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My name is Greg Brachemann, and it turns out I wasn't actually dead.
I wake up much later, I don't even know how many hours later, after Khanda, the son of a Hindu war god, punched me all the way up to death's door. I think I've actually been conscious for a while before I finally realize it and open my eyes.
There's an older man sitting next to my bed, Latino, black hair but greying, with the golden eyes that all of us demigods seem to have.
"Ah, Senor Brachemann, good day. I'm Dr. Sergio Domingues. We were introduced very briefly earlier today? I am the son of one of the old Aztec gods, Ixtlilton, who governed health. As a result, I'm able to vastly accelerate the healing process. Never bothered to become a superhero like you, sir -- I decided I'd do better with a private practice in Mexico City."
"Thanks for the infodump, man," I say. "I guess this means I didn't get a lucky hit in at the end and knock the big guy out?"
He chuckles at me. "No, my friend, very sorry. It is apparently a double elimination tournament, however, so you're not out of the competition yet."
"Oh, wonderful," I say. "So I get to go through this again. Wait, you're a competitor, too? How did you survive your bout? Or do you have other powers besides healing?"
"I told them I would refuse to compete after watching Senor Khanda fight you," he says. "If I'd realized they were running such an undisciplined affair, I never would've agreed to come in the first place. I'm glad I did now, because there's clearly a need for me here."
"Well, thanks for the repair job," I say, pulling myself to a sitting position. "So how bad was I? I wasn't sure I had any intact bones after the guy hit me the first time, much less the second and third."
"It was very bad, sir," he says. "I don't know if he broke all your bones, but there was significant breakage. He did considerable damage to the rest of you as well. Demigods are quite durable, but I don't think you would have survived long if I hadn't been there. Your entourage was... quite furious."
"Oh, good. I guess you gotta go heal up Khanda now, right?"
"Well, no," he says. "They did move him aside, but he'd already stopped attacking you. They did demand to see whoever was running the tournament to register their disappointment. I'm afraid that earned them no sympathy from the other contestants, who felt they wanted a do-over."
"Pff. I wish Mega had at least kicked Khanda's butt out of the arena."
"I don't think that happened," Dr. Domingues says. "But I was concentrating on getting you stabilized, so I tried to ignore any other distractions. But I believe your entourage was hoping to see you now, is that correct, ladies?"
All five of 'em are standing in the doorway of one of the suites, and once Domingues gives them the upnod, they all hurry in. Squid Kid leads the pack.
"Is he all healed up?" she asks. "Seriously, is he okay, Doc?"
"Yes, he's just fine," Domingues says with a smile. "He wasn't even my most difficult case, believe it or not."
"That's great," Squiddie says.
Then she slugs me in the jaw.
"OH MY GOD, YOU ASSHOLE, WHAT ARE YOU DOING FIGHTING A FUCKING GOD OF WAR!?"
"Well, he was fine," Domingues grumbles.
"Why the hell did I have to sit there and watch one of my friends get murdered by some damned human war machine?" Lenore yells before stomping back out of the suite.
"Okay, the rest of you," I say. "She's the only person who's gonna be allowed to do that. Everyone else can turn around and leave if punching me in the face is on anyone else's mind."
"No way, man," says Piledriver. "I'm glad to see you functional -- definitely don't wanna do anything to jeopardize that."
"Yeah, you've gotten all the punching you're ever gonna need from that Khanda guy," says Hybrid. "Can I apologize on Lenore's behalf?"
"Hell, no," I say. "She has to apologize to me later."
"She was just scared for you, Greg," says Gamma Girl. "And I guess that sometimes translates into punching people in the face."
"I've had way too much of people hitting me in the face," I say.
"I'm completely in agreement," says Miss Mega. "We need to get our stuff packed up so we can leave as soon as possible."
"Wait, who the hell put you in charge?" I ask. "And don't tell me the Cobra did, 'cause being her best pal doesn't make you the boss."
"You came that close to dying," she says. "And there's no guarantee you'll be that lucky the next time you get in the ring with some god-powered psychopath. There's no reason for us to be here, and we should head back to that teleporter room and have them send us back home."
"Wrong answer," I say. "You know what? I'm actually in charge here. I'm the demigod, and you guys are my entourage. And I say we're staying."
"Oh my god, why are you acting like this?" says Hybrid. "You've been acting like a complete dickhead all day!"
"I don't even want to hear it," I say. "I've been getting worse from everyone else."
"You got your ass beat by Khanda," says Piledriver. "I'm not taking the blame for that."
"That's nothing," I say. "That's less than nothing. I had this great big piece of great news about going to the tournament, and everyone reacts like I brought shame on the city. I come up with a list of cool people for my entourage, and almost all of them tell me no way, and too many of them say they don't even like me. You all blame me for people here acting like jerks, for everything being located underground with no malls or beaches or whatever. You let Khanda beat me almost to death, and then you let him walk away. Then Squiddie slugs me, and Mega starts ordering me around like I'm a goddamn halfwit. I'd rather take on the rest of the villains in the tourney than deal with you guys any longer."
They actually shut up for a bit.
"So you see my point, right?" I say.
"I think I see your point," says Miss Mega. "But I disagree with it completely. I'm just trying to think of how to respond without sounding like I'm being insulting."
"Well, that response is kinda insulting on its own, don't you think?" I say.
"Hold on," says Hybrid. "I don't care whether I sound insulting. Greg, you're a complete dickhead almost all the time. That's a huge part of your personality. You've never questioned that in your life. I mean, you've always been pretty proud of your dickheadedness. Don't you ever think any of us can be even half the dickhead you are."
"Oh god," says Gamma Girl. "You guys are worse than my kids. Just listen to yourselves."
"I'm sorry, I do not think I should be here for this, should I?" asks Dr. Domingues. "I feel that I am intruding."
"Hold on, I'll say my piece right now," says Miss Mega. "Listen, this hasn't been a good trip for us so far. It's been stressful -- it's been way beyond stressful for you -- and none of us are reacting the way we normally would, right? I never regretted Cobra volunteering me to come along here, though, and I didn't do anything to Khanda because I was surprised by how he attacked you, and because I was worried about how injured you were, and because he backed off and never got in our way. And finally, I don't think you're a halfwit. I just feel really strongly that there's no way I can keep you safe in that tournament, and if I can't keep you safe, I think that's reason enough for us to get out of here. There, that's it."
"You don't have to keep me safe."
"Yes, I do, Greg," she says.
"This is wonderfully touching," says Cindy Tyrienne from the doorway. I take it she's the concierge for the whole tournament, or at least for whatever resort we're staying in. She's a dish.
"No one asked you, lady," says Piledriver. "This is a private conversation."
"It's also a fairly pointless conversation," Cindy says as she walks into the room. "Mr. Brachemann is required to be here until the end of the tournament. He signed a contract. Besides, the teleporters require an enormous amount of energy to run, so they're powered down entirely when they're not needed, and we won't be firing them up just so the sore losers can make an early exit."
"It sounds like we're being held against our will," says Gamma Girl.
"Take it up with the local authorities," Cindy says. "You can talk to them whenever we send you all back topside, if you can manage to figure out what nation has jurisdiction here."
"Okay, they've been dicks," I say. "But that's much, much dickier. And if it's going to come to that, I don't care about your jurisdictions. There's no nation on Earth where kidnapping is legal."
"So you agree with me now?" says Mega.
"I didn't say that. I'm not convinced this is kidnapping. I just mean, if I decide it is kidnapping, I think I'll be within my rights to go find a car and arrest everyone here."
"Okay, let's start over," says Cindy. "You haven't been kidnapped. We don't mean you any harm. But Greg has signed a legally-binding contract, and firing up the teleporters would be a huge power drain on the facility, and we won't do that without an extremely good reason. All I'm saying is, I'm sorry, but Greg is here for the duration, and I don't think the rest of you want to just abandon him, am I right?"
"I doubt Greg is required to honor any contract in which near-fatal injuries are a likely result," says Gamma Girl.
"I may not be," I say. "But I'm still not ready to leave. I can stick it out."
"Okay, then," says Hybrid. "I don't agree with it, but no, I'm not willing to desert him. He's a jackass, but he's our jackass."
"Alright, I'm willing to accept that as a good thing," I say. "I know it's 'cause none of you can resist my charms."
"And I'm now sorry I said anything," says Hybrid. "Mega or Piledriver, one of you put him back in the hospital."
"I'm glad everything's settled," says Cindy. "I trust you all knew there'll be a formal reception in another hour or so in the grand hall? We took the liberty of making sure everyone had a proper change of clothing -- all tailored to fit, of course. We figured it was unlikely anyone would think to bring dresswear."
"What, a formal reception?" Piledriver asks. "At a combat tourney? Back in the wrestling biz, we'd just make do with a bunch of sammiches and beer in the green room."
"It's also a gathering of genuine demigods," Cindy says as she heads for the door. "We'd be nuts not to try to get them all dancing, right?"
Once she's gone, Piledriver says, "Are we really gonna do this? Sounds messed up."
"Do you wanna sit in your room and watch TV all night?" asks Gamma Girl. "That sounds a lot more screwed up. Besides, I wanna see what outfits they cooked up for us."
So I go get showered and cleaned up -- apparently, getting your clock cleaned by an Indian demigod will really crimp your style. Then I check my closet for my suit. You might know I'm a hell of a nice dresser -- and this is a much better outfit than I'm normally able to get my hands on. Black slacks, tuxedo jacket, golden yellow vest and tie. There's even a brand new pair of sunglasses. I put one of my winged-sandal pins on my lapel, and I'm looking entirely fantastic.
I knock on the other suites. Hybrid yells through the door. "Still getting dressed, Greg! We'll meet you in the grand hall, okay?" What, you think I'm gonna complain about gorgeous superheroes spending extra time to look even more gorgeous than usual? I may not be the smartest guy around, but I sure ain't stupid.
So I head for the grand hall, which is just another big, cavernous stone room, but it's got some nice silk curtains hung on the walls and some tables filled with canapés and champagne and all that. All the other contestants and their entourages are here already. The ones who don't give me the stinkeye when I walk in are the ones who look at me with extreme pity. I'd like to think there's some jealousy, too, because damn, I look good in this tux.
Time to mingle. I head for a couple exceptionally gorgeous ladies chatting with each other -- one a dishy Asian gal wearing a floral-print gown and the other a tall, muscular, dark-complexioned brunette.
"Good evening, ladies," I say. "Could I interest you in switching to a cooler pantheon?"
The brunette looks furious and offended; the Asian girl looks horrified. Not necessarily bad news -- neither one has slapped me yet, and there are lots of other gorgeous women at this reception if they don't want anything to do with me.
But I don't get any more time to work my magic on 'em. The Asian girl gets shooed away by Jennifer "Moonstar" Kalama, a superhero operating out of Honolulu. Her deal is superhuman martial arts and hyper-reflexes. Never knew she was a demigoddess of the moon 'til I got here.
"Dammit, Wheelman, that's my sister," she says. "Don't you dare try to pick up on my sister."
The muscular brunette is steered away by Hercules himself. If you don't know that Hercules' thing is superstrength and basically just being Hercules, I don't know what else to tell you.
"And you'd not have a chance with that one, little demigod of getting spanked," says Herc. "Once you go Greek, you'll never go geek."
"Oh, so classy," says Moonstar. She's wearing a gloriously tight dress colored in the same white and blue as her superhero costume. "And Greg, you're lucky you didn't try this with one of the supervillains' girls -- or god forbid, Khanda. I doubt you want to have another run-in with him today, do you?"
"Truly, though, I am looking forward to my confrontation with that one," says Herc. "Only Pyroclasm could offer me so great a challenge!"
"You haven't even had your first match yet," says Moonstar. "Pride goeth before a fall and all that."
"No other contestant has greater strength than Hercules! Who else could slay the Nemean lion! Who else could destroy the Lernaean hydra! Who else could defeat Zorgannux the Zorceror single-handedly! Who else could hold off an attack by the full membership of the Legion of Malevolence!"
"I remember reading about that," I say. "You were in the hospital for a month, weren't you?"
"He's right," says Moonstar. "Strength alone won't let you beat everything, and there are definitely people here who could beat the snot out of you."
"Well, if there's anyone here who'd know about that, it is certainly Hermes' weakest whelp," says Hercules. "Can your protectors not stand to be seen with you anymore?"
"They're well-wishers, Herc, not protectors" I say. "I asked 'em to come along 'cause I figured it'd be fun. Besides, what sort of gentleman insults people he hasn't even met yet?"
"Dude is not a gentleman," says Moonstar. "Where are your gals anyway?"
"Who you calling 'gals,' bitch?" says Squid Kid as she and Piledriver walk up to us. Lenore's wearing a black dress with a ruffled skirt. I think it's strapless, but she's wearing one of her black leather jackets over it. She's also wearing her black Chucks instead of dress shoes. Piledriver has a red dress, sleeveless, with a long, tight skirt. They both look super-hot, and I'm going to have to remind myself constantly that Laura isn't into guys, and Lenore's like the kid sister I never had.
"Everyone please excuse Squiddie," says Piledriver. "Someone managed to unlock the wet bar in her room."
"Was that what all the punching was about earlier?" I say. "Lenore, I thought you could handle your liquor better than that."
"She probably can," Laura says. "According to my internal chromatograph, the alcohol content of every bottle in the wet bar is almost 20% over what it should be. I'm advising everyone to forgo drinking until I find some liquor that hasn't been spiked."
"Punching?" says Hercules with a grin. "Wheelboy, are you letting your women beat you up, too?"
Squiddie swivels on him, glares like she could strip his skin off with her eyes, and pops all her tentacles.
"Don't try that with me, little girl," says Herc. "I could pull those tentacles completely off you."
"In through your nose," she says quietly. "In through your ears. In through your eyes. I can turn your head inside out from across the room."
Well, the big Greek's smile disappears pretty fast. Nothing kills the party like graphic threats of mutilation, even for an immortal.
"Okay, seriously, Lenore," says Laura. "You are on the wagon for the rest of the trip."
"Too bad for her," says Hybrid as she and Gamma Girl stroll into the hall. "I've got a super-fast healing factor, so I can't even get drunk."
"What's the fun of drinking if you can't get drunk?" says Gamma Girl. "Okay, I had one of those mini-bottles of vodka before I left the room. It has a huge kick."
Hybrid's wearing a green and black dress, off the shoulder, long skirt slit up the side to mid-thigh. She's wearing her mask, too, which makes it almost look like she's attending a masquerade. Gamma Girl has a white dress with blue accents, V neckline, backless. Again, they both look super-hot. Gotta remember, Renee's married, and Hybrid's claws and fangs would scare me to death. Gotta remember, gotta remember.
"Hybrid," says Moonstar coolly.
"Moonstar," Hybrid says, just as coolly.
"You two know each other?" I ask.
"Took a trip to Hawaii a while back," says Hybrid. "Someone wasn't welcoming to the tourists."
"All I knew was there was a monster-girl chasing a mugger," says Moonstar. "I chose to attack the most obvious threat."
"Kick her ass, Hybrid," says Squiddie.
"Hush up," says Hybrid. "You're drunk, and you'll feel bad about this whole thing later."
"What do you think of the dresses, girls?" asks Gamma Girl.
"It's not bad," says Piledriver. "Not a big fan of pencil skirts, though. Too hard to move around."
"Mine's pretty good," says Moonstar, "The fabric is just --"
"No one asked you," Squiddie says.
"Lenore, I actually did ask her, remember?" says GG.
"Fine," Squiddie grumbles. That alcohol must be really, really strong. I've hung out with her plenty of times at clubs, and she doesn't turn into a belligerent drunk until she's really, really sauced. Our phones may not be able to communicate with the outside world, but they work just fine here, so I text Dr. Domingues (Yeah, of course I already got his number) and ask him if he'd be able to sober Lenore up without tipping her off.
"Anyway, it's a really nice dress," says Moonstar. "The fabric feels great, and it makes me a little nervous that the fit is so perfect. I didn't mean to offend, Lenore -- I hope you're happy with your dress, too."
"Whatever," she says. "It's alright, but I hate sleeveless tops, so I'm glad I brought my good jacket. Hated the shoes, too -- mine are a lot better."
"This one's kinda cool," says Hybrid. "Never wore a slit skirt before. Kinda wish they'd gone with colors that didn't match our costumes, but at least it works with the mask."
"Okay, this dress?" says Gamma Girl with a grin. "I am stealing this dress. I don't care if they want it back. I am absolutely taking it with me. Dan is going to love this dress."
"Are we not allowed to take 'em with us?" asks Moonstar. "I'd steal mine, too."
"Okay, listen, ladies," I say. "Let's get down to the important stuff. Are you not going to tell Herc and me how great we look?"
"Yes, boys," Hybrid says. "Your tuxes are very nice -- and almost completely identical."
"Oh, you are not giving us enough credit for being so sexy," I say, and we all enjoy derisively snorting at me. Even though they probably actually agree with me.
And then Hercules pops his eyes open like he's been junkpunched by the Cretan Bull and whispers, "Oh, great thundering Zeus," and we all turn around to see what's up.
Miss Mega's just walked in. She's wearing a classic little black dress.
Everything gets dead quiet. And I don't mean it's like everything's dead quiet because I'm focused on her to the exclusion of all other sensory input. I mean everyone in the hall shuts the hell up.
She walks up to our group, looking simultaneously gorgeous and intensely uncomfortable. She's wearing her domino mask, along with the gloves and boots from her costume -- they work surprisingly well with her outfit. Or it could be that you'd be crazy to find fault with her mask, gloves, and boots right now.
"If you guys don't stop staring at me like that, you're going to give me a complex," she says quietly.
I'd like to tell you that I immediately broke eye contact and apologized profusely. What I actually said was, "Whhaa. Buuuh. Hmmm?"
I'd also like to tell you that the rest of my entourage backhanded me and chastised me for being a raging douchebag. But they were basically saying the same things I was.
Listen, it's not like Miss Mega is supernaturally beautiful. I've met people who actually do have magical or metahuman qualities that make them more physically beautiful than any normal human could be. There are people out there with superhuman levels of charisma and sex appeal. And in all seriousness, Miss Mega isn't one of those people.
But she is gorgeous. She's got a fantastic body. And the fact that she's over eight feet tall, one of the strongest people on Earth, and wearing a little black dress -- it all makes it just about impossible to take your eyes off her.
She looks disappointed in all of us. Part of me genuinely feels bad about that. The rest of me is still running in hominahominahomina mode.
She looks off to one side and frowns. "Oh, I need to talk to that guy," she says. "Wait for me here. And close your damn mouths, for god's sake."
Once she walks away, Gamma Girl reaches over and flicks me in the ear with her finger.
"Ow, quit it!"
"Shush," she says. "And pass it along. Can't believe we're so embarrassing."
She's right. I start to tap Hybrid in the head but decide I don't want to risk her losing her temper on me, so I tap Squiddie instead.
It's not long before most of us are rubbing our ears and looking embarrassed. Laura's not back with us yet -- she's staring into space, twitching every couple of seconds, and emitting a constant high-pitched humming noise. Lenore says she's gone "Blue Screen of Death," whatever that means.
"God, this is so embarrassing," groans Hybrid. "I'm like a billion percent straight."
Meanwhile, Megs walks right up to Khanda and says, "It was pointed out to me that I really should've cleaned your clock earlier today."
Khanda looks nervous, his entourage of Indian supermodels looks nervous, and really, everyone around him looks nervous.
"I'm sorry," he says. "I don't think I know that expression."
Miss Mega sighs, leans forward, and says, "It means I should hit you as hard as I can, so we can see how you like having multiple broken bones and organ failures."
He actually takes that better than I would've expected.
"If you are asking if I regret hurting your patron," he says. "I do, deeply, and I intend to make my apologies to him immediately, if you'll please, please not hit me."
She says sure, and he apologizes to me. It's sincere as hell, and I tell him we're cool.
And then we all sit around and chat for a few hours. Khanda confesses to a serious error in judgment when he hit me so hard -- he seemed to be under the impression that I was a speedster, so he had to put me down fast before I could recover. Moonstar tells about her match against the Green Woman, a plant-controlling Egyptian superhero who's the daughter of Hathor. The Blue Dragon, a water-wizard supervillain who operates out of the UK, stops by -- he's a lot more charming and less psychotic than seems to be the standard for the villains at this tournament.
And everyone keeps trying to check out Miss Mega without making her angry enough to pitch someone across the room. Heck, even Squiddie and me are laying off the cheesy pickup lines tonight -- and we have so many cheesy pickup lines -- just to avoid giving Hercules or Pyroclasm the impression that they've got permission to grab her butt or something. But it's so damn hard -- I mean, it's so damn difficult -- because oh my freaking god, she's wearing a smoking hot black dress and my lizardbrain wants me to say and do all kinds of stuff every time I look at her...
The thing is, after about an hour of this, I'm just completely exhausted from the stress of keeping myself from doing and saying things I'll regret.
And I'm not the only one either -- Piledriver has been having these blue-screen problems really often. She'll reboot and settle back to normal for a few minutes, then she'll stare for too long at Megs and go into overload again. Laura's as big a horndog as I am, at least where Miss Mega is concerned, but this is way less fun for her. She's been sitting in the corner away from everyone, and she still can't help seizing up every little bit.
Gamma Girl and I finally take pity on her and help her back to her room. Good thing, too -- she suffers another system crash on the way there, and we have to lean her against a wall until she reboots again.
"This is just the worst thing ever," Laura says when we finally get her back to her room. "I mean, sure, she's hotter than a fur coat in Death Valley, but even then, I shoulda been fine after the first crash. To keep crashing over and over like that, just 'cause I'm horny -- it's just humiliating. I should run some system diagnostics and see if I need to tweak some sensory output down. Definitely need to get Uncle Aggy to check over the hardware when I get back home..."
I wait out in the hallway while Renee makes sure Laura's going to be able to get to bed without having another blue-screen incident. My lizardbrain is still working overtime, though. Still thinking about Megs, plus now I'm thinking about Laura and Megs. And I'm also thinking about Laura and Renee, 'cause hey, radioactive blue babe helping a cyborg lesbian get undressed. Probably having a ticklefight right now.
And then it's like my lizardbrain has gotten overstimulated and starts thinking about rational stuff again, because it's telling me this entire tournament, ever since we got here, has been weirder than I really realized, and it's telling me I better start trying to figure out what's up to make sure the lizardbrain survives to make inappropriate remarks another day.
After a few minutes, Renee comes back out. "She's okay," she says. "All tucked in and running her diagnostics, I guess."
"Did you have a ticklefight?" I ask.
"No, Greg," she says, rolling her eyes. "We did not have a ticklefight."
"Did you try to have a ticklefight?"
"No, we did not."
"Tell me about how you got her undressed."
"Oh god, Greg, just stop it."
"Was there at least a bad touch?"
"I am going to make you sterile if you don't shut up."
"Do you still talk to your imaginary friend all the time?"
"Sparky Isotope is real," she says. "And don't you start adding him into your sleazy fantasies."
"Tell him to find me a car," I say. "No way anyone can run a facility this large without the use of something with four tires, a motor, and a steering wheel."
She looks at me funny for a minute, then says, "Do what he says, Sparky. Yeah, I know. Be careful and come right back."
We start walking back toward the big banquet hall. "You want me to let you know as soon as he gets back?" she asks.
"Probably not," I say. "Especially if we're still at the reception. No reason to publicize what we find out, right? We'd probably get yelled at for snooping around without permission. But I'd like to hear as soon as I can. Too much weird stuff going on around here, and I'm really getting tired of not being behind the wheel on this whole caper."
The rest of the evening is pretty mundane, really. Hey, I go partying around the world. A formal reception with a bunch of demigods? This barely counts as socializing.
On the way back to our suites, Gamma Girl nods my way. "I heard back from Sparky," she says.
"Good to hear," I say. But I don't want her to tell me anything yet -- everyone else is leaving the reception at the same time, and I don't want anyone overhearing. "Put a note under my door. Sound cool?"
She gives me a thumbs up, and we all go back into our rooms. I get out of my tux and take a shower, and by the time I'm out of the bathroom, there's a neatly folded sheet of paper just under the door into GG's suite. It's got a pretty clear map drawn on it with a scribbled note: "Six cars -- delivery buggies and one small truck. Minimal guards. Will try to figure out way to take you there tomorrow."
Sounds good to me. I go hit the hay, and I dream of Miss Mega the whole night long.
Morning eventually comes, and the lizardbrain is still a little antsy from crude but unfulfilling dreams. We order breakfast in our suites so we can all talk in private and plan out the day. Laura is much improved -- her diagnostic scans turned up nothing unusual, and she apologizes for making a scene. Miss Mega tells her all is forgiven. I tell her she had nothing to apologize for, since we were all thinking the same thing.
Mega glares at me. I wink at her. Yeah, the lizardbrain is probably gonna get me into trouble all day.
Anyway, I tell everyone I want to get my hands on one of the cars in the facility, and Gamma Girl tells everyone what Sparky snooped out. We've just started talking about whether I should sneak down to the motor pool or whether someone should sneak a car up to the arena floor when we get the word that they've announced the next round of combats -- and guess who's on the chopping block first?
Whoever's running this is really good at giving me no chance to prepare or plan. Gotta be at the arena in 30 minutes. No plan to think of fancy strategies, no time to find and raid the motor pool. It's a damn good thing I don't intend to actually fight anyone at this point.
Even then, they try to make it hard for me. I hadn't registered my intention of refusing to fight prior to the announcement of the next round, like Dr. Domingues did, so I have to be in the arena, and I have to announce that I forfeit after the match actually begins.
They're definitely not giving me any easy opponents. I got massacred by Khanda in the first round -- you'd think they'd give me someone less terrifying for the second. Maybe a fellow hero or at least one of the non-psycho villains?
Nope, nope, nope. I gotta get matched up with Pyroclasm.
So let's summarize: Me, son of Hermes, god of travel, completely not allowed to have a car in the arena. Pyroclasm, son of Ruaumoko, Maori god of volcanoes, totally allowed to spew lava all over the damn place. I'm starting to get the impression that these people really do want me dead.
So there I am in the middle of that arena with this 12-foot-tall behemoth -- rocky black skin, red lava cracks all over him, face like a volcano, complete with an open, blazing caldera at the top and a leering monster face looming down over me. He's rumbling some sort of horrible threats I can't understand 'cause I don't speak Dutch. Why a Maori god begat a kid in the Netherlands, I have no idea. I guess I shouldn't find fault -- it's not like Brachemann is a Greek name, right?
The guy can crack the earth open and throw molten lava everywhere. Hell, he could tip his head over and bury me in magma. He might be as strong as Hercules, which puts him way out of my weight class.
And if I had a car -- any car -- I'd completely own him. No car I drive would even get its paint singed by him. No windshield glass would crack or melt, no tires would rupture. He'd have no chance in the world, and I know exactly how it'd go.
I'd drive straight at him, let him vent his heat uselessly at the car, then hit the brakes, spin the wheel, go into a sideways skid. The back door would open and by utterly unlikely, impossible chance, he'd end up in the back seat, all 12 feet of him, face first, wondering what the hell is happening. And I'd turn on the air conditioner full-blast, which is a hell of a lot colder than you'd believe when I'm behind the wheel. Near-instant Pyroclasm-sicle in the back seat, all while I stayed nice and toasty in the driver's seat, thanks to awesome seat warmers.
But I don't have a car, so I walk away.
Even then, I kinda expected him to try to kill me. For a second, he looked like he was going to do his usual thing where he summons up a surge of magma from deep under the earth -- but then he just stopped. He looked pissed, but he stopped, and he didn't hit me with lava or his giant rocky fists. So, there was some good news.
But the jackasses in the audience still jeer at me. Come on, guys, it's not like it'd even be a good show if I tried to fight him.
So I leave the arena, my Metro City crew follow behind, and while everyone else focuses on the next contestants -- Windshear, supervillain demigoddess of the wind, vs. Thunderbird, supervillain demigod of thunder -- we all take a stroll unnoticed down a maintenance corridor to find the motor pool.
Yeah, the motor pool has some maintenance men and a few guards. But I give 'em a line of patter about how much I love cars and how I'd heard great things about the vehicles they had here, and Ms. Tyrienne gave me permission to check things out. I'm good with patter, and they don't even think to question it. Hell, I'm a celebrity, and no one ever stops celebrities from doing what they want.
I head for the truck in the back. It's not a big truck, but the delivery buggies just aren't gonna do it for me right now. I open the door and get behind the wheel. "Anyone else want in?" I say. "Come on -- there's a passenger seat and a little room in the back seat."
"Are you gonna expand this so all of us will fit, like you did when you drove us to Olympus?" asks Hybrid.
"No can do," I say. "Last time, I had the benefit of using a car that was also a shapeshifting robot. Doing something like that to a normal car is a whole lot harder, even for me. Besides, for now, I don't want to attract any more attention than I have to."
As Hybrid gets in the passenger seat and Squiddie crawls in the back seat, I say, "The rest of you, gather around close. I'd like us to chat, and I don't want the guards to hear us too easily."
Miss Mega takes a knee next to the driver's side window, while Gamma Girl and Piledriver peer in the passenger window next to Hybrid.
"First of all, have you noticed how few really powerful demigods there are here?" I say. "Khanda, Hercules, Pyroclasm, they're all Class-A types, right? Then you got a bunch of standard superheroes and supervillains -- Moonstar, Hopeless, Thunderbird, the Green Woman, et cetera. And you've got two private citizens -- Dr. Domingues is a top-notch healer, but he's just not a fighter. Same with the rainmaker from China. She travels around making it rain for crops. She doesn't get into super-battles, and it'd be insane to bring her to a combat tournament."
"Not to mention bringing in a guy who calls himself the Greatest Driver in the World and then telling him he's not allowed to bring a car into the arena," says Squid Kid. "Not to, you know, impugn your fighting skills or anything, Greg."
"No, it's cool," I say. "I'm not the kind of guy who gets into fistfights with bad guys. Inviting me here was great for my ego, but it's just nuts, isn't it?"
"Maybe," says Hybrid. "But only because they handicapped you from the beginning. I wouldn't have expected them to ban you from using a car in these battles."
"Hey, there's still room in the back," I say. "Renee, climb on back there."
"You sure?" she says. "We'll be totally cramped in there." But she climbs into the back seat next to Squiddie.
"Anyway, what's interesting is how many other demigods they could've brought in," I say. "Rubicon. The Glimmer. Shakti. Zoom Goon. Those guys are all tough as nails. They're all fantastic fighters. They're all way more formidable than people like Windshear and Hopeless. None of them got invited here. And they didn't invite a single demigod of wisdom or trickery. When was the last time you heard of Dr. Alpha losing a fight with anyone?"
"Wait, Dr. Alpha is a demigod?" asks Miss Mega.
"Daughter of Saraswati, Hindu goddess of knowledge," I say. "If they'd invited Dr. Alpha, she'd already have won this tournament and enslaved us all in one of her Alpha Forges."
"So maybe they're just setting up a few jobbers -- um, you know, low-level guys -- to make the heavies look cool," says Piledriver. "That's how we'd do things in the wrestling biz."
"Do you think maybe they're filming the whole thing secretly?" asks Lenore. "That way no one tries to play to the cameras too much?"
"If they did that, they'd get sued," I say. "No one gets on reality TV without signing waivers. Hey, Laura, there's no reason for you to strain your mechanical spine leaning through the window. Jump in the back seat."
"The spine's actually mostly biological, remember?" Piledriver says, opening the door to crawl into the back. "And you're high if you think three of us are gonna fit back here."
"So I don't get the scheme," says Gamma Girl. "If they're just trying to make a few of the contestants look really powerful, they're doing it all wrong. They shouldn't be doing this in a hidden facility. It should be in public so everyone can watch. And the contestants don't make anyone look all that powerful. Hercules wouldn't look like a badass if he fought Mrs. Wenxia. He'd look like a bully."
"Who's Mrs. Wenxia?" I ask.
"Luo Wenxia," says Hybrid. "That's the Chinese rain controller whose name you keep forgetting. She's a very nice lady, and you ought to go say hi at some point."
"Oh, pretty lady, you know I love my entourage too much to go hang out with mere demigods."
"Such a douchebag, Greg," says Miss Mega.
I look up at her and give her a grin and a wink. "Get in the back seat, Mega."
"Right, there's already three people back there," she says. "And I'd probably break the suspension or something."
"Not that back seat," I say. "The back back seat."
They finally look behind them.
"Is that really a third seat back there?" asks Piledriver. "How is that even possible?"
"I thought you said you couldn't do that to a non-shapeshifting car," says Hybrid.
"No, I said it was a lot harder," I say. "Which is why I needed to spend a little time working on it. Now, get in the damn truck, Miss Mega, before those guards notice what's up."
She opens the door and gets in. "Oh my god, there's headroom," she says. "And legroom. Can I have this car when you're done with it?"
"Buckle up," I say, starting the engine. "And roll up your windows."
"Hey, what are you doing?" yells one of the guards. "Stop where you are! Stop or we'll shoot!"
Fire away, idiots. Go ahead and shoot at the newly bulletproof triple-seater supertruck. I back up and take off down one of the adjoining corridors.
These corridors aren't anything like the corridors where our rooms were located, by the way. These are much bigger, more industrial, more roughly rock-hewn. These aren't meant to be seen by us tourists -- these are meant to be used by a large staff of workers -- or soldiers, I guess.
"Oh god, Greg, we're going to get in so much trouble," says Gamma Girl.
"You better believe it," I say. "That's where all the fun happens."
"What the hell is this all about, Greg?" says Lenore. "We could've talked about all that stuff back in our rooms. I don't think there was any need to steal a car."
"I felt like taking a drive," I say. "And I want to test out a theory. Did you guys notice anything funny about Pyroclasm?"
"He's a giant lava monster?" says Piledriver. "Doesn't seem very funny at all."
"It was weird that he didn't attack you," says Miss Mega. "I was just about to jump down there when he just walked away. That isn't really his style."
"Right," I say. "For a guy willing to sink every island in the Pacific just to make one mega-volcano, he was weirdly reluctant to crack the floor open and flood us all with lava."
"Mind control, maybe?" says Squiddie. "It might also explain all the weird behavior around this place."
"I don't think so," I say. "They've tried mind control on him in the past, right? Figured they'd stop him from blowing up Japan by telepathically shutting his brain down."
"I remember that," says Miss Mega. "It turns out his brain is basically a pool of liquid rock, and the telepaths couldn't make solid contact with his mind."
"See, the thing is, I think Pyroclasm was just about to turn the arena into a giant volcano," I tell them. "He had that look on his face, those red veins in his hide were burning brighter -- and then he just stopped. Why? I think he wasn't able to make contact with any lava."
"I don't think I buy that," says Gamma Girl. "If he can pull lava up through miles of the Earth's crust, he'd definitely be able to get through the walls of this facility. I don't care how thick they are."
"Well, this is where we test out my theory," I say. "Because according to the truck's GPS --"
"Since when did this truck have GPS?" asks Piledriver.
"Girl, who's driving the car?" says Squiddie, rolling her eyes.
"According to the truck's GPS," I continue, "We should be just about to the door leading out of this place."
We turn around the curve of the corridor, and sure enough, there's a gigantic metal door, about 20 feet tall and 40 feet wide. It's surrounded by caution signs and spinning alarm lights, and it definitely looks like something no one wants to get opened easily.
I don't know if this truck had a garage door opener before, but I check under the visor, and it does now. I hit the button, and the door swings slowly open.
"Ffffuck," says Squid Kid.
Yeah, it's my first time on the moon, too.
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