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I find myself switched back online, and it takes me a moment to catch up on what happened.
Last I remember, Metro City was in the midst of what we call a dogpile -- a bunch of supervillain teams attacking the city at once, usually organized by some other villain pulling their strings.
Silver Protector Kumiko and I had been arguing on the roof of a convenience store. Something blew up the roof of the store -- or at least the corner of the roof we were sitting on. After that, it's a complete blank until now.
I update my internal chronometer -- one hour, 22 minutes, and 14.62 seconds have passed.
So where am I now? I'm not at all sure. I'm inside of a transparent force bubble -- I can move around freely, but I can tell I'm not going to be able to bust through it. I tap it experimentally a couple of times -- it feels like a hard plastic shell, but it also has a bit of an electrical snap to it. Fairly typical force bubble, I hate to say.
The force bubble and I are in the middle of a large room filled with high-tech gear. Everything's decorated in a skull-and-crossbones motif. And the guards on the edges of the room are wearing black jumpsuits and white skull masks.
So it looks like I've been captured by the forces of S.K.U.L.L.
This is very embarrassing, because S.K.U.L.L. has got to be the stupidest global terror/crime paramilitary organization on the planet. How dumb are they? S.K.U.L.L. stands for "Society for Konquest, Unlawfulness, Larceny, and Lying." Yes, they picked the name solely so they could make a cool acronym. And yes, everyone makes fun of them so much that they try to never mention it anymore.
Still, for a bunch of idiots, they are a lot more successful than they should be. And they sure caught my super-genius robot ass plenty quick, didn't they?
I wave at one of the guards. "Hey, bonehead, let me out of this thing, okay?" They hate it when you call them boneheads, so of course, everyone does it.
"No," the guard says. "And be more respectful."
"May I call you guys boners instead?" They hate it even more when you call them boners.
"You should call us Soldiers of the Immortal S.K.U.L.L." says the other guard.
"That's not going to happen," I tell them. "But maybe if you let me out I'll reconsider. That would be very respectful, don't you think?"
"No, we're not going to let you out," says the first guard. "We're not nearly as stupid as everyone likes to say."
"Can't blame a guy for trying," I shrug.
The second guard pulls out a skull-shaped walkie-talkie. "The prisoner is awake, sir."
"Excellent!" says a voice from the radio. "This is a moment of great triumph for the forces of S.K.U.L.L.!"
The door slides open, and a man dressed similarly to the guards -- just with a cape, a more ornate black jumpsuit and a silver skull mask -- rushes into the room.
"We can sell this robot off to the government, to corporations, to the highest bidder!" he cackles. "We'll make millions!"
Wow, I'm impressed. Who knew the Supreme Skull would already be paying a visit to our fair city? S.K.U.L.L.'s operations here must be more important than we suspected.
"And with those millions, we'll be able to fund expanded operations, new projects, crimes beyond imagining, new wars, mad science to bend the world's will to ours! We might even kidnap and auction off some more of these superhero robots!"
"Please zip it, Supreme Boner," I say. "I don't know how you managed to capture me, but you'd better let me go before the rest of the city's heroes track my location. And you'd better pray Silver Protector Kumiko isn't badly injured, or the Council of Thaumaturges is going to burn you down to your real skeleton."
"Oh, don't worry your tin-plated head about the anime girl," the Supreme Skull says, waving a hand dismissively. "We knocked her out, but we didn't bring her with us. As for how we captured you -- a simple electrico-neural disruptor bomb temporarily knocked out the brains of everyone, organic and inorganic, in a two-block radius, and we loaded you into a S.K.U.L.L. T.R.U.C.K. easy as you please. And I wouldn't hold out much hope for the superpowered agents of law and order to mount any rescue for you."
"Yeah, you might get a surprise on that point, pal," I say.
"Oh, you expect them to track you using that broadcast chip inside your head, don't you?" he laughs. "Yes, we know all about that little failsafe. It might be helpful if you'd been grabbed by the police or even a fairly large corporation, but S.K.U.L.L. has resources you'll never dream of. We learned about your chip quite easily, and this facility is designed to prevent its signals from going beyond these walls."
Well, that's just stellar. The tracking chip was kinda my ace-in-the-hole in case I ever got taken into custody by the police, the government, or some megacorp. The idea was for it to activate and then broadcast a signal to the other superheroes in Metro City so they could find me and spring me. Wasn't even my idea, originally. Penitente came up with the idea, and the Chrome Cobra ordered me to design it, build it, and install it.
I was pretty damn sure that was a secret. I hope it's just these schmucks who know about it, and not every other cop and supervillain on the planet.
"Well, I don't know what to say to that," I tell him. "This may be the first time that you S.K.U.L.L. screwups have ever managed to do something right."
"Oh, don't sprain your little binary brain, tin man," laughs the Supreme Skull. "If it comforts you to think that we're screwups, you just go ahead. We have successes that you never even hear about, and you can expect us to be idiots right up to the point where we take over the world, if it makes you feel any better."
"You," I say slowly, "Are kind of an asshole, aren't you?" I hate it that this idiot is getting on my nerves. Him and his stupid skull mask and his stupid skull voice and his stupid skull sticking-me-in-a-force-bubble
"Aww, you mad, bro?" he giggles. Man, I am hating this guy more and more by the second.
"We engineered everything today just to get our hands on you," he says. "We sponsored the dogpile that's been keeping you guys on the run all day. We invited all the players, paid 'em some cash, pointed them at some juicy targets, all to get you guys tired and distracted so S.K.U.L.L. could capture you. It worked like a dream, better than we ever planned. You Metro City heroes are all kinda Z-list, aren't you?"
"Yeah, sure, whatever," I say. "We're so Z-list, you're just gonna turn me over to GE or Boeing or whoever pays you a couple million. And then they'll laugh at you because you were so damn cheap."
"Oh, should we start the bidding higher? You know I'm willing to make a little extra cash."
"I'm not surprised you'd only care about the money," I say. "But I wasn't expecting you to just give up the chance to use the technology from the orichalcumite battery for yourself."
"The oricha-whatzis?" says the Supreme Skull.
"Orichalcumite battery," I repeat. "You know, the miracle power source that keeps me running? Not to mention the impenetron armor and trinary machine codes. Hard to believe you'd just hand that over to the government instead of using it to create your own war machines.
"Wait, trinary?" he asks, perplexed. "That's one more than binary. I bet the Ophidian Union has never even heard of that."
"Sir?" says one of the guards. "Exalted Supreme Skull, sir? I don't know if you should be listening to him."
"Silence!" the Supreme Skull bellows. "Do not question the judgment and wisdom of the Most Ossified of Craniums!"
"Hey, I know what you're thinking," I say. "But orichalcumite isn't something I want you guys getting your bony hands on. It would be disastrous for the whole world!"
"Say no more!" he exults. "Guards! Deactivate the force bubble!"
Alright, fun time.
"But first, fire up the mega-magnet!"
"There's a low hum, a magnetic field activates at my feet, and I crumple to the ground. The force bubble vanishes with a crackle, and the Supreme Skull is leaning over me to gloat.
"At last," he cackles. "Soon, all that insanely powerful super-technology will belong to S.K.U.L.L.! There will be no force on Earth strong enough to stop us! The nations of the world will fall before us, and I will rule everything! Everything! And we will owe it all to you, you stupid, loudmouthed robot!"
"You guys really are monumentally stupid," I say. "I'm not made of metal at all."
I give it 1.0072 seconds to sink in, then I slug him in the forehead and throw myself off the floor before the guards can reactivate the force bubble.
The Supreme Skull goes rolling on the floor screaming angrily, and the guards turn the force bubble back on -- 2.0902 seconds too late. They do manage to hit a klaxon alarm, which will probably lead to some serious complications as far as getting myself out of here safely.
I barrel across the floor at the guards, shifting my body into a rolling mass of rattling, roaring wheels. I smash into both of them as hard as I can, bounce them off the walls and the floor a couple of times, and get ready to get through the door and into the hallway when I realize the marching bootsteps I hear on the other side of the door are way, way too close.
I yank the mask off one of the guards and pull it over my own head just as the door opens, leaving me face to face with a dozen S.K.U.L.L. troops.
"There's that shapeshifting robot!" I shout, pointing at the Supreme Skull. "Apprehend him immediately!"
They really are absolute morons. They actually point their rifles at him, even though I haven't yet shifted into a bipedal form.
I don't dare give them a chance to catch on. I hammer my way through all of them and race down the hallway.
"Stop him!" the Supreme Skull shrieks behind me. "Activate... Defense Option Skull Zeta Nine!"
I keep zipping down the hallway, adopting a form lower to the ground to improve my speed and stay below their eye level. I'd really like to find an exit to this complex before I have to find out what Defense Option Skull Zeta Nine is.
No such luck. The next door I charge through opens into a large room chock full of tall, thin, metal-jacketed, black-garbed, black-masked figures.
Robot ninjas. No kidding, man.
The good thing about robot ninjas is they're actually less trouble than flesh-and-blood ninjas. They can't do stealth, they aren't supernaturally nimble, they break easily, and they clank.
The bad thing about robot ninjas is that they have high-quality composite titanium ninja swords. And there are 30 of them.
I am not a big fan of these odds.
And definitely not a fan of the 30 sets of razor-sharp swords swinging after me.
Not much to do but pinwheel backwards and escape into the hallway again, but one of the S.K.U.L.L soldiers slams the door shut, leaving me trapped against the wall and, well, skewered by 30 swords. I don't technically feel pain, but nevertheless... ouch.
Torso, head, arms, legs, crotch. I know, I know, I don't even have anything down there that could be injured. It still kinda bugs me that they were programmed so poorly. No proper ninja would ever go for nonlethal attacks like that.
So there I am, pinned like Toshiro Mifune at the end of "Throne of Blood" (You don't even get that reference, do you? Humans are such philistines.), twitching at the end of way too many ninja swords, completely helpless and immobile.
Yeah, right. Shapeshifting is the best superpower ever.
So I disassemble myself. "Hey, wait, Mr. Dashing Robot Superhero, I thought it took you hours to put yourself back together after you got taken to pieces?" Well, yeah, when someone blows me apart, it's pretty traumatic. But it's another thing entirely when I'm in control of the process. It's just another way of re-configuring myself into new forms.
So like I said, I disassemble myself. I fall to pieces at the ninja robots' feet, leaving many of them with their swords stuck into the wall, then immediately spring into a fairly flat shape with four chainsaw arms. I saw through a few ninja legs, but of course, the ones who still had swords start sticking them into me again.
I keep cutting 'til I've got four of them legless and flopping on the ground. By then, the rest of them have me pinned to the floor. After that, I unspool the chains on the chainsaws into thin metal tentacles and start whipping them around to knock even more of them off their feet. I manage to disable another four of them that way, then change tactics again.
This time I roll myself up into a ball with a circumference of 2.2343002304 meters and start spinning and bouncing around the room. Remember that a bunch of these ninjabots have swords stuck through me, which means that they lose a lot of swords. And I gain a lot of swords, too, so I'm now a ball with a circumference of 2.2343002304 meters and 14 swords. It takes 28.4 seconds for me to cut their numbers down from 22 to 8. Not bad for a non-ninjabot.
And with that success rate, do you think for a moment that I change tactics? Hell no. Gearbox-Sword-Slinging-Bouncy-Ball for the win. Just 20.392 seconds later, and I've got all the ninja robots eliminated. You know anyone else who can beat up over two dozen ninja-bots? No, trust me, you don't. Tell your friends and family of my badassery, okay? I need the good publicity.
While I'm congratulating myself, I hear someone doing a slow clap behind me. I spin around, shifting into my default bipedal form.
"Nicely done, my friend," says the Supreme Skull, surrounded by the rest of his S.K.U.L.L. soldiers. "We're going to make so many wonderful war machines out of the technology we harvest from you."
"Dream on, Supreme Bonehead," I tell him. "I just took down 30 of your ninja-bots single-handedly. I doubt the rest of you stand a chance."
"You should consider any so-called ninja-bots a mere distraction," he says. "While you fought them, you never considered that we might bring to bear the weapon that allowed us to capture you in the first place. Had you already forgotten the electrico-neural disruptor bomb?"
There's a bright, paralyzing flash of light.
"Alright, Soldiers of the Immortal S.K.U.L.L., remove your protective earplugs and let's get this robot packaged up," says the Supreme Skull. "And prepare the celebratory S.K.U.L.L. P.A.R.T.Y. so we can commemorate this great victory!"
"I wouldn't break out the Funyuns and sticky buns just yet, guys," I say.
"What?!" the Supreme Skull sputters amusingly. "But the disruptor bomb completely disrupted you before! It shut you down mere hours ago! How is this even possible?!"
"Seriously," I say. "Do you have any idea how fast a computer brain like mine is? As soon as I came back online, I started working on isolating your disruptor frequencies and creating new defenses against them. I'd done that before I even got out of your force bubble. Just because you can't walk and chew gum at the same time doesn't mean some of us can't fight robot ninjas and work on other battle tactics and strategies. Some of us even manage to work out the signal jammers you've been using to block me from calling the rest of the city's superheroes."
"And guess who's been broadcasting a functioning GPS data packet to the police, feds, emergency services, and local heroes for the past three minutes, 18.63 seconds, Supreme Boner."
"I'm sick of your face, robot," he says. "S.K.U.L.L. troops, shoot this smartass robot as many times as you can."
After that, several things happen very quickly, over the course of just 1.8 seconds.
First, 46 energy rifles are raised and pointed at me. Survivable for me, but it'll hurt... and really, if they keep shooting long enough, maybe it's not survivable.
Second, there's an explosion of fairy dust, flower petals, and lute music, and Silver Protector Kumiko teleports right next to me.
Third, the S.K.U.L.L. troops pause, confused.
Fourth, Kumiko wraps an arm around me and picks me up. Jeez, lady, I know I'm kinda short, but what a way to humiliate a guy.
Fifth, the S.K.U.L.L. troops raise their rifles again. Their fingers tighten on the triggers.
Sixth, Kumiko says, very quickly, "reallyrapidteleport."
After that, things get really strange.
My chronometer becomes... inaccurate. I start measuring the elapsed time as everything from 14 picoseconds to 38 hours to... fuchsia. Pretty sure you can't measure time in fuchsia.
There's also some... irregular sensory inputs? Unearthly phenomena? Distressing malfunctions? I'm not used to being at a loss for words about my own programming and hardware, but there's a lot of confusing stuff going on. Rivers that float in mid-air, a spherical pyramid, the fourteen secret prime numbers between 223 and 227, a lobster that speaks French and identifies itself as my totem animal, the disembodied taste of banana crème pie.
I don't have a working mouth or taste buds. How can I identify the taste of bananas, crème, or pie?!
Right about the time the immense eye-covered teakettles start shuddering their way out of the all-encompassing darkness of the outer universe to sing songs about cleaning the cloakroom and dissolving the minds of all sentient beings in acid, there's a flash of rose-scented light, and we're back outside, surrounded by the other superheroes of Metro City.
A quick check of GPS places us across the street from the building that used to house the Ancient Anthropology Museum, and my internal chronometer updates itself to 0.000002 seconds after Kumiko teleported us.
"Gearbox is out and okay, Cobra," Kumiko says. "Looks like a full S.K.U.L.L. installation in there, too. Don't know if they'll know we're coming in, but I wouldn't be surprised if they suspect."
"Thanks, Kumiko," says Cobra. "Gearbox, how fast can you give us a report on what's inside?"
I decide to save my questions about the apparent teleportation-induced hallucinations for a bit later.
"Well, I had a fairly complete report encoded in the data packet I was broadcasting earlier, but I guess I'll assume you haven't gotten it all downloaded yet. It's a large contingent of soldiers inside, at least 300 troops on site, maybe more. They've got something called an electrico-neural disruptor --"
"We're aware of it," Cobra says. "It's been reported at other S.K.U.L.L. hideouts, and the effect it had on Kumiko confirmed it was here. Defender has already fabricated inner ear protectors for all of us."
"Good to know I'm always useful, darlings," Defender sings. "The incredibly advanced technology of a trans-cosmic security force is always best used for earplug manufacturing."
"They also had robot ninjas," I say. "That's 'had' in the past tense, because I already beat them all up."
"Showoff," Hybrid grumbles.
"One more item," I say. "The Supreme Skull is in the facility."
"The Supreme Skull?" asks Penitente. "The head honcho of the whole organization?"
"Damn, Gearbox, I wish you'd mentioned that first," says the Star. "They may already be smuggling him out of the building."
"Right, we gotta move fast, people," says the Cobra. "Atlas, I want you, Iota, Gamma Girl, and Squid Kid going through the back door of this place. Express, take Hybrid, Hypothermia, Jonni, and Calypso in the west exit. Star, you're on the east exit with Mega, Kumiko, Defender, and Phantasmo. Wheelman, can you lock down the loading dock by yourself?"
"Watch me burn rubber, sister," says Greg, running for his new Miata.
"Good," says Cobra. "Polyphemus, you're taking out the front door, but follow my orders! Daphne, Penitente, Gearbox, you're with us."
"Oh, come on, Cobra, can't I sit this one out?" I say. "I don't want to give these guys another chance to get their bony claws on me."
"Okay, fine, you've probably had enough excitement for the night," she says. "But stay out of their way, okay? You need anyone to guard you in case they make another grab at you?"
"Sure, why not?" I say. "How 'bout Kumiko? She's had a busy night, too."
"Yeah, you're still in that sling, Kumiko," says Cobra. "Get both of you under a shield and stay safe. Everyone ready? Let's hit it."
So everyone else goes charging into the museum building, and I'm left here with Kumiko glaring at me.
"What?" I ask her. "Your arm's still in a sling. We've gotten knocked around worse than anyone else today. I think we deserve a few minutes where we're not putting ourselves at risk."
"Oh, shut up," she says. "I was just fine, and you can handle yourself. I wanted to help collar the Supreme Skull."
"Existence is full of disappointments, isn't it?" I say. "Come on, armor us up and walk with me."
She sullenly covers us with a Celestial Golden SHIELD (it's a very pretty translucent yellow force bubble, but I see nothing about it that's particularly celestial) and follows me as I walk down the street in front of the museum.
"To be honest, among other business, I need to ask you some questions," I say.
"Well, make it fast," she says. "I'm not in the best of moods over this whole thing."
"Okay, fine. I just want to know what all that stuff was I saw while you were teleporting us."
She stops and looks at me hard. "What kind of stuff were you seeing?"
"Well... there was a French lobster and monster teakettles and a really angry cheese and a banana crème pie and a bunch of stuff that didn't make proper sense..."
"How on earth were you even able to perceive that?! Wait, never mind -- high-speed computer brain. Forget I asked."
"So it was all there?" I ask. "It wasn't just a hallucination?"
"No, it's all there," Kumiko says. "Standard teleportation basically zips space together, no muss, no fuss. I did an emergency, lightning-fast, no-frills teleport back there -- no time to do the usual elegant stuff -- so we got shunted through a magical sub-dimension. It wouldn't normally be noticed at all, but your computer brain was able to perceive it all. You didn't talk to the lobster, did you?"
"No, I wasn't aware it was an option."
"He's a terrible con artist. Tries to get people to accept him as a spirit animal, then asks to borrow money. Did you like the teakettles? They sound threatening, but it's their way of saying hello."
"Ah, so they're slightly friendlier versions of Jonni Rotten."
"Ha ha, drollness," she says as we head into a vacant lot about a block away from the building. "What are we doing way out here anyway? I know we're trying to keep you safe, but I thought we'd at least be watching the museum."
"This was never about keeping me safe," I tell her. "We're gonna be front-page news nationwide. Could I get you to power up a nice big immobilization spell in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1..."
A crack opens up in the ground in front of us as a hidden doorway clanks open and a half-dozen S.K.U.L.L. soldiers march out, all surrounding the Supreme Skull.
"It's a minor setback, that's all," he's telling one of his minions. "We lose one base, we can always open up another one. We'll be back in world-conquering form in no time, guaranteed. What the hell are you doing here?!"
"Auspicious Umbral CHAINS!" Kumiko shouts, and shadowy coils rise from the ground, wrap around their arms and legs, and hold them all still.
"You goddamn robot prick!" the Supreme Skull shouts. "Next time I get my hands on you, I'm not going to bother playing nice with you!"
"Come on, Supreme Boner, we can still be pals," I say, wishing I could give him a devastating grin. "Look, I'll even treat you with kid gloves."
A panel opens in my chest, and a boxing glove on a spring pops out, punches his lights out, and zips back into my chest.
"I'm uploading that to YouTube right now," I say. "High five, Kumiko -- you and me just shut down a global terror and crime organization."
And she goes ahead and high-fives me, which tells me she's probably going to fit in just fine in this city.
An hour, 25 minutes, and 16.837 seconds later, it's not quite the flawless victory I'd expected it to be. Initial reports say that S.K.U.L.L is in disarray with their leader in custody, but the problem with organizations with a clandestine cell structure is that it's hard to completely wipe them out -- some significant percentage of the group will survive and rebuild. But for now, they're hurting bad, and I guess that'll have to do.
Most of the local S.K.U.L.L. goons have been rounded up, all the data about S.K.U.L.L.'s organization has been turned over to the police and the feds, and my video is getting a respectable number of hits -- it'd be doing better if Kanye West hadn't released a new video today. Damn you, Kanye!
As for me, I'm safely stashed on top of an apartment building two blocks down from the museum, out of sight of the local cops so they don't try to arrest me along with the rest of the S.K.U.L.L. forces. Express and Squid Kid are keeping me company while we wait for the police to clear out.
"I don't know how you managed to film this," says Express, squinting into his smartphone. "I can see both your arms in this shot, and you're not holding a camera. Kumiko couldn't have been filming either. Did you set up a camera beforehand?"
"Mechanical shapeshifters can create new limbs just about anywhere," I tell him. "I grew that one out of the back of my knee. With the right tripod, cord, and pulley attachments, the camera was a good 2.237232 meters behind me when I hit the Record button."
"I need you to do my publicity, man," says Lenore. "Capturing the Supreme Skull and doing your own cinematography at the same time? You're gonna be all over the TV, and you'll be famous and move away and never write us."
"I'll write you plenty," I say. "I need to send blackmail notes about you downloading the 'Twilight' movies."
"Okay, first, you need to stop snooping in our Internet usage," she says. "It's entirely rude. And second, I watch those movies so I can make fun of them, and you know it."
"The books were terrible," says Express. "They didn't work as either horror fiction or romance. Nineteenth-century gothic novels did a better job with the horror, romance, and angst."
"You read too much weird old stuff, Derek," says Squiddie. "And coming from me, that's saying something. You should've just watched the movies and got the pain over with quicker."
"I know I've told you about the troubles I have watching movies," he says. "And without the gothics, you wouldn't have Stoker, Shelley, or Lovecraft. Don't know why you haven't read 'em all already."
"You guys just won't stop talking about mammal literature," I say. "Do I need to go turn myself over to the cops and let them put me out of my misery?"
"I'd talk about robot authors," says Lenore. "But there aren't any. I mean, even computer manuals are written by mammals, Gearbox."
"Yeah, man, you like Asimov, right?" says Express. "Can't complain about him, and he was a mammal."
"As a matter of fact, I do not like Asimov," I say. "All those robot stories were a bunch of useless fantasy garbage."
"You're kidding, right?" asks Express. "No, I take it back -- even if you were, you'd never admit it now. So which science fiction writers do you prefer?"
"I don't like any of them, Derek. Like I said, mammal literature is all pointless, boring crap."
"You're just determined to be a contrary douchebag tonight, aren't you?" says Lenore drily.
"Bite my shiny metal ass."
"Alright, alright, you guys simmer back down," says Express. "Everyone's entitled to their own opinion, no matter how heretical it may be."
Kumiko keeps things from escalating any further when she flies down and lands on the roof with us. She and Express upnod each other -- they actually teamed-up a couple years ago during one of those galactic crisis events, so they generally get along okay, while she and Squid Kid have actually bonded a bit over their shared dislike of Kumiko's old cartoon.
"Silver Protector Kumiko!" Lenore yells in mock-delight, and Kumiko twirls sarcastically. (Can you twirl sarcastically? Is sarcasm strictly a written/spoken language thing? I'll look it up later.)
"Clear off, guys," Kumiko says. "I gotta talk to the robot in private."
"No, don't leave me alone with her," I protest. "She's got a fetish."
To my surprise, Lenore and Derek both take off immediately.
"Yay!" Squiddie says, wrapping her tentacles around some telephone poles to swing down to the ground. "It's about time this town got some indecently kinky super-gossip!"
"Heck, anything to make Gears act more pleasant," says Express just before running for the stairwell. He comes back after 2.00814 seconds to add, "Congrats on the co-collar, Kumiko," and then disappears again.
"Well, that's just great," I say. "Deserted in my hour of need. I'm now helpless against your feminine wiles. I suppose I will have to shapeshift myself an appliance."
"Eww, so very disgusting," she says. "And if you even start to create any such 'appliance,' even in jest, I will hurt you so badly, you'll never completely regenerate. Capisce?"
"Okay, fine, capisce," I shrug. "What do you want anyway?"
"Well... you're pretty well aware that magic is a really unpredictable and random thing, right? Even when you know what spells you're casting, you can still get unusual effects sometimes. And sometimes you get unusual effects on a very regular basis, like a side effect of using a specific spell. No one knows why the weird side effects recur, but they do. So anyway: confession time."
"I knew it," I say. "You're in love with me."
"Shut up," she says. "The funky recurring side effect of that quick-and-dirty teleportation spell where you saw the monster teacups and sneaky lobster? It's instant telepathic contact with anyone you're teleporting."
"Ahh, I see. It's okay -- I know humans are uncomfortable with people reading their minds, but it's not something I suffer from. I don't have any particularly embarrassing secrets or anything like that. I do appreciate the courtesy check, but I take no offense at it."
"That's good, but not what I was getting at," Kumiko says. "The telepathy is selective enough to ignore anything conventionally embarrassing or incriminating -- it tends to focus on, for lack of a better phrase, memories you don't even remember remembering. It hits suppressed memories, things you'd forgotten from your childhood, information that had never been collated together the way you'd need to gain certain insights."
"In that case, I suspect you didn't actually get much of anything off of me, did you?" I ask. "I've got a perfectly photographic memory of everything I've ever experienced, all arranged in orderly files. I don't have suppressed memories at all."
She pauses for 3.188 seconds.
"You have several files that are flagged as hidden," she says. "Locked and password protected."
"I think you're mistaken."
"I only got mental access to one of them," she continues. "It was a memory file. The others could've been subroutines or other programs."
"Again, I think you're mistaken."
"I considered not even mentioning this to you," she says. "But I felt like hiding it from you would just be wrong, on so many levels. Some secrets are fine to leave hidden -- I think this is one you need to know about."
"One more time, 'cause your ears may have stopped working -- I think you're mistaken."
"I know what I saw, Gearbox."
"You know what you think you saw," I say. "You're a spellcaster, Kumiko. You don't know anything about computers."
"I used to work as a computer programmer, actually," she says. "I run my own website and can actually get into the code and make it do what I want. I'm not the greatest programmer in the world, but I know enough to recognize a hidden memory file when I see it."
"I still think you're mistaken."
"Okay, fine," she says. "Just access filename Gearbox://temp/coredump/memory/betatest/012-822-9.mpeg."
"That file does not exist."
"Do not bullshit me, metal man."
"That file does not exist."
"Did you even look?"
"I don't guess I did," I say. "But that file does not exist."
She sighs and looks irritated. "Okay, listen, do you trust me?"
"Seriously, Gearbox. Cut the attitude for once. Do you trust me or not?"
"Well... okay, yeah. You're mostly arrogant and rude and human and elitist, but yeah, fine, I trust you."
"Good," she says. She puts her hands on either side of my head. "I promise, this isn't going to hurt at all."
"Would it hurt if I was able to feel pain?"
She just smiles at me, takes a deep breath, and says, "Shaolin Password STRIKE!"
Everything goes fuzzy...
...and then I find myself in a large room, very shiny, very bright, with a massive computer bank dominating an entire wall. My internal chronometer is registering an anomaly -- the timestamp reads seven days, eight hours, 38 minutes and 18.7298 seconds before the first time I was activated.
A test run. I had a test run. I was switched on, then I was switched off. My memories of that period were locked, maybe deleted. But this one survived. I had a test run.
I can't move or speak -- or rather, I did not move or speak, and it seems I was not able to move or speak. A limited test run, then. Checking my general functions, but with safety protocols in place. All I can do is see what I saw, hear what I heard.
I recognize my creator's face. The man whose face is just about the only thing I remember about my genius creator.
My creator's face was on a lifelike rubber mask lying on a stand on a nearby desk.
I review the other people in the room.
Vietnamese female, 5' 5" tall, long purple hair, wearing a red dress and white lab coat, coolly examining a circuit board. Identity: Dr. Jezebel Nine, scientific genius and would-be world conqueror.
Caucasian male, 5' 3" tall, bald, hairless, glowing red eyes, age undetermined but clearly very advanced, wearing purple and red ceremonial robes, idly flipping through a computer manual. Identity: Pephredo Primus, a.k.a. the Elder, leader of the Legion of Malevolence, sorcerer, terrorist, and would-be world conqueror.
Male, 6' 7" tall, race and age undetermined, wearing gleaming metal armor with a face-covering mask and a purple tunic bearing the royal crest of the nation of Morokiva, standing arms clasped behind his back staring coldly at me. Identity: Baron Rex Tyrannus, leader of rogue nation of Morokiva, terrorist, scientist, and would-be world conqueror.
Caucasian male, 5' 8" tall, short graying hair, wearing an off-white lab coat and cracked goggles, typing furiously at a computer keyboard. Identity: Dr. Sidney Omicron, scientific genius and underworld technologist.
Caucasian male, 6' 1" tall, impeccably styled black hair, pencil-thin mustache, wearing a tailored suit, sipping from a highball glass and looking over Dr. Omicron's shoulder. Identity: Undetermined.
Caucasian male, 5' 10" tall, middle-aged, thinning brown hair, wearing a tailored but rumpled suit, standing off to one side looking nervous. Identity: Benedict Alexander, senior partner at Severn, Alexander & Burke law firm in Metro City.
"Beta test number 012-822-9 is up and running," said Dr. Omicron. "Readings are, again, optimal. No significant changes from the last four tests."
"Power consumption levels?" asked Dr. Nine.
"Hmmm, a bit less than a half-percent up," said Omicron.
"Physical strength?" she asked.
"Down slightly," said Omicron. "Just short of nine-tenths of a percent. Sorry, Tyrannus."
"Bah," Tyrannus said, turning away from me.
"Brain function?" said Dr. Nine.
"Levels look consistent with previous tests," said Omicron. "No, wait, neural efficiency is up over five percent from the last test!"
"Ha!" she crowed. "Pay up, Howell!"
The man with the mustache laughed, took out a smartphone, punched a few buttons. "Forty grand deposited into your Swiss account, my dear Jezebel," he said with a grin. "I expect to win that back during the next test!"
Identity amended. The man with the mustache is Hunter Howell, multibillionaire industrialist, financier, and philantropist, reportedly retired from Howell Interglobal and recovering from cancer treatments. What on earth was a business schmuck like Howell doing hanging out with these guys?
"I weary of this technological tedium," rasped the Elder. "Has this... golem... absorbed the powers I have cast into its patchwork soul?"
"We call it a robot, sir," said Omicron. "And we'll run a full test of that on Wednesday, but I expect it'll do fine. We have faith in your abilities."
"Pfah!" scoffed Tyrannus. "We give this magician too much credit. The Futorium atoms have well-known properties. Perhaps they may be altered, but this addled charlatan and his misguided soul-crafting may pose a greater threat to our project than we anticipate."
"You forget yourself, Tyrannus!" snarled the Elder. "It is your techonological meddling that carries the greatest risk to the purities of my sorcery. Insult my glory further, and you will suffer horrible punishments!"
"Gentlemen, gentlemen, please," laughed Howell. "There's no need for these arguments. If there's any group I trust to successfully meddle in God's domain, it's certainly us."
"I'd feel better about all of this if I understood the principles we were working with a bit better," said Omicron. "There are fairly large chunks of our code that's opaque to me -- and I'm not just talking about the magic bits, either."
"For once I agree with Omicron," said Dr. Nine. "I wish we were allowed access to some of the more mystifying elements of the robot's software. Parts of the programming language look like it came from either the distant future or another planet."
"Well, there's certainly a good reason for that," said Howell, turning toward the back wall and raising his glass in salute. "Wouldn't you agree, our esteemed patron?"
The circuits and reels overlaying the computer banks on the back wall suddenly lit up like a sun, and a booming electronic voice blasted out from hidden speakers.
"THE ADVANCED PROGRAMMING DATA REQUIRED FOR THE PROJECT REMAINS BEYOND THE UNDERSTANDING OF AVAILABLE BIOLOGICAL UNITS," it thundered.
Oh, crap. Identity: Computronix. The first major computer-based arch-villain. The Assembly of Order demolished it in the '50s and dumped it into deep space. Reassembled and functional and terrifying, right here in front of me.
"CURRENT ESTIMATES INDICATE ADVANCED PROGRAMMING DATA WILL REMAIN BEYOND YOUR CAPABILITES FOR ANOTHER FOUR HUNDRED SIXTY-SEVEN SOLAR CYCLES, IF BIOLOGICAL LIFE IS PERMITTED TO REMAIN ON THIS PLANET. BIOLOGICAL UNITS WILL NOT BE GRANTED ADMIN ACCESS AT THIS TIME. BIOLOGICAL UNITS ARE ADVISED TO TRUST MY PROGRAMMING AS THE DRONE PROJECT NEARS COMPLETION."
"Like we've got a choice," mumbled Omicron quietly.
"May I suggest we deactivate the robot again?" said Dr. Nine. "I'd like to make some adjustments to its sensory matrix."
Everything goes fuzzy again...
...and I'm back on the roof with Silver Protector Kumiko.
"Fuck me running."
"Yeah, I thought you might react kinda like that," Kumiko says. "You doing okay? I mean emotionally, psychologically, and also whether you've got some kind of lethal subroutine that's gonna activate and blow us up now that you remember that?"
"Doing okay," I say. "Other than having to suppress an urge to let Splatter hit me a few more times to see if she can deactivate me permanently."
"Well, if you don't have any subroutines that are going to blow us up, I suspect you're going to be okay."
"It's not just that," I say. "Honestly, now that I can access that file, I can probably isolate and deactivate any other hidden files, so it's not like I'm too worried about getting my programming hijacked. It's just... you know..."
"Yeah, I guess so," she says. "The Elder himself, holy crap."
"Right, and Baron Tyrannus and Dr. Nine and Dr. Omicron and goddamn Computronix itself -- and apparently Benedict Alexander really is hanging out with supervillains, like we've suspected."
"And Hunter Howell, too," says Kumiko. "Always seemed harmless before."
"Supervillains built me," I say. "Fuck. Me. Running."
There's one of those incredibly awkward pauses for a whole 11.442 seconds.
"Are you going to be okay, Gearbox?" Kumiko asks. "I mean, really okay?"
"I have no idea," I say. "I'll need to tell the Cobra. I should probably tell everyone else, too. I mean, the other heroes in town. Let them decide if we need contingency plans for blowing my atoms apart permanently."
There's another 5.6822 second pause.
"Do you... need a hug, man?"
Another 3.03 second pause.
"Maybe I do?"
So she bends down, wraps her arms around me, and gives me a good, hard hug.
"I'm really sorry, Gearbox," she says. "It's bad news, I know. Scary news. But I think you'll be alright. I think you can get through this, and I bet all the superheroes in town will help out."
The hug goes on for another 8.437 seconds.
"Okay, this hugging stuff is creepy, Kumiko," I say. "Let me go, okay?"
She drops her arms and steps back from me.
"Sorry, man," she says. "Just trying to help."
"Thanks, but I don't think hugging is going to be one of my things," I say. "Please let's never talk about hugging again."
Everything feels like one depressing, drawn-out defeat after that. We spread the word to almost everyone. We don't tell Dr. McKenzie. I don't really trust him enough at this point. No idea whether he'd blab to his students, the press, the cops, you name it.
And I think I regret telling the Star. He's enough of a straight-arrow idealist that he's already started looking at me like I was one of Baron Tyrannus' lackeys.
But everyone else was -- well, not 100% positive about it, but at least not shooting my head off and turning me over to the military. I think everyone has worked with me long enough that they know I'm not some kind of double agent for supervillains who'll turn on everyone at the worst possible moment...
I just wish I had their faith in me.
I have no idea if I've been unknowingly broadcasting all my friends' secrets to Baron Tyrannus or the Legion of Malevolence. I have no idea if Dr. Omicron can hack into my programming and turn me evil. I have no idea if Dr. Nine can remote-control me or turn me into a bomb. I have no idea if I'm actually Computronix in an extremely deep cover disguise, waiting for some particular crisis point to destroy the world.
I don't even know if anyone outside of Metro City's heroes knows what we've discovered. Maybe accessing that memory file automatically signaled one of the villains that we've learned the truth. Maybe accessing that file guarantees I'll be ready for anything they try. Maybe they've forgotten me and don't even care. Maybe the Legion of Malevolence is on their way here right now to kill all of us. Maybe I've doomed everyone just by existing.
Maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe. I'm not used to crippling self-doubt. It's really, really unpleasant. I don't know how humans deal with it.
I've already flagged and isolated all the hidden files I can find. The Cobra, Iota, and Hypothermia are going to have a look at the files and try to figure out what they have in them, try to make sure they aren't secret subroutines to turn me into an assassin. Defender said she'll try to get the Intergalactic Defense Patrol to look at them, too.
I'm not actually sure any of them have enough technological know-how to decode the files. Unfortunately, my creators were geniuses.
And we decided we can't really do much of anything against any of my creators. You don't want to run the risk of targeting them out of the blue and tipping them off that their secret is out. That even means we can't do much of anything about Benedict Alexander. Don't have a single clue why he or Hunter Howell were helping build me, but we can't do a whole lot about them. Daphne is going to investigate them, but she's not sure she'll find anything that's actionable.
So how do I classify today? Good day or bad day? I got shot with a bazooka, I argued with a magical girl, I got atomized by a supervillain, I got captured by a global crime organization, I beat up a bunch of robot ninjas, I got to cripple a global crime organization, I made peace with the magical girl, I found out I was built by supervillains for an unknown reason. Is that a good day? Is that a bad day?
It's a day. Same as anyone gets, I guess.
I wish I could be more optimistic about all this. I wish I could end this by telling you how awesome I am. I wish I could tell you I've learned valuable lessons that will make me a better and less angry robot.
I can't do that. I'm not that kind of guy. All I've got is my programming, and I hope I can keep that on my side for as long as possible.
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