Work was going well for both Robert and Julia — a bit too well, in fact, as for weeks they had both been so deeply absorbed in their separate projects that they hadn't had so much as a meal together. Julia had been in and out of the Fortress of Doom, flying to and from Yugoslavia stirring up tensions with secret propaganda campaigns and the occasional bombing. Robert, in turn, had been busy conducting his research in the Fortress's laboratory complex. He wished he had more time for his wife; a marriage takes hard work in any circumstances but for two people with so many other things to do, it's a particular challenge.
The two had fallen in love the moment they met. It was a storybook romance. Boy meets girl, boy plans to kill girl, girl helps boy build army of giant nuclear robots, girl and boy get married in an obsidian chamber five miles under the Himalayas. But passion alone couldn't hold a marriage together, and they had parted. Soft words of love turned into missile attacks and ninja assaults, and for five long, stupid years Robert and Julia had counted each other as archnemeses. But dozens of unsuccessful attempts on each other's lives finally convinced them that they were no happier apart than together, and they resolved to find a way to make their love work this time.
But a few stolen kisses — on those days when they were lucky enough to get up or go to bed at the same time — weren't enough to do so. They hadn't even spoken since two days before when Julia had found a few minutes to visit Robert's lab, where he had triumphantly told her that fatalities in testing on monkeys had fallen below five percent, and seventy-five percent were showing signs of new limb growth. "It's excellent progress, Julia. Eventually, I hope to completely eliminate fatality in infected patients — it's so easy to kill people, but it takes true finesse to terrorize them. The next phase will be modifying it to be infectious to humans." The rhesus monkey sitting on his shoulder punctuated his statement by clapping its four hands enthusiastically.
Robert resolved that he would spend an evening with his wife soon. The next time he saw her, he would tell her to clear her schedule for an evening. Hard work and shared goals were the foundation of a strategic alliance, not a marriage, and he wasn't going to let Julia slip away from him again. But meanwhile, he had to get something to eat; it was nearly seven in the evening and, as Robert liked to tell his son, you can't very well instill terror in the hearts of your enemies without any fuel inside you. Robert told his lab assistant to keep an eye on the molecular modeling he was working on and started down the corridor to the nearest mess hall to down a plate of food before beginning tests on the next reverse transcriptase.
Robert's footsteps rang out on the obsidian floor (not just stylish, but practical — it's hard to walk quietly on obsidian and harder yet to run without slipping, which made invasions by irritating bands of do-gooders more difficult.) He walked ten meters or so; the corridor curved to the right leaving him just out of sight of the door to the biology lab when he found his feet slipping out from under him and suddenly his wrists and ankles were bound together and he found himself hanging ridiculously in midair. Looking closely, he could see fine, fine strands of carbon, nearly invisible, binding him. He opened his mouth to yell for guards but a gloved hand clapped over it and tilted his head back until he saw his captor's face. She smiled a predatory smile, and he thought of a spider gloating over the prey caught in her web.
"All work and no play will make you a dull boy, Robert darling, and it will make me a very bored girl," said Julia. "I have plans for us. Now, if I cut you down, will you promise to behave and spend a nice evening with me like a civilized husband?"
Robert grinned. "Julia, my love, you are always at your most exquisite when you've just won a battle. How can I resist you?" A single swipe of a diamond-tipped knife and he was loose and in an ungainly heap on the floor.
"Dinner should be nearly ready, darling. Why don't we head to the dining room?" And so they walked, arm in arm, to their own private quarters in the deepest parts of the Fortress.
Their own quarters didn't much resemble the rest of the Fortress of Doom. The Fortress was largely functional in its design; not to suggest, of course, that the Von Wickeds didn't care about style, but the Fortress was first and foremost a workplace, and the aesthetic touches that graced it were largely designed to inspire terror in anyone who didn't belong there, and decoration was constrained by security needs and the practical concerns of building a large scientific and industrial facility, combined with housing for thousands of employees, bored deep into the subterranean rock. But Robert and Julia had spared no effort in building their own living space; for defense, it was hidden in the deepest section of the Fortress, and high, vaulted ceilings replaced the lower, more practical ones elsewhere in the Fortress. The floors were marble rather than obsidian, and covered with sumptuous rugs; the room was dotted with Chinese vases, Greek and Roman statues, and other such antiquities as had captured Julia's interest. Mostly, though, it was blessedly silent. The rest of the Fortress hummed with activity, day and night: science labs, staffed with dozens of brilliant minds working all hours, guards taking shifts pacing the corridors looking for trouble, repair crews replacing damaged equipment, the machine shop fabricating new parts and building new robots; there was little solitude in the Fortress of Doom, which made the time Robert and Julia spent together in their home particularly precious.
Julia pulled Robert into their quarters by the hand and then leaned him against the door, kissing him. "Come to think of it, Robert, I'm not really very hungry at all. Perhaps we can find something else to do instead."
"Sorry, dear, but I'm absolutely famished. I haven't had a single bite all day. I don't think I'll be up for any strenuous activities until I get my strength up a bit." So they lingered over their meal and talked about their days. Robert's plague was working even better than expected and he anticipated human trials within two weeks; Julia was making excellent progress in fomenting discord in Yugoslavia. "It's wonderful, Robert. I can't even count the possibilities for us once the civil war begins. And the whole country is so beautiful — one of these days, I'm going to take you to work with me so you can see for yourself."
After dinner, they went to their bedroom and made love, urgently, making up for lost time. When they were done, they lingered in bed, drinking wine and sharing old reminiscences. Several bottles worth of old reminiscences. "Remember our third anniversary, Julia? Prague is so beautiful. And yet all I really remember is when British agents shot our helicopter down, and the pilot trying to steer us to the ground while you kept shouting at him not to hit that lovely café."
Soon, though, their conversation eventually drifted to sadder topics. "Do you remember Steve and Angela?" Julia asked.
"Of course I do. I still have the burn scar on my shoulder to prove it."
"God I wish we hadn't had to kill them," murmured Julia, as she stroked Robert's left thigh.
"There was nothing you could do, Julia."
"I know that. But that doesn't mean I'm not sorry it happened. I wonder what happened to their son."
"I've thought about that too," said Robert. "He's, what, eight or nine now? I worry about whether he'll inherit his parents' powers."
"I've been thinking, Robert. Maybe we should go after him. I'd hate to do it. He doesn't deserve it. But if we let him live, he could be a threat to us."
They murmured a few more words to each other before they fell into an uneasy sleep, both of them tossing and turning throughout the night.
The Von Wickeds found time for lunch together a few days later. Julia wiped her mouth afterwards and decided to share what was on her mind. "Robert, remember the conversation we had about Erik Jones-Nakata? I've been thinking, and we really should act now before it turns into a big deal."
"You're right. I've been thinking the same thing. I did some research, and I've found out where he's living. He lives with his grandmother; they don't seem to have any other family, so we should be able to extract him without too much notice. I can't imagine it will take much; whatever powers the boy might develop, I doubt he has much control over them yet."
"I don't want to take any unnecessary risks, though. And . . . well, I was thinking that he might be young enough that we could convince him to take our side. I can't stand to kill him unless we absolutely have to. He's suffered so much already," said Julia.
They discussed the particulars of their plan. "I want to bring most of the robots with us," said Robert. "I know we don't need them. But the more impressive we can be, the less likely it is we'll need to do anything violent."
"Well, I like to travel light, but I suppose bringing them along might be useful," conceded Julia.
"All in all, we have to be ready for whatever happens," said Robert. "What's most important is assuring that we don't end up having an attempted superhero trying for vengeance on behalf of his dead parents. If you read the stories, those little orphan children always end up causing all sorts of difficulties."
It was a grim, rainy Saturday and Erik Jones-Nakata had nothing to do. His grandma was singing softly to herself as she diced onions in the kitchen for a pot of beans and rice. Erik idly tried reading a book, but he couldn't concentrate on it. He tried watching TV, but there was nothing good on at four in the afternoon. He wanted to go outside and play but the sky was a grey mass of clouds and the rain was falling so fast that it formed rivers running down the sidewalks and most of the street was under an inch of water. This feeling of confinement was nothing new to Erik; like an itch that wouldn't go away, he had felt this feeling for months. It started when he was almost nine years old — as though he was on the verge of something, waiting for something and unable to sit still. Something was happening to Erik. He knew it. He just didn't know what it was.
"You need some help, grandma?" he asked. It was better than doing nothing.
"Well, if you're not up to anything else you might as well cut up these tomatoes. Be careful with the knife, now. Here, stand on this stool so you can see what you're doing."
Erik diced them into tiny pieces, slowly. His grandmother could do it faster, but there was no hurry. The beans were simmering slowly and he could smell garlic and basil in their steam. "Grandma, do you know any more stories about mama and dad?"
She took a deep breath. "Erik, honey, I've been saving something real special for you all these years. I keep it in a box and I mean it to be something you can treasure. It's stories about your parents, and it's something real precious but I think you're old enough that I can trust you with it."
"I wanna see! Where is it?"
"Let's wait till after dinner, Erik. It's something you won't find very easily anymore and I don't want anything to happen to it. We'll look at it together later on tonight."
Erik felt that maybe these stories would tell him something about that itch he was feeling. Maybe he was going to be a superhero like his mama and dad and that's why he felt like this new need to go out and do something exciting.
He turned back to finish dicing the last tomato, but before the blade reached it a knock sounded at the door.
"Oh, Lord. Who in the world could be out in this storm?" said Grandma as she walked to the door. She opened it, and then turned to Erik who had wandered out of the kitchen behind her. "Get upstairs. Now. Stay in your room until I tell you to come out," she said. There wasn't a trace of anger in her voice, but his grandma's tone was commanding and he knew it wasn't something to argue about.
"Hello, Mrs. Jones," said the man on the porch, smiling cheerfully. He was tall, and had a British accent. Beside him was a woman, almost as tall, with dark hair and olive skin. Despite the torrent surrounding them, they were both perfectly dry; the rain formed rivulets that ran down an invisible barrier surrounding them. "We'd like to have a word with you about your son if that's all right."
"I'm afraid it's not," said Mrs. Jones. She moved to close the door but the man held it open with his foot.
"We really must insist. We have the means to ensure your cooperation," said the woman. She looked to her left and right. Mrs. Jones leaned out the door and saw them, trampling her lawn and blocking the street. Dozens of robots, each one easily thirty or forty feet tall.
"How rude of us not to introduce ourselves. I'm Robert Von Wicked, and this is my wife, Julia," said the man, still giving his charming smile.
"I know who you are," said Mrs. Jones. "Because I am a kind and a generous woman, I am going to give you this opportunity to leave now. You will never come back here and you will never bother me or my grandson again. You hear?"
"Why don't we come inside where we can have a discussion like civilized people?" asked Robert. He lifted his foot to step over the threshold.
"Stop." Mrs. Jones's voice rang out.
And Robert did. He suddenly found himself frozen in place. His foot hung in the air, halfway into the house. He slowly drifted backwards, as did Julia, off the porch, now floating in midair above the front walk.
"I am an old woman, Mr. and Mrs. Von Wicked." She said their names scornfully. "I have seen and lived through more than you could possibly imagine. I see that the world is changing around me. I saw that when you murdered my daughter. And I see that in this army of metal monstrosities you brought with you, thinking you could intimidate me with them because I'm a helpless old woman.
"I don't have much use for all this new-fangled technology. Computers, space ships, robots — Lord, the house I grew up in didn't even have a telephone. We did just fine, and I don't really see how any of it's much use nowadays either." She held up her right hand and quickly swept it in front of her face like she was erasing a chalkboard.
The screech of bending metal filled the air. The Von Wickeds felt themselves turn around in the air and they watched their robotic soldiers bend — no, crumple, crumple into twisted heaps on the lawn. The shield that protected them from the rain stopped working at the same moment, and they were quickly soaked. "You see what I mean? You depend on all these fancy little toys you're carrying around when you could have just brought an umbrella." The Von Wickeds were speechless. In fact, they found themselves unable to move their mouths at all. Not that either of them had a retort ready.
"What sort of people raised you, Mr. and Mrs. Von Wicked?" She sneered as she said their name; clearly she didn't find it amusing. "What will the neighbors think about all this garbage you brought with you? And didn't your mothers teach you any manners at all? You should know better than to try to enter someone else's house without permission.
"Like I said, the world has changed since I was born. But it hasn't changed as much as you two had hoped. And I aim to make sure that it doesn't change so much that my grandchild finds himself among vermin like you. As I said before, I am a kind and generous woman, and as such I will permit you two to live. But you will find that if you try to bring any more of your metal monsters here, I will not give you another chance. I suggest you both leave right now. I'm afraid I won't be allowing any helicopters near my house to rescue you, so you may have to do some walking."
"Dear God, Julia. That was almost all of my fleet," said Robert as they walked down the road. "Those robots were indestructible. I've seen them survive atomic blasts! It's going to take us years to recover from this."
"It's all right, babe, you can come down now," called Mrs. Jones.
Erik ran down the stairs. "What happened, grandma?" he asked excitedly.
"Don't you worry about that. Those beans should be just about done. Let's check that the rice didn't overcook because Lordy, I am hungry after all that!" said Mrs. Jones.
They sat down to eat. Erik shoveled his food down as fast as he could. "Can we look at that thing you were gonna show me?"
"Oh, child. All right, but just for a little while. I'm real tired. Why don't you go get it? There's a little wooden box in the back of my closet on the floor. Go get it and bring it here. It's not real heavy but I want you to be real careful with it."
Erik raced to the stairs. "No running in this house!" thundered his grandma and he sighed and climbed the stairs at a normal pace. He found the box and carried it downstairs to her. They sat on the sofa and opened the box together. Inside was a stack of dozens of comic books, each in a plastic envelope.
"Are your hands clean?" asked Grandma. "Because you gotta be real careful with these. Like I said, they're hard to find nowadays."
Erik picked up the top one. The Amazing Sister Smolder it said in big yellow letters. Below it was a picture of a woman standing triumphant, her hands on her hips. She was wearing a black mask over her eyes and a red suit with a silvery cape billowing behind her.
"Is that how mama used to dress when she went out to fight bad guys?" asked Erik.
Grandma laughed. "No, babe. That just looks good for the comic books. She did wear that mask; she didn't want anyone to know who she was. But as for clothes, most of the time I seem to remember her wearing blue jeans."
"Will you read it to me, Grandma?" he asked.
"I'm tired, Erik. How about you read it to me?"
"Okay," he said. He opened it up. The first page showed a girl bent sitting at a desk, bent over a book. "It's a fine spring day, but our heroine is studying hard for school, when suddenly the phone rings."
"The time does fly. I remember this; your mama was off at her first year of college when it all started," said Grandma.
Erik continued reading it, and Mrs. Jones continued inserting her commentary on the story. "Of course, she saved all the children from the bad man holding them hostage, but they don't mention in here that she also accidentally burned down the school afterwards," said Grandma, laughing, as Erik finished reading it.
"Can we read another?" he asked.
"Child, I'm very, very tired. I don't think I'll be awake by the end. Why don't you go up to your room? You can read a few more, just as long as you're careful with them."
"Okay, good night, Grandma," said Erik, and he carefully carried the box up to his room. She smiled at him and closed her eyes.
Erik read another comic book and then went downstairs to get a glass of water. He walked past his grandma. She hadn't moved. He bent over to kiss her on the cheek but it was cold. He took hold of her hand but it was cold too. He leaned over her mouth and he couldn't hear her breathing. "Wake up, Grandma, wake up!" he cried, but she didn't. He shook her. She remained still. He called 911 and an ambulance came and took her away and the police took him. He waited for a long time at the police station until they sent him to stay with a strange man and woman. Later they took him to get his things and the first thing he took was the one thing he really cared about, the wooden box full of comic books.
Erik lived with his new family for a while, but the only thing he really remembered from that time was what he drew over the next three weeks. He drew a comic book of his own that he kept with the others, showing his grandma — recording everything he remembered from secretly watching out the upstairs hallway window as she chased away the bad guys. As he drew it and colored it in with crayons, late at night, his skin began to glow softly. He huddled under the covers, and the glow wasn't very bright at first, just enough to draw the pictures.
The Von Wicked Chronicles
by Excalibre and Evil Catullus
I remember when it was me who made you want to take over the world and enslave humanity
Latex. High heels. Knives. (Excalibre's writeup)
It's not my fault that I'm so evil
I was a teenage Overlord
Lady Deathblast's Lover
This little light of mine
The Thanksgiving battle
My funny villaintine
Robots and comic books
This wicked life
The education of little overlords
All things truly wicked
Darkness lights its own way
How it all began
Sometimes I think you love that doomsday machine more than you love me.
They are mine. They are dead.