make for me now that I can focus on her and help her understand the changes that are going on in her body.
And if that sounds awkward, just wait until I go female to help her through puberty. I’m gearing up to be one hell of an embarrassing parent. She doesn’t realize it yet because it’s new to her, but most of the civilized world frowns on someone listening to Barbie Girl or Cotton Eye Joe. I think she also likes learning how to fight back against people. There aren’t so many assistants waiting around, but I have taught her some tricks for dealing with them. You don’t have to be large to punch someone in the balls. It is a little trickier for women, but toes and shins are still within easy reach of her.
I also have her messing around with a tablet that I added games to. Educational stuff. Like a game to help her with math, or science, or movement patterns of guards. There’s even one in there about firearms and how they can be taken apart. It’s so easy, even a child can do it.
I didn’t have her help me with the bombs. I just kept putting them together, looking all dutiful and all. I might need them. After all, the world was kinda screwed. Despite my intervention, perhaps erring on the side of “because of,” the Claw managed to take over entire other nations. He wiped their memories with that Unity crap and had his own men standing in the wings, ready to replace their muddled confusion with assurances of who they were and who they served.
He can do the same to any country where the leader is in a fixed position and power is more or less concentrated. That’s a lot of countries. It works just as well on Prime Ministers as it does on Presidents. If that doesn’t work for some reason, I can help him send a death squad instead. Or a conventional bomb. Or a bomb that tears things apart by sending a chunk of it to another dimension. The world is Ricca’s oyster, and I helped them crack it.
It’s the apocalypse, alright. I always knew I’d have a hand in it.
At night, I carried a sleepy Qiang back with me to my room, where I put a little work in on something that occurred to me on my armor. Smaller, secondary capacitors, that I can detach. It might seem like an easy way to keep extra batteries on hand, but I rigged them to be capable of exploding, if I say so. It can only be triggered if they’re detachd from my armor, too. I killed the Oligarch with his own power armor’s self-destruct system; that doesn’t mean I’m eager to be hoisted by my own petard. Petard hoisting is hard on the boxers.
And, more than that, I still had the Rangers.. On the day of their projected arrival, I made sure to get up early. Like, before the PM. I know, right? They were still a ways off. I wiggled free of Qiang and let her sleep while I pulled my armor out from under the bed and got equipped. The batteries were charged, except for the extras. I threw that on just in case. I like having my armor.
It was great. They had the stupid ship with eyes and everything. I caught a better glimpse of it through a satellite feed. It belonged to the Russians, but they’d given Ricca unprecedented access to their defense infrastructure recently. How about that?
I caught a glimpse of a young man and his friends, five in total, standing on the ship, looking toward the island. The frontmost one wore red. By his side, a blue one started pointing toward the island. That’s when the yellow one ran back toward the bridge and the ship stopped.
I panned out, curious and expecting to see some giant monster unleashed. Instead, I saw a shimmering half sphere cover the island. The ship, something of a big, modern-battleship looking-thing, turned sideways and unleashed a broadsides. Anachronistic offense aside, the attack did nothing. The shield gave a little, rippled even, but didn’t disappear. If anything struck the island, I didn’t notice. The ship just stopped there.
Curious, I headed out to the main palace, looking for answers. I found Lu watching a small army of assistants scurry about with their duties. “Hey there, Luey Luey. What seems to be the officer, problem?”
He set his jaw and looked at me. “The island is under attack. It will be sorted out shortly.”
I pointed up. “I noticed something’s up with the sky. What is that? What’s going on?”
He turned toward me and bowed his head. “My lord, the protective barrier is in place to prevent any hostile incursion or bombardment of the glorious homeland of the Empire. We are perfectly safe. Your devices are the only way in or out to my knowledge. Go back to whatever you are doing and the situation will resolve itself soon.”
I headed back, but I didn’t care to just let things resolve. Uh uh. I needed to find whatever generated this barrier and take it out. Positioning suggests it is centrally located. However, I know it’s possible to have the shield generated by one machine and distributed evenly by other nodes. That’s a potential issue. My first two initial ideas were the palace itself and the Institute of Science. Somewhere on this damn island has to be a military base, but I never bothered going there. I should be able to use the satellites to find it, but not everything’s so easy around here. The island stretches down quite a ways, even harnessing geothermal power to keep the island lit up.
And there it was. So simple. Just kill the power. No matter where the thing was, it would need power, and a lot of it. If anything, it’s surprising that it managed to power up at all without causing a brownout or blackout. Except I don’t know where that is, either. I’m beginning to suspect keeping me segregated from most of the island was a strategic choice, and one I went along with way to much.
Maybe I should destroy a lot of stuff and hope I hit something vital. Either way, I should see to Qiang. And at least warn off the servant girls in case they get shot just for being in the same room as me. I get the feeling I’m going to be on Claw’s enemy list soon if I do anything about this forcefield.
I didn’t have time to set on a strategy before I made it back to my place and found Dame waiting there for me on the couch. I raised an eyebrow looking at her. She stood up, walked over, put her arms around me, and whispered, “I couldn’t help seeing you again.” With barely any vocalization at all, she added, “The forcefield cut me off.”
I nodded. “I know. I’ve been thinking about it, too. I think it’d be quite a feat to separate us. But if we did get together and all that, then break up, I’d want you to take the kids.”
She raised an eyebrow. I nodded toward the bedroom with Qiang. “But take good care of them. They’d mean the world to me, or at least the lives of everybody you’ve ever been friendly toward.”
“That’s if I could leave you at all,” she replied.
I hugged her. “I’d never force you to stay with me if you didn’t want to. You’ll have to trust me that I’d leave you a way out. But enough about that. I just came here while I thought about what to do about this crisis. I’m going to have to get out there and do something.”
“Something to help?” she asked.
I nodded. “I need to go to work. I wouldn’t want to wait around here all day with some sort of attack going on.” It was possibly the best heads-up I could give her.
But first, I went to the kitchen area and grabbed some bottled water. I emptied a couple bottles and filled them both about three quarters with what nanites I had manage to stockpile again. Dame left, pausing to look back at me before fleeing, making nary a sound.
I made my way to the Institute of Science, keeping my eyes peeled. I never understood that phrase. I mean, sure, I found a nice pair of eyes on this guy who had stopped to take a selfie in front of the palace. They’re blue, and maybe 20/20, but I don’t know what peeling them is supposed to do. It defeats the purpose, really. I mean, there’s the eye jelly, but you don’t see more with all of it exposed.
At the Institute of Science, I kicked the door in, charged in, and yelled, “Ok, motherfuckers! This is a dick measuring contest, and today y’all came up shor-!”
The wall behind me blew open and in stepped a power-armor clad pursuer in smooth, rounded, pitck black armor with a sword in hand. The assassin who had come through from my old world had switched into that bulky armor soon after arriving. While our last meeting didn’t see them wearing it, they had it on this time. I looked at him, then back at the security guards. They pulled out glowing rifles and fired at him.
I suppose there’s one good thing about being on their side. “Go to it, boys,” I said, crawling past them. Checking back there, I saw they shot him with lasers. After a few shots, his armor shifted into a mirrored shine that took the edge off the shots. Oh great. I’m fighting the fucking Borg here. Guess I’ll have to make sure I take him down in one good shot.
I left them to it, letting the guards get nice and slaughtered, and ran for the elevator. It dinged open to reveal War Man with a black 35x32mm barrel sticking in my face and a large drum under that. I scooted to the side. War Man spread his legs and fired a burst of grenades at my assassin, who just finished playing hibachi chef with the guards. The Man O’ War stepped out to deal with the threat, for which I gave him a small salute and took the elevator he left behind down.
I felt plenty of shaking from up there, but nothing messed severed the cables. I wasn’t at risk of dying so much as being kept away from the bombs I needed. If anything, this assassin’s arrival might help cover things for me. I won’t bet on it. Instead, I calmly walked down the hallway to my replacement lab, setting up targets and timers.
Another unfortunate thing I’d forgotten was to figure up just how damn thick the Institute was. I set up the bombs with a way for me to access them, but didn’t think about how far underground and how there was no way to connect to them from outside the building. This was the wrong time to be making mistakes, especially with the barrier already putting me on edge. Times like these, I begin to suspect I’m not as clever as I otherwise think I am. Then I remember I’m the smartest, prettiest, handsomest, and most humble son of a bitch on this planet and any other.
Something crashed down into the elevator car behind me. It turned out to be my bestest best friend in the whole world, the anonymous killer guy.
I turned around. The armor really didn’t look that bad. Part of one arm formed a thick shield, though they still had the sword in their right. My unwelcome stalker stepped out of the elevator and turned, swiftly slicing the bottom half so that it fell. A moment later, War Man plunged down through the hole in the roof made by my uninvited guest and down the elevator shaft after the bottom.
I snorted. “Ok, that was pretty good. Say, how’d you get in here, anyway? Swim ahead or something?”
The reticulated and inarticulate taintmuncher didn’t even grace me with an answer from they’re hoity-toity mouth. They charged, and then ran into a D-bomb that appeared right in front of them, clanging. Then they both just up and disappeared. They weren’t the only ones. The entire island quaked.
Now, I suppose I could have targeted everything underneath this place. The whole volcano or what have you. Just completely disappeared it. Problem with that is the lack of buoyancy up here. It’d get really wet here, and this armor feels inadequate for navigating marine environments for a long period of time. Rather than end up as a cameo in the next Finding Nemo movie, I put a hole right through the mass of land, allowing water to flow freely through the middle. I doubt I got rid of the geothermal power station, but based on the way the lights went out, something’s telling me it finds it harder to operate.
I know, I know, most people wouldn’t blow a hole through an underwater mountain just to turn off the lights. I had to climb out of the building to get a signal up into space, which wasn’t that hard. Nobody knew I’d struck at Ricca yet. The power was down, as were most electronic communications. I stood there, in the ruins and corpses on the first floor, and pulled up the satellite view.
The Ricca Palace Central Complex, gone, but not the residence wing. The barrier around the island, gone. The Kremlin, gone. The White House, gone. The Great Hall of the People in China, also gone.
I was spent, or I’d have aimed for the United Kingdom, too. As it stands, I took out the two main tools of the Claw’s, and some innocent bystanders who happen to be part of the UN Security Council’s five permanent member states. Or the Empire of Ricca attacked them, as far as everyone knows and I’ll disseminate.
It’s the apocalypse, alright. I always knew I’d have a hand in it. Only, now it’s not half the world aimed at the other half. It’s the world aimed at one specific nation. Ooh, and here some anonymous source from Ricca’s Institute of Science has leaked to the world that Ricca used up all of its available bombs, with no way to replenish their stock. What well-hung devilish rogue did that, I wonder?
It was along the way to pick up Qiang that I confirmed things weren’t over yet. I saw a massive VTOL plane take off from the Palace grounds. Escort helicopters took off with it. The island rumbled around me and I turned to see the giant battle ship had become a giant robot. The choppers engaged, firing missile after ineffective missile. Then it was the Rangers’ turn. The robot’s arms folded in front of it so its outer sides pointed forward. They were the same sides with the broadside cannons, which they put into play with a coordinated barrage that destroyed the Riccan choppers but bounced ineffectually off the escaping plane.
I’m not counting the Claw dead until I see his body, and Qiang and I didn’t see any freaky alien genotypes in the wreckage of the palace. They didn’t kidnap her or anything, which was a count in favor of the Claw being smart. Kidnap the girl I’ve claimed as my daughter? Definitely going after him. Don’t kidnap her? Fifty-fifty, even accounting for my moral peculiarities.
Despite my disappointment, the visit to the ruins made a nice field trip. I had the servants pack us a picnic lunch. We ate it as the island descended into chaos and the Rangers began fighting off loyalists and others who took advantage of the power vacuum to have their way with the innocent.
If only I had a fiddle.