Envy and the Gilded Cage (Part 3)
Envy and the Gilded Cage, Part 3
a Whateley Universe tale
by Dr. Bender
“SHIT! The stun effect is wearing off… hit her with more of the anesthetic!”
“I am! She’s filtering this crap too fast!”
“Doctor, she’s regaining awareness…”
Groaning, I started to stir, wishing the voices would stop shouting so I could go back to sleep.
“Seraphina? Seraphina, I know you can hear me. You don’t know me and I understand the situation you’re in is a bit frightening but I need you to stay still and calm. Still and calm. If you thrash about now it may cause damage that we can’t repair.”
Then I felt it, inside me. Some sort of wire, probing deep…
Lurching awake, my whole body tensed as my fight or flight reflex kicked in. But the restraints around my wrists, ankles and waist held me down. My eyes flew open to find a man in a surgical mask leaning over me.
“Seraphina, please trust me, you’re safe,” he begged, his French accent getting thicker with every word, “I’m sorry, we didn’t mean for you to wake up in the middle of this. Please try to stay still; the last thing we want is to hurt you.”
Looking down in horror, my mind struggled to take in what was happening. I was in an operating theatre that looked like it could be used for alien autopsies. There were even mirrored observation windows high overhead. The restraints were thick metal bands, obviously rated for even the highest level Exemplars. My legs were spread wide open, the gown I was wearing tented up to allow access while blocking my sight of whatever machine they were using. Off to one side, two of the bellhop henchmen hovered nervously.
Freezing stock still, my fists clenched, I felt a tears start to roll down my cheeks as the shock of my position settled in, the lights flickering around us. “What the fuck are you doing to me?”
He tried to stroke my hair reassuringly but settled for using his ‘soothing doctor voice’ when I jerked away from his hand. “It’s a simple, routine, procedure,” he said slowly. “We’re just collecting some eggs from your ovaries. Unfortunately, this means we have to insert a needle through the vaginal wall. The needle is already in place, if you move too much it could do severe damage. I know it’s a lot to ask but please try to relax, it will be over in a few minutes I promise.”
Taking some deep breaths, I focused on the tip of my right index finger using a meditation technique Mom had taught me years ago. The lights stopped flickering after a few moments as I got hold of my emotions and my heart fell into a steady rhythm.
Damn, maybe the docs will leave us alone with her for a while when they’re done.
I caught the thought from one of the henchmen along with a very unpleasant image of exactly where and how he wanted to touch me. Turning my head, I glared right at him, anger pouring out of me in a sudden, ferocious, torrent. It hit him like a physical force, hurling him against the wall like a rag doll, as much to my own surprise as everyone else in the room.
“Doctors,” a disembodied voice spoke through the speaker system, “I suggest you finish the operation as soon as possible.”
“Miss Valocco,” the doctor whispered, abject terror making him barely coherent, “please, I’m sorry; we’re not doing this by choice.”
“He was thinking about touching me,” I hissed, angry and disgusted at the guard but horrified at what I’d done by accident.
The Doctor’s head whipped up, fixing his glare on the other guard. “Pick that mess up and take him to the infirmary!” He ordered in French, a language I’d had burnt into my brain by one of Mom’s spells.
“Sir,” the guard tried to protest, “you’re not safe with…”
“We’re safer without idiots who can’t keep their dicks in their pants! Or would you rather be tied into this contraption and put your plums on display?”
The guard grudgingly dragged his unconscious compatriot away and I went back to my meditations. I caught snatches of the medical tech’s thoughts but they were more technical, focused on the job rather than the situation. In fact, I’d scared the shit out of them, which I took some small satisfaction in. As an experiment, I tried focusing on something other than my finger and the mind-voices faded away but when I focused on my finger again they came back. It was like the less other things were taking my attention, the more the foreign thoughts and feelings would intrude on mine. I was thankful at least that it was a distraction from what they were doing.
“Why?” I asked the doctor, trying to shift his thoughts towards my line if inquiry. I got more pictures than thoughts, mostly technical information that I didn’t understand.
“I’m not supposed to tell you,” he whispered, glancing at the windows above without turning his head. “If it’s any comfort, we’re working to advance mutant kind. We’ve never performed this procedure on an unwilling subject before.”
“Who are you, then? Syndicate? ARC? MCO? Private?”
“Believe it or not, we’re friends… I can’t say more.”
Closing my eyes, I focused on my meditation, letting him get on with his work. The hard fact of the matter was I wasn’t in any position to stop him. Even if I could whip up another telekinetic slam, what was I going to do about the restraints or the needle they were jamming into my privates? It was humiliating but I’d survived humiliation before. We all breathed a sigh of relief when it was over. The doctors scuttled out of the operating theatre, trying not to look me in the eye. With the probe out, I strained futilely against the restraints without effect and eventually gave up. Eventually, more of the bellhops arrived, one covering me with his pistol while the other walked towards me with a mage-hood.
Mage-hoods are particular types of restraints, like handcuffs for wizards. They were borderline illegal in a few states, including magic-friendly New Hampshire. Think of an executioner’s hood or sack with a mouthpiece that prevents talking while allowing the wearer to breathe and an adjustable neck strap that can only be removed with a special key. It doesn’t completely prevent the use of magic if used on a skilled practitioner but it does make it much, much harder.
The glare I gave them stopped them both in their tracks. “If either of you touch me,” I warned, “I’ll make you regurgitate your own intestines.”
They both gulped. “Uh,” the one with the hood said hesitantly, “we’ve been ordered not to… molest you in any way. But we either have to put the hood on you or zap you with the stun gun again; nothing personal.”
“The hood, then,” I said with a scowl, trying to imitate my mother.
I almost panicked when he pulled the hood over my head but they were true to their word and didn’t touch me otherwise. They even adjusted the chair so that I could close my legs, which won them some small amount of gratitude from me as I was wheeled out of the room. The whole trip was eerily quiet, which made me wonder if they’d encapsulated me in a ‘privacy bubble’. Whatever the case, I was wheeled into another room about ten minutes later.
“Here,” one of the guards said, placing something small and metallic in my hand, “that’s the key for the hood. Once the door is locked behind us, the restraints will open and you’ll be free to take the hood off after that.”
I nodded in response to show that I’d heard him then listened as the door closed behind them. Throwing off the restraints as they clicked open, I sat up and fumbled with the lock at the back of my neck, throwing the foul device away before hopping off the table, ready for anything.
Anything except a lavish bedroom that would have put the penthouse suite of a five star hotel to shame. It was like someone from the future had come and built a cruise ship using Captain Nemo’s blueprints for the Nautilus. Riveted iron girders swept from floor to ceiling in graceful arcs along the walls, segmenting sections of wood panelling that I guessed disguised the metal hull. The floor was graced with rich red Persian carpets and polished black marble tile. An enormous four-poster bed stood at one end of the room while directly opposite was a walk-in wardrobe and private bathroom. Between the two sat a spa recessed into the floor that was designed to look like a natural spring. Before me, directly opposite the way out, was a balcony enclosed by a bubble of glass that looked out over a sweeping vista of clouds and empty, endless, ocean. Spare walls were filled with paintings, done in classical styles, of famous mythological subjects. I recognized the myth of Prometheus teaching the secret of fire to man, as well as Hades kidnapping Persephone.
Stepping up to the glass, I could see the hull of an enormous aircraft stretching out below me. The wings I could see ended at two large anti-gravity towers, one on my left and another on the right. Peering at the view, I couldn’t tell if it was real or just a very good holographic projection, but I was willing to bet on the former. When it comes to secret bases, there aren’t many organizations with the logistical support to operate a sky fortress but it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility, assuming one had the technology to hide such a craft.
Being on a sky fortress shortened the list of my probable kidnappers significantly. Unfortunately, most of those names were the sorts that were redacted from official records. I mentally crossed out the names I could think of with government connections, dressing goons up like bellhops wouldn’t even be tolerated by the MCO. That still left a lot of ground to cover and it wasn’t like I was an expert on organized crime. The only big clue I had was the French connection, between the mutant mime and the doctor’s accent, only I was fresh out of Gene Hackman.
“Welcome to the Jules Verne, Seraphina Valocco.”
I jumped when the feminine voice suddenly spoke from thin air. “Holy crap, don’t do that!”
“Pardon me,” she apologized, a holographic image of a golden woman flickering into existence in the middle of the room. “It was not my intention to startle you. I am Eurydice, this aircraft’s virtual interface persona. Limited access has been granted to user Seraphina Valocco, I have been instructed to see to your comfort and welfare for the duration of your stay here.”
Imagine if an Oscar was silver and had generous curves, a friendly face and frizzy platinum blonde hair that seemed to float against gravity, only pixelated like a low-rez internet video. That was what Eurydice’s avatar looked like. It wasn’t anywhere near the most impressive I’d ever seen but she had still given me a scare.
“So… this ship is called the Jules Verne?” I asked hesitantly.
“Correct, the Jules Verne is a custom-built sky fortress. Its capabilities and specifications are restricted.”
Regaining my composure, I glared at it. “Right, of course, can you tell me how long I’ve been aboard, then?”
“It has been approximately three days, six hours and seventeen minutes. You have been sedated for the majority of that duration.”
I blinked, the shock hitting me worse than when she’d appeared out of thin air in front of me. “Three days?!? Is Donald okay? I need to speak to him…”
“Your friend is alive and not experiencing any duress. Unfortunately, you do not have permission to contact him.”
“Well then, who does?”
“I’m sorry, I cannot answer that query.”
Taking a deep breath, I tried to remember that I was talking to a dumb computer interface. At least she wasn’t as annoying as that stupid paperclip. “Can you at least give me access to a television?”
“I’m sorry, we are currently under a total communications blackout, please try again later.”
The answer didn’t come as a surprise, receiving an incoming signal could disrupt most cloaking devices that I was aware of. “All right, what can you do for me then?”
“I have control of the life support systems, if you require the temperature of the air or water in this room to be altered within safe parameters I can facilitate you. If you require an item, I can direct you to where it can be found or deliver one for your use. I can also give limited advice or make suggestions based on your biometrics and psychological profile. Your heart rate and breathing are slightly elevated; may I suggest a bath and a change of clothes?”
I was about to reply when the door opened, which startled me all over again. The woman who stepped through was obviously an Exemplar; she looked too much like the love child of Marilyn Monroe and Uma Thurman to be natural. It didn’t help that the garment she was wearing, which I’d hesitate to call a dress, showed off more than it concealed. Two lengths of gold fabric entwined her torso, looping around her neck, over her breasts and around the small of her back before joining at her hip. From the ‘belt’ thus formed fell two lengths of gauzy cloth front and back, exposing her legs whenever she moved. Her feet were clad with strappy golden four inch heels and she wore diamonds around her neck and wrists.
“I think that’s a great idea, Eurydice,” the new arrival enthused, grinning as she appraised little me in my bland hospital gown. Noticing the restraining table, her grin turned to a scowl. “Ugh, get this stupid thing out of the way.”
“Certainly, Gold Dust,” the computer complied, summoning several little flying robots to push the table away.
“Woah! Hold the phone!” I protested, backing away from them both. “I just woke up in the middle of you all performing illegal surgery on me and now you’re trying to make nice?”
Goldie held her hands up in the air as if to show she wasn’t armed or about to make any sudden movements. “I know, I’m sorry,” she apologized with seeming sincerity, “we didn’t mean for you to wake up that early.”
“Early? It’s been THREE DAYS! What the hell have you been doing to me?”
“Samples, medical examinations, gene profiling… a bunch of things you’d rather sleep through, believe me,” she said, wincing. “As Eurydice said, they call me Gold Dust or just Dust for short. I’m an Exemplar 1, Energizer 1, but my energizer ability just allows me to create little ‘pixie dust’ sprinkles like Tinkerbelle.”
I watched as she rubbed her thumb and forefinger together, creating fine golden sparkles that puffed out of existence when they hit the floor. “Hence ‘Gold Dust’?” I asked.
She nodded. “Not the greatest mutant ability but fun at parties. Do you have a codename yet? Everyone around here uses them.”
Still distrustful, I shook my head and crossed my arms over my chest. “Just tell me what the hell is going on around here,” I demanded. “And while you’re at it, where the hell is Donald?”
“Donald?” She repeated, shaking her head. “Sorry, I have no idea. I’m sure the Captain is anxious to explain everything, he’s invited you to share lunch with him.”
“Wow,” I muttered, “did he go to the James Bond School of Villainy?”
She winced. “I know how this must look to you but really, the Captain’s not a bad man. A bit eccentric, yes, but this is the first time to my knowledge that he’s ever brought anyone here against their will. He’s treated all the women here with dignity and respect.”
“All the women?” I asked incredulously.
“Sure,” she smiled, “I’ll be happy to show you around if you like.”
Taking a deep breath, I asked myself what Mom would do. After a moment, I figured Mom would want to exploit every advantage available to her in the situation. That meant making sure she looked her best first. “Thanks,” I gave in a little to her, hoping she’d let her guard slip, “but I think I’ll have a shower and get out of this… thing first.”
It worked better than I’d hoped. Dust’s grin nearly split her face in two. “Mind if I pick your dress? I’m studying fashion design.”
I almost immediately regretted nodding when she squealed like a teenager and practically bounded into the walk-in wardrobe. Showering quickly, I had to admit I felt a lot better when I exited the bathroom wrapped in a towel while brushing my hair, though I had to force the memory of the operation to one side. Worry about Donald helped keep me focused, though I was sure I was going to cry myself to sleep when this was all over.
Dust had laid out an outfit that made me blanch at the thought of wearing it. The black stiletto heels were one thing, along with the matching lacy panties. The dress, however, could get you arrested for indecent exposure. It was emerald green and completely lacked a back or even straps to hold the front up. The front itself was V-shaped, with the breast cups at the top of the V with laces down the inside. A loop of the same material emerged from the base of the V which would obviously go around my hips, barely covering what needed to be covered. The skirt that hung from underneath was thankfully long but had a slit running up the right side, which I guessed was as much to do with freedom of movement as showing off.
Picking it up by the breast-cups, I turned it around in my hands. “How the hell does this thing stay on? And where’s the bra?”
Chuckling, Dust took the dress off me and placed the inside of the right breast cup against her arm, where it stuck unnaturally fast. “It’s a special adhesive material that sticks to skin like glue but peels off easily,” she said, demonstrating the principle for me. “See? No tape, no fuss, no damage to your skin. As for the bra, well… we’re Exemplars, who needs them?”
Her conspiratorial giggle caught me off guard. Walking over to the wardrobe, I sorted through the racks to discover nothing but similarly revealing dresses in a variety of colors and shapes. “For god’s sake! Don’t you people ever wear normal clothes?”
“Oh, come on, live a little,” Dust begged with a note of amusement in her voice, “do you have any idea how much dresses like this cost?”
“Apart from my dignity?”
Sighing, Dust grabbed my shoulders and placed me in front of the floor length mirror. I was so shocked that it never occurred to me that I was a lot stronger than she was. “Look, Seraphina, you are a beautiful young girl,” she told me with enough intensity that I listened. “I know you’ve been brought up amongst prudish Americans but your body isn’t something to fear.”
I snorted. “You sound like my mother.”
“Strega? I’m not surprised,” she said, absently pulling my hair back out of my face. “I’m a little in awe to meet her daughter actually; she’s something of a feminist legend in my country. My grandmother gave me an old comic book of her fighting Mussolini when I was little.”
“You’re French?” I enquired, knowing the comic book she was talking about. Members of the Resistance printed them as anti-fascist propaganda during the occupation of France. Only a few of them were ever produced during the war but Mom kept copies of each in stasis, I’d read the digitized versions.
“Oui,” she answered cheekily.
I couldn’t hep the momentary smile that crept onto my face. “You’re going to badger me until I agree to wear the dress aren’t you?”
“That was the plan.”
Sighing, I held my hand out to accept my fate.
Of course it didn’t end there. When I walked out of the wardrobe, she was waiting for me with make-up. Resigned, I submitted to the makeover without protest. When it was over, I couldn’t recognize the face in the mirror. She hadn’t done much, just applied a little eyeliner, blush and some red lipstick but the effect was amazing. After that, she combed my hair into a simple flip style and helped me practice walking in the heels. The last was surprisingly easy, though I guessed my Exemplar sense of balance helped with that.
Once I was ready, she led me out of the room, down a long corridor with several branching passages and through a set of wooden double doors that led to a scene that I can only describe as paradise.
High overhead was a glass ceiling that allowed the sun to bathe the scene in light and warmth. It was an enormous artificial beach, complete with a wave machine that simulated the tide lapping against the shoreline. Around the surf was a park dotted with shaded pavilions and grass areas including tennis courts, gym equipment, spas, massage tables and an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Adding to the serene beauty was a plethora of beautiful women in various stages of pregnancy. They frolicked in the surf, sunbathed on the beach, pumped iron, typed furiously on their laptops, sorted through piles of paper, chatted together and even jogged along the raised pathways between the different areas.
“Hey, Dust,” one of the joggers greeted as she ran past, her bulging belly looking like it was ready to pop while her ponytail bounced against her back.
“Hi, Misty,” Dust called after her. “Aren’t you overdue?”
“Ugh, I don’t think he’s EVER going to come out!” Misty yelled back over her shoulder.
I gaped. “This is… this is…”
“They call it a ‘Baby Farm’. Personally I don’t like the name, it’s not like they treat us like cattle. The name comes from the practice of buying children given up for fostering during the Victorian era, which was fairly sordid in itself. We’ve been debating a better name for years without any luck, though.”
“They’re all Exemplars,” I observed, unable to find a single ugly or even plain face. “Is that your game? Breeding mutants?”
She took a deep breath. “Technically yes, but not in the way you’re thinking. The girls here are surrogate mothers, artificially inseminated. Before you jump to conclusions, none of us are forced to be here, it’s all a mutually beneficial arrangement. Exemplar women recover quickly from childbirth, without many of the complications that can afflict normal women. If you’re a young female Exemplar without the money or connections to advance yourself, we can give you a head start.”
“A surrogate mother scholarship program?” I asked, dumbfounded. My hands strayed to my stomach as I felt a little sick.
“Hey, that’s not bad,” Dust beamed at me. “I’ll have to suggest that at the next meeting.”
“Why not use cloning tanks or artificial incubators?”
“I’m not sure,” Dust said with a shrug, taking my arm to lead me along the path while we talked. “If I were to guess, it’d be higher successful birth rates. Though maybe our sponsors have a thing for the old-fashioned womb, who knows?”
“You don’t know who you’re working for?”
“A little,” she admitted, “but it’s up to the Captain how much you need to know. I can tell you that our babies are raised with the best of everything and all the chances that we never had. Come on, it’s nearly lunchtime; the Captain’s probably already waiting for us. He can explain everything better than I can anyway.”
She led me to the far side of the park, through more double doors and up another flight of stairs. We arrived at a large domed room with several large bay windows providing a 360 degree view of the sky beyond, marred only by the four anti-gravity engine towers holding the aircraft aloft. The room was dominated by a long dining table with enough places for more than two dozen people.
At the head of the table stood a short man dressed in a blue coat with gold epaulets and a high, black, collar. His bright white pants hugged his legs like spandex and were tucked into shiny black boots with ornate gold buckles and thick soles that added inches to his height. He also affected a curled white wig and a tall, wide, hat with a long peacock feather that swayed with every motion of his head.
“Greetings, mademoiselles,” he welcomed in a thick French accent, “it is an absolute pleasure to meet with such fine beauties as yourselves so fashionably early.”
“Captain,” Dust answered his greeting with a formal courtesy, “may I present to you Seraphina Valocco. Seraphina, this is Captain Robur.”
“Please, I am known as Robur or simply… THE CONQUEROR!”
I winced as his last two words were amplified as they echoed about the room. My first guess was a Siren power but I quickly revised that to merely some form of gadget. It was hard to look impressed, as we approached I realized I towered over him a full head height and Dust was even taller than me, so I didn’t even try. Crossing my arms over my chest, I glowered at him. “So, will the White Rabbit be joining us or is he perpetually late as always?”
He looked at me strangely as the crack went right over his head. “Excuse me?”
“Obligatory ‘Alice in Wonderland’ joke, nevermind,” I sighed. “I thought with all the Jules Verne fanboyism around here, you’d appreciate the classics.”
“Oh,” he chuckled politely, his eyes roaming down my body, “actually I avoid any literature written by Englishmen. Please, take a seat.”
I’ve never, ever, desperately wanted to punch someone upon first meeting them. Robur had broken that particular drought in no more than four sentences. “Dust here tells me you actually have an explanation for kidnapping and subjecting me to invasive surgery. Maybe you could tell that one to me, I could use a good laugh.”
He frowned. “You American women are as forward as I’d heard, I’m not sure that pleases me.”
“Only when dealing with kidnappers with exceedingly short life expectancies,” I countered.
That made him smile. “Oh, you refer to your mother. Yes, I assure you, we are quite safe from her here.”
Snorting, I shook my head. “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.”
“What?” He asked, perplexed.
“You got that line from the Emperor. Problem is my mother’s far more dangerous than a fleet of warships; she used to go toe to toe with the likes of Champion.”
“Even if she can find us, it won’t come to that. Not only won’t she risk your death, you will inform her of your wish to join us of your own free will.”
Startled, Dust looked at him askance. “Uh, Captain?”
“Don’t make this more difficult, Dust,” he snapped, dismissing her question with a negligent wave of his hand, “I have my orders.”
“All right, let’s entertain the notion that that might actually work,” I said, knowing that it had no way in hell of dissuading my mother, “I assume that means you’re holding Donald hostage. I need to see him.”
“In due time,” Robur snarled impatiently. “If you don’t want him harmed, I suggest you show me a little deference.”
I gave him my mother’s best condescending smile. “See, you’ve got this whole villain thing ass backward, Robur. First you’re supposed to show me that you have Donald in your power, THEN you threaten him with bodily harm. For all I know he’s already dead.”
Growling, he stood up and swept his silverware off the table, scattering it across the floor in a fit of pique. “Just shut up and listen to me, you arrogant shrew!”
Dust shrank away from him, looking around in confusion. I was betting she’d never seen this side of her Captain before. Feeling a little sorry for her, I backed down. “All right, we’ll do this your way then. Just try not to get any exposition on the carpets, it’ll never wash out.”
For a moment I thought the veins in his temples were going to burst, which would have been amusing to watch if I wasn’t close enough to be hit by the arterial spray. Finally getting himself under control, he sank into his seat with his hands balled into fists. “Have you heard of an organization called The Bloodline?”
I shrugged. “Vaguely; mostly European conspiracy theory stuff, some sort of vampire Illuminati.”
“Yes, the ignorant masses mistook what few mutants existed in pre-industrial society for vampires, werewolves and witches,” he snorted. “The truth is that the mutant phenomenon is older than modern society thinks. The Bloodline is a lineage of mutants that trace their origins back at least a few hundred years. Through refinement of their eugenic principles, they claim the ability to increase the chances that their children will manifest. Through selective breeding, they also claim success in the creation of more powerful mutants.”
“I call baloney,” I scoffed, “we know mutation doesn’t work that way and there are no records of mutants before the 1900s.”
“The important thing is what my superiors believe,” Robur said with a shrug. “But they do use one of the few logically effective methods for producing more mutants: volume. More babies mean more mutants even on long odds.”
“Hence the Baby Farm,” I said, catching on. “The Bloodline selects a pairing, you fertilize certain eggs with particular sperm and the women provide you with plenty of prospective mutants.”
“The IVF treatments were my idea,” Robur declared proudly, “for which I received significant funding. I’m told that we have achieved great things here and accelerated The Bloodline’s plans significantly. Of course, we are always in need of more raw materials…”
“So you kidnapped me for my eggs,” I snarled. “Do you have a mole in ARC or did one of my mother’s friends betray her?”
“I think I’ll leave you guessing on that score,” Robur answered with smug satisfaction. “But it goes deeper than merely wanting you for your raw materials. You see, The Bloodline is a very large and extended family. All members are at least distantly related by blood. It’s also a part of your mother’s history that she doesn’t talk about.”
“Ok, I can see where this is going,” I sighed. “Mom’s family were members of this Bloodline. She’s not the type to tow any sort of party line and there was a violent falling out, at which point she went rogue and joined the war effort, that about cover the ancient history? Now, I show up on your radar and you think because we’re related we’re still part of the family and you can just bring me back into the fold by force… or were you hoping to get Mom back through me too?”
“You really think you have all the answers, don’t you?” He snapped.
“No, it’s just simple deduction, Watson… oh, sorry, that was another English author. Did Vidocq have a sidekick? No, forget I asked. Whatever this Bloodline’s deal is, it’s ancient history. Mom left her family dead and buried in Italy sixty years ago.”
“If you’re implying that your family’s past is no longer relevant, you fail to understand the nature of the Bloodline’s elder members,” Robur stated condescendingly. “I assume that you’re aware of your mother’s longevity? This is one of the traits relatively common to Bloodline members and is especially valued. Your mother has it and now we know you have it. Combined with your rare combination of mutant talents, that makes you the Bloodline’s prodigal child.”
“Super,” I said with flat sarcasm, “but I’m not seeing how that equates to kidnapping me. If your masters are playing for the long game, it doesn’t make any sense… unless…”
He raised his eyebrow at me. “Unless?”
“Oh,” I said, smirking when the realization hit me. “They don’t know you’ve kidnapped me, do they?”
Shifting uncomfortably in his chair, Robur scowled. “Not that it matters. If you want Donald to remain alive, you’ll do everything that I tell you to do. That includes accepting my proposal of marriage.”
My guts felt like they dropped through the floor. “Your what?”
“Position in the Bloodline is based not only on individual power and respect but the potential of your offspring,” he explained. “My ability to woo you will raise my already-high standing with the elders.”
Stunned, I sat staring at him for several moments before getting my voice back but we were interrupted by a small swarm of flying droids carrying food and drink. They replaced Robur’s cutlery as he smirked victoriously at me from across the table. Dust fidgeted with her dress, fear and confusion plain on her face. I looked down at the bowl of leek soup as it was placed before me, the aroma making my stomach growl.
“Do you have a TV around here?” I asked out of the blue, partly to sow confusion.
“Excuse me?” He asked back, looking perplexed.
“A television,” I repeated, “do you have one?”
He looked at me like I was a moron. “No, not until I rescind the media blackout. Besides, wouldn’t you prefer entertainment with real cultural value?”
“I like keeping up with current events,” I explained.
We stared at each other over the meal for a while, my hosts being too polite to pick up their spoons first. “Aren’t you going to eat?” Robur finally blurted out.
“Not until someone proves you haven’t laced it with some sort of date rape drug.”
He glared at me quietly fuming. “And what would prove to you otherwise?”
Picking up my spoon and napkin, I started cleaning the cutlery to make sure it wasn’t coated with something nasty. “Take a sip of yours. Then we trade bowls.”
Scowling, he complied. We traded our soups and I happily started eating. “So, what do I get in return if I marry you?”
“More than the lifelong adoration of the greatest specimen of manhood in the world?” he asked with a leer that I supposed was his attempt to be charming. “I promise that your friend will be kept unharmed and you will be provided with the best tutors in Europe. The Bloodline’s resources in training and education are extensive.”
“So, you’ve made your pitch, can I see Donald now?”
Throwing his spoon into his bowl, Robur swore under his breath in French. “Must you insist on spoiling the mood by focusing on unpleasant business?”
“Robur,” I said in a seductive tone that could have come straight from my mother’s mouth as I leaned closer, “if you think this is unpleasant, do you really want to see what I’m capable of when I start believing Donald’s already dead?”
He leant closer to me, resting one hand on the table for balance as he tilted his head slightly to the side as he moved to steal a kiss. “I would love to see you try, ma ingénue.”
At which point I pinned his hand to the table with a silver fork. I’d never heard anyone howl like that but, as disturbed as I was at the fact, it was immensely satisfying. Dust screamed after the initial shock wore off as blood started to seep from the wound.
“Do I have your attention now, sweetie?” I asked innocently. “Good. Now if you want this hand back, I have two demands. First, I want a television, preferably with world news channels. Secondly, I want a working phone so that I can call my mother, I’m sure she’s awfully worried about me.”
“What… about… Donald?” Robur gasped.
“I’m assuming he’s dead, remember?”
The doors at the base of the stairwell were flung open moments before Marcel ran up the stairs with a bunch of armed bellhop-goons.
“STOP!” Robur ordered in a strained shout, halting his reinforcements in their tracks. “What if I… showed you Donald?”
“See? You’re getting the hang of this. Tell you what, I’ll trade you my phone call for that, I still want my television.”
“Let my hand go first.”
“Do I look like an idiot? Donald first, then rescind the media blackout. Then I’ll let go of your hand.”
For a moment I thought he was going to faint, but he eventually nodded. “Eurydice, show Seraphina the visual feed from Lab X-8.”
A holographic window appeared in front of me, hovering over my soup. It showed a picture of someone strapped to a medical table similar to the one I’d been on when I woke up, wearing a gown much like the one I’d woken up in. The person strapped to the table wasn’t Donald, however; it was Daphne. Her eyes were closed as she slept peacefully, mercifully oblivious.
“We don’t have… any use for… men here,” Robur explained through his teeth, the color slowly draining from his face. “I used a serum… licensed from… Karedonia. They use it to… create… pleasure slaves. Didn’t expect him to change… so much.”
“Oh, that’s ok Robie,” I growled, resisting the impulse to twist the fork, “I’d know that face anywhere. Your mistake was using a serum that grants a low level Exemplar trait and, because I’m generous, I’ll forgive you for using a serum that has a twenty percent chance of causing GSD. But only if you rescind that media blackout right now.”
“Eurydice… media blackout… RESCINDED!”
“Thank you, Captain Robur,” Eurydice’s pleasant voice acknowledged from the speaker system. “Incoming communications now available.”
I gave Marcel a look. After a moment, he nodded slowly. Robur screamed like an eight year old girl when I pulled the fork out of his hand, even falling out of his chair. Dust just watched, wide-eyed with one hand over her mouth as he curled around his hand. The bellhops started to charge in but Marcel stopped them with a wave of his hand. Selecting two, he gestured for them to help Robur while the others covered me with their weapons.
“Eurydice,” I said aloud, ignoring everyone else, “search international news channels and websites for items dated within the last three days, keyword ‘Strega’.”
“Searching… I have six hundred and seven hits,” Eurydice replied, the list immediately appearing in front of me.
My eyes widened when I saw the hit at the top of the list. Reaching out, I touched the link to open it, horrified at the prospect of what I might see. It was a video feed from BBC News, the scrolling title at the bottom of the screen read ‘PARIS UNDER SIEGE’.
“…scene from a zombie movie,” the female reporter shouted over the noise of gunfire as French police fired through a second floor window in the background, “the Gendarmerie is hard pressed to defend what remains of the area with the non-lethal assets at their disposal for fear of harming friends and loved ones. Hordes of normally peaceful citizens roam the streets, searching for anyone not already infected by the dark enchantment. While this may be her greatest act of super-terrorism, it is by no means the only crime being perpetrated by The Strega. Fires still burn around the headquarters of the Legacy Corporation, which is now no more than a smoking crater in the streets of Paris. We also have pictures of the Eiffel Tower surrounded by glass statues of petrified tourists being held hostage by the villainess. French news anchor Mélissa Theuriau has been possessed to deliver the Strega’s sole repeated demand over the air, a single phrase that echoes around the world: Return my daughter, now.”
My heart skipped a beat, the magnitude of my mother’s response making my jaw drop.
“The President, however, is adamant in his refusal of aid from US and UN sanctioned superhero groups as well as the MCO. Last we heard, the national superhero league Les Défenseurs de la République has mobilized to take the fight to Strega but we have as yet had no word if the two forces have clashed…”
Closing that window, I scanned the list and selected another. It was a streaming video delivered through a French superhero fan site that claimed to be broadcasting several blocks away from the Eiffel Tower.
“…I’m sorry I have to whisper,” a man said in French as he zoomed in on some glass statues that stood in the park below, though the video was grainy and stuttered from lag, “there aren’t as many of the enchanted this close to the tower but I can’t let them hear… oh god, all those people…”
A sudden noise made him flinch, the view from the camera lurching with a sickening motion. It looked like he was on the roof of a high building, though he was obviously a lot further from the tower than just a few blocks. “Merde! I… I think I see Les Défenseurs… they’ve got the English hero Black Lion with them… makes sense, it’s rumored he went to school with Le Coq… god, they move so fast, I never imagined…”
Something exploded, throwing him perilously close to the edge as his camera slipped from his grip. Then the picture came to a halt. I caught a glimpse of mom in full costume throwing a woman in a gold bodysuit with diagonal red, white and blue stripes across the front resembling the French flag. I recognized the uniform, it belonged to the French superheroine Liberté, one of the so-called ‘Freedom Triplets’ that were like the French version of Captain America. I wondered where her brothers, Égalité and Fraternité, were. They’re notoriously protective of their sister.
The camera moved again as the guy grabbed it in his scramble for cover. The two women entered into a truly epic, if one-sided, catfight. Mom blocked Liberté’s return punch and responded by slashing open her costume with magically conjured energy claws, spinning her about. Catching the girl’s long blonde hair, Mom tripped her up then elbow slammed her into the roof, causing a ripple that threw the cameraman off his feet again. Turning Liberté over forcibly as she struggled, her wrists were pinned as mom moved in for the kill, planting a lingering kiss on the girl’s lips that stilled her.
“Oh god, I don’t want to die,” the cameraman begged from the ground when mom looked up square into the camera, her eyes glowing with malice. “Please, please, please…”
Le Coq appeared suddenly, leaping onto the roof as if he’d been waiting for a cue so he could execute his Big Damn Hero moment. As a superhero, Le Coq’s one of the ones that doesn’t really translate well to English speaking countries despite his impressive resume. He’s tangled with some of the best and worst and come out on top, but unfortunately he looks like a modernized superhero version of Foghorn Leghorn. He is, however, a nine foot tall wall of solid muscle with an attitude that combines Marvel superhero Wolverine with a professional athlete.
Not being a rookie, he didn’t bother with the cool poses and got straight down to business while his friend Black Lion tried to rush mom from behind. Black Lion’s armor is styled after a medieval knight and it’s rumored that he’s actually a British Lord when he’s not rescuing damsels in distress. Nobody’s entirely sure if his powers are technological or magical in nature but his blade’s cutting properties are legendary. I breathed a sigh of relief to note that he was still using his fists when he hit mom from behind, though I doubted that was going to last long.
I almost facepalmed when mom’s illusory body disappeared and Lion charged straight through to barrel into Le Coq at full speed, knocking them both off the roof. I wasn’t worried for their safety since Le Coq’s a pure brick and Lion can fly, but the distant sound of their impact with the ground made me cringe.
The camera lurched back from following the two morons over the edge to find mom locked in psychic combat with Fraternité as both of them hovered in mid air. Pure energy arced between them as they each pitted their wills against the other’s shields in a rare display of mystical brute force. As the camera panned down, we could see Égalité trying to wake his sister. It was a sound strategic move, the Freedom Triplets’ shtick was heterodyning their mental force after all, but…
“NO! Don’t trust her, you idiot!” I shouted at the screen moments before Liberté’s eyes fluttered open.
She took him totally by surprise, locking her arms and legs around him as she cut off his air supply. In turn, his startled choking noise distracted Fraternité for a single instant, which was enough for mom to apply the full force of her power and knock him from the air like a puppet with his strings cut.
“Witch!” Black Lion accused as he rocketed towards Mom with his sword drawn.
Sighing, Mom opened a portal right in front of her that Lion immediately flew through before it closed behind him. “Go away, little man,” she said to no one in particular.
Letting go of her unconscious brother, Liberté got up and dusted herself off. “Le Coq’s retreating,” she informed my mother in French while wearing an expression of total adoration, “we just got word; the President’s ordered a cease fire. He wants to negotiate.”
Mom stroked her cheek and gave her another kiss. “Excellent, help your brothers, I’ll attend to them in a moment.”
I watched a wet stain form in the cameraman’s pants as her baleful gaze fell on him. “You,” mom said, pointing towards the screen. “Is that camera still functional?”
He must have nodded because we couldn’t hear anything other than his sniffles of terror. She ordered him to focus in, which he did slowly, though mom waited with uncharacteristic patience.
“Mr. President,” Mom addressed the screen in flawless French, “obviously I haven’t made myself clear enough in these past few days. Paris will be returned to France on a single condition: the safe return of my daughter. I have reason to believe one of your countrymen or someone affiliated with them is holding her. If France is not enough to spur the free world or her captors into action, my forces will march across Europe until I complete the conquest that Adolf Hitler could never hold. Oh, by the way, there’s a sonic bomb somewhere in the Eiffel Tower that will shatter every pane of glass in the city, another attack like this and I WILL detonate that device. Also, thank you for the triplets.”
Mom made a negligent gesture and the screen went black. Slumping back in my chair, I let the henchmen surround me as they looked nervously between each other as well as back and forth between Marcel and Robur. Marcel stood impassively, his face and thoughts as unreadable as a statue’s. I couldn’t read Robur’s thoughts either but the anger on his face as he clawed his way to his feet spoke volumes.
“Gun,” he demanded, practically tearing one out of the hands of the closest minion. “Eurydice, execute all the soldiers in this room.”
The bellhops hardly had time to register the order before they started screaming. Their clothes shrank inexorably, blood leaking out of their sleeves and collars as their bodies were crushed inside until they resembled stick figures. Dust started screaming again until Robur shot her with the stun gun, rendering her unconscious. “STUPID WOMEN!” He shouted at the top of his lungs, the insult echoing through the chamber. “Marcel, get this little bitch back to her room. Eurydice, reinstate the media blackout and clean up this mess. Transfer Gold Dust to one of the labs and rescind her access and passcodes. If ANYONE else accessed news reports during the last interval it was available, send them to my office immediately.”
“Certainly, Captain Robur,” Eurydice complied as politely as ever.
Marcel didn’t trap me in forcefields or pick me up with his telekinesis again, he simply held out his hand to show me the way out. I responded to his courtesy by accepting his invitation gracefully and simply following him out, carefully picking my way through dead bodies and pools of blood. My stomach threatened to revolt as we got outside, the scene as peaceful as when I’d entered. The girls around us had heard nothing and knew nothing, blissful in their ignorance.
The moment I was back in the most lavish cell in the world, he locked the door behind me and I was finally able to run into the bathroom to puke.
That night I found myself curled up in a corner, hugging my legs. I hadn’t bothered changing the dress since the wardrobe was full of outfits that were either as revealing or worse. Hunger and worry were gnawing at me and my brain felt like mush, though I was thankful to be out of the damn stiletto heels.
I was still trying to absorb how much I’d changed. It’d hit me hard when I’d looked up from spitting bile into the sink to find myself staring into a mirror. I’d looked like hell, my hair was a mess, my eyes were dark, and my make-up was smeared, but somehow that just made me more attractive in an ‘innocent and vulnerable’ sort of way. The worst part was, I was turned on by my own reflection.
Considering my situation, I came to the conclusion that time wasn’t in my favor. Somewhere, somehow (probably the Discovery channel), I’d picked up the fact that fertilizing a human egg in preparation for an IVF treatment takes about a day. That meant I could have less than twenty-four hours before I was forcibly introduced to parenthood. Not to mention I was betting Robur planned to use Daphne as the first surrogate. That didn’t take into account whatever plan he had for forcing me to marry him, which was possibly a fate worse than death.
Standing up, I paced as I thought, my skirt swishing about my legs. I knew I had to escape as soon as possible, with Daphne no less. That meant breaking out of my cell, navigating through the flying fortress, finding the lab in which Daphne was being kept, then infiltrating the hangar bay to steal a transport that I didn’t know how to pilot. Or, alternately, finding an open communications channel, hacking the virtual intelligence with mad skillz I didn’t possess, and calling my mother to come rescue us even though I didn’t know where we even were; that would also mean deactivating the ship’s stealth systems as well as doing it quietly since I wasn’t confident enough to face down Marcel on my own.
Compared to the plethora of problems I faced, the assets I had on my side were minimal. What I knew about magic could fill a thimble, so that was out except as a last resort. Likewise, my psychic ability was sporadic and unreliable. I was stronger and faster than anyone likely on board, but the henchmen had guns. That left me with the one asset that I didn’t want to even admit to myself.
Reluctantly walking back into the bathroom, I took a good, long, look at my reflection. The very notion of what I was about to do made my skin crawl. Closing my eyes, I took several deep breaths and focused on my mother. Her modus operandi had been set in stone long before I was born, and the simple fact that I was around hadn’t changed her. She had her flings, a great many flings, with heroes and villains, male or female, human and inhuman. Mom loved her body, loved pleasure, and unrepentantly lusted after others. She was confident and free in a way I’d never experienced except as a voyeur.
Imagine if your brain was a railroad system that lay in long, sweeping, paths through your memories. All your thoughts and feelings on every subject you’ve ever considered lie alongside those railroads. Naturally, there are branches, forks and intersections leading various places, controlled my switches and lights. When I opened my eyes again, I threw one of those switches across in my head. I cut off parts of myself while opening my mind to thoughts and desires that I consciously denied.
Looking at myself again, I saw a faint smile play across my lips. Gently, pulling the hair from my face, I turned slightly to assess myself at a three quarter angle. I liked what I saw. Splashing some water in my face, I picked up one of the small hand towels and carefully wiped away the makeup around my eyes and lips before slinking back into the main room.
Slinking is harder to pull off than it looks. Girls who can really slink usually get it down after years of dancing lessons. Being an Exemplar gave me a leg up but I’d also watched my mother slink, sashay, waltz and even skip into the good graces of men and women all my life; copying her felt as natural as breathing.
Arriving by the side of the spa, I paused to stretch before testing the water with the tip of my big toe. Finding it pleasantly warm, I slowly started to peel off my dress, turning away from where I guessed the cameras were before exposing my breasts completely. Stepping out of the puddle of cloth around my feet, I walked down into the frothing water and slowly sank down to my neck.
The bubbles felt awesome and I found the tension leaking out of my muscles despite myself. Taking a deep breath, I ducked under the water and stayed there for a while before standing up, throwing my head back to get my wet hair out of my face. After a few more breaths, I lowered myself back onto the ledge under the water and sat, my hair spreading around me like the wings of a dark angel.
“Mmmm… I wish I had something to eat,” I moaned aloud. When nothing happened immediately, I reached for the soap and began lathering it on my skin.
I swear, five star hotel room service doesn’t get to a room as quickly as when the door finally opened and two of the bellhops nervously pushed in a cart laden with food. I noticed lobster, caviar, grapes and several other delicacies, not counting whatever was under the big silver dome in the middle of it all.
“M-mademoiselle,” one of the bellhops greeted with an awkward bow, “compliments of Captain Robur.”
Flashing them a knee-melting smile, I made their eyes nearly bug out when I simply stood up and ascended the short steps like Venus emerging from the surf. “Wonderful!” I thanked them both with enthusiasm. “You’re so sweet.”
There was a long pause as they both stared, acutely away of the suds running down my smooth skin but I didn’t let my smile waver. Looking over at the white towels folded neatly in a pile inside one of the sideboards, I held out my hand to draw their attention. “Be a darling and pass me one of those, please?”
Turning in unison, both of the bellhops looked at the towels for a moment like they couldn’t comprehend the meaning of the object’s existence. One of them snapped out of it and finally jumped to grab me one, placing it in my hand without a word. “Merci beaucoup,” I said politely, turning to put my back to them as I started drying off.
One of them gulped when I ran the soft, fluffy, cloth down my front, bending in place as I slowly continued down the curves of my right leg. Rising back up while drying off the other leg, I quickly wiped down my arms before slinging the towel around my back and scrubbing, ending the ritual by leaning forward a little as I rubbed it over my ass. Last of all, I scooped up my hair and wrapped the towel around my head, remaining otherwise naked when I turned back to stride over to the food cart.
“Mmmm, smells divine,” I commented, leaning over the food to inhale the delicious aroma. “Really, the two of you absolutely must try some of this; it’s only a fitting reward for two… gallant gentlemen such as yourselves.”
Plucking several grapes from the bunch, I popped one into each of their open mouths and watched expectantly until they started chewing. I allowed myself a smugly self-satisfied smile when the two of them slowly toppled, the heavily drugged food knocking them senseless in moments. A quick back kick against the side of the cart knocked it into the doorway just as it tried to close, jamming the portal open so I could retrieve the dress. “Date rape drugs, Robur? You are absurdly predictable,” I muttered as I covered myself up.
My hair was still a little wet when I ran out into the hallway carrying one of the guard’s pistols in each hand and wearing the black heels once again. Between ease of movement and marginal foot protection, I chose the protection. On top of that, they didn’t hamper my movement as much as I’d expected and I figured they could be used as improvised weapons in a pinch.
Besides, they looked really sexy.
Betting that silent alarms were going off all over the ship, I deliberately avoided the route Dust and I had taken to the dining room earlier and risked getting lost in the maze of corridors. I turned several corners at random while keeping an eye out for either elevators or stairs down, but nothing immediately presented itself. I hid the pistols behind my back as I passed an open door where two of the pregnant Exemplar women were chatting cordially to each other, neither paying me any mind.
For a moment the peace and quiet seemed too surreal. I tried to open some of the doors on my way past but none of the electronic locks would respond. On top of that, nothing larger than a mouse was getting through the air vents that ran down the hallways overhead. Escaping from the villain’s lair was nothing like how they made it look in the movies.
Passing by one particular door, a sudden chill ran down my spine. Pausing mid-stride, I could feel the aura of someone behind it, nervous and twitchy but resolved. I reacted before the door even opened, levelling my gun at the bellhop’s face before he could even raise his weapon. He froze, his eyes wide with alarm for a moment until a door down the hall also snapped open. Without hesitating, I grabbed his gun arm and yanked him into the corridor, knocking the weapon out of his hand in the process while I shot his compatriot in the face with a stun bolt, knocking him out before he hit the ground.
The goons that leapt from the door further down opened fire immediately, obviously not caring if their friend was hit in the crossfire. I sent a few wild shots down the hallway without looking as I hopped over the fallen body on the floor into the room, the remaining bellhop taking four stun bolts to the back before going down. Pulling the one in the doorway fully inside so that the automatic door could close, I shot the electric lock, frying the circuits in a shower of sparks.
The room I found myself in was full of laundry, though I couldn’t see any washing machines. It took me a moment to notice the tube at the far end that looked like an old-fashioned laundry chute. “What do you know,” I mumbled to myself, looking down the long steel tunnel, “sometimes clichés do come true.” I jumped when they started blasting at the door behind me, red lasers cutting straight through the metal door. Girding myself, I climbed into the chute feet first and let myself slide down into the darkness.
I shot out of the slide into a pile of women’s clothing, most of them similar to what I was wearing. Robotic arms sorted through the pile, opening sacks to pick through and sort the various items into proper bins. Picking up one of the smaller items that came easily to hand as I lay in the pile, I discovered it was a pair of white cotton panties with some suspicious red stains. “Eww!” I commented, cringing in disgust and flinging the item away as I crawled out of the mess.
I’d lost one of the guns in the fall but I wasn’t about to dig through the dirty laundry to try and find it. I was also forced to discard the high heels due to the uncarpeted floors, lest their clicking give away my position. Fortunately the room had a simple archway rather than a door, so I was able to move into the depths of the ship with ease.
This level obviously wasn’t designed for humans. Robots like the ones I’d seen in the dining room whizzed from room to room, either on wheels and tracks or floating through the air. Rather than living quarters, there were storage areas, maintenance bays, cables, and conduits. The robots all simply ignored me. I despaired of finding another living soul until I heard a distant whistling echo from a side passage.
Investigating, I found the first actual door on this entire level, which was mounted on a simple hinge rather than a mechanically sliding bulkhead. The sign on the door along with the sound of falling water left me with no doubt what to expect beyond. The bellhop had his back to me, standing over a toilet bowl in a wide stance as he peed with his back to me. He wasn’t very tall or muscular like the guards above. I almost felt sorry for him when I jammed my pistol into his side.
“Don’t worry,” I reassured him pleasantly, “this is nothing I haven’t done before. Unfortunately, this gun I picked up wasn’t set for stun at the time and I’m afraid I haven’t been able to work out how to switch it back. If you enjoy having your lower half, stay still and keep your mouth shut.”
I felt his panic surge, which made my smile a little more vicious. The part about it being set to kill was a lie, but he didn’t know that. “Um,” he gulped, trying to whet his mouth to speak, “can I shake it off, ma’am?”
“Two shakes,” I allowed, “any more than that and I might mistake your intentions.”
Gritting his teeth, he shook once, then twice, before putting himself away and zipping up.
“Well done,” I congratulated. “Now, let’s start with simple yes or no questions. You’re part of the maintenance crew, correct?”
He started trembling. “Y-yes,” he stuttered. “B-but mostly the r-robots do all the work.”
Jamming the muzzle harder into his kidney, I scowled. “Yes or no questions for now, remember? I’d rather not get blood on this dress, it’d clash terribly. Someone has to fix the robots, though, and I’m guessing you’re one of them. But being maintenance means you have access at the very least to most parts of the ship, correct?”
“Yes,” he squeaked.
Easing off the pressure on his side, I smirked. “Great, what’s your name?”
He looked confused for a moment. “Bruce,” he answered hesitantly.
“Righteous. You have a family, Bruce?”
Nodding, he started to sweat. “A-a wife, two kids…”
His thoughts turned to a picture that was in the wallet in his right pants pocket, and I knew he was telling the truth. Their names were Kate and Timothy, they lived in a small apartment somewhere in London. They thought he worked on a cargo ship. “Well, I have family too, Bruce. Robur’s holding one of them hostage in Lab X-8. Do you know where that is, Bruce?”
He nodded again.
“Excellent, keep this up and you’ll see Kate and Tim again someday. I need to get to Lab X-8 but I’m betting there’ll be plenty of guards between here and there. On the other hand, I’m also betting that these robots of yours can go anywhere they like from here, correct?”
“Yeah,” he replied hesitantly, “there’s a network of access tunnels running through most of the ship but...”
I shushed him when we heard the sound of a half dozen booted feet run past one of the cross-corridors. After a tense moment of silence, I took a breath. “Go on, quietly.”
“But the tunnels aren’t designed for people; usually we send a remote controlled drone to fix maintenance issues,” he whispered.
“Really?” I mused rhetorically. “This drone wouldn’t happen to have a storage unit, would it?”
“Yeah,” he answered hesitantly, “why?”
It took a bit of sneaking around and a couple of close calls with patrolling bellhops, but eventually I was the proud new owner of a maintenance drone and Bruce was sleeping comfortably thanks to the stun gun. I left him tucked safely away in a corner behind some crates before climbing into the fairly roomy storage compartment with the remote control unit and setting off.
The machine was heavy enough that it was only capable of hovering a foot away from the floor under maximum load. Stabilizing gravitation pads on the top and sides steadied the long, car-sized machine. Most of it was the storage compartment, which was sized for large replacement parts and racks of specialized tools. The rest was taken up by the robotic arms that folded neatly around the engine and computer core at the back. Cameras mounted on the front gave me vision via the screen on the controller, which also provided a complete map of the Jules Verne.
Out of 18 levels on a ship this big, Lab X-8 was located towards the bow down on level 8 while I was stuck way back close to the stern on level 15. Fortunately, the ship had been designed with the monumental task of keeping the ship’s systems running with a minimum of disruption to the staff. Behind every area was a ‘backstage’ network of maintenance tunnels. All I had to do was pick a destination and let the drone’s autopilot do the rest. It wasn’t the smoothest ride, but it was fun in a fairground roller-coaster sort of way; just a bit more bruising.
Cracking open the hatch, I found the ladder that led to and from level 9 right in front of me. Climbing up, I kept an eye on the map, as I traversed the narrow corridor full of vents, pipes and cables, and I looked for an access panel into the labs themselves. Making note of several of the cables, I quickly loaded some instructions into the drone controller just in case.
“…no way she could get this far,” I heard someone mumble through the wall as I got closer, “not without superuser access to Eurydice. There are thirteen checkpoints between here and maintenance, we’re wasting our time!”
“You want to go up against a pissed off Exemplar, be my guest,” a second voice said, “I’ll stay right here and hope the others wear her down before she even gets here, thanks.”
Finding the access hatch, I cursed silently when I discovered that it was screwed into the wall from the other side. I tucked my gun into the tight waistband at the back of the dress and slung the controller around my neck with its strap. Catching myself grinding my teeth in frustration as I listened to the two nincompoops snipe at each other, I tested an overhead pipe with the back of my hand to see if it was ok to touch before grasping it firmly to make sure it could take my weight. Satisfied, I pulled myself up, lifted my legs, swung backwards and kicked out, sliding through as the hatch was flung open under my feet.
Standing casually in front of the two bellhops who had posted themselves on the other side of the room from the main door, I dusted off my dress before smiling at them. “Hiya, boys,” I cooed, giving them a coquettish wave.
They looked at each other and went for their sidearms far too late. My time and patience had run out, so I put the idiot down with a swift kick between his legs. The coward managed to get his gun out of the holster but I simply stepped in, grabbed his wrist and shoulder, put my right foot behind his heel and threw him down on the ground, kneeling as I did to keep my hand on his shoulder and control his arm. A sharp twist of his wrist made him drop the gun, and a punch to the base of his skull put him down for the count. Drawing my pistol, I stunned the one still groaning as he clutched his privates, putting him out of action for the foreseeable future.
After grabbing their guns and pulling the drone controller from around my neck, I rushed over to Daphne’s side. She lay sleeping in the shackles, mercifully oblivious to the perils around her. Not wanting her to wake up like I had, I put the guns down beside her before unlocking the bindings and carefully pulling out the IV drip in her arm, gently patting her face to help her wake. “Donald? Donald, I’m sorry but we don’t have time for you to nap right now!”
“Hunh?” She grumbled, trying to push my hand away and mumbling something unintelligible. I was about to say something else when her eyes flew open and she bolted upright, though I managed to get my hand over her mouth before she could scream.
“Shhhh,” I whispered, putting my finger over my lips. “This is a rescue.”
“Fina?” She whispered back a moment before throwing her arms around my neck. “Oh my God, Fina, I thought…”
She stiffened in my arms suddenly when our breasts squished together. I read the confusion in her mind and gave her a pat on the back. “They injected you with a Karedonian bioenhancement serum while I was out,” I informed her calmly, “I’m sorry but there really is no time, we have to get out of…”
I knew my mistake when the lights of the observation deck flicked on and the glass dome above us opened. A score of the bellhops, silhouetted against the glaring lights, pointed their rifles down into the killzone. Between the two largest guards was Robur, posing like Napoleon in an oil painting. “Mademoiselles,” he addressed us arrogantly, “please move away from each other and raise your hands to where I can see them.”
Closing my eyes, I nodded, my shoulders slumped in defeat. “Stay there,” I whispered to Daphne as I stepped back and raised my hands, still holding the drone controller. “You win, Robur,” I said dejectedly, “let’s talk.”
He snorted. “What of?”
“I’m willing to do a deal. Let my friend go and I’ll marry you, willingly, and I’ll get mom off your back forever.”
“And exactly what assurances do I have that you won’t stab me in the back at the first opportunity?”
“HA! You take me for a fool? No deals! You are in my power now; you will do as I demand because I will it!”
“I thought you’d say that,” I muttered before pressing the button on the drone controller.
Below us, the maintenance drone’s buzzsaw arm slashed down on a bunch of thick cables, severing all of them in a shower of sparks. The catastrophic power surge blew out several of the lights in the room as decks 14, 15 and 16 lost all power. Backup generators kept the airflow through the vents constant and pressurized, but every ancillary system including locks and non-critical electronics became nothing more than dead weight.
Throwing the drone controller back into the maintenance shaft, I took advantage of the fact that the bellhops were blind for a few moments in the dark while, having closed my eyes in preparation, I could see. Grabbing two of the pistols from the bench next to Daphne, I hit the two guards standing next to Robur first, making him duck for cover. Jumping over the table, I dragged Daphne into cover with me as the bellhops fired blindly into the room. The noise and bright flashes of the light show didn’t help their aim any on top of having to contend with my return fire.
“Go that way,” I told Daphne, handing her my third gun as I pointed, “turn left when you hit the wall, stick to cover and follow it around to the access hatch…”
A stun bolt grazed the top of the table near my head, so I quickly took blind aim following the bolt’s trajectory and fired. A cry of alarm followed by a body falling into the room told me I’d found my mark. After a few more snap shots, I resumed my orders.
“…crawl through and cover me from there!”
She looked scared but nodded, her lips thin. Impulsively, I gave her a kiss on the cheek before rolling in the opposite direction, hitting two more bellhops before diving behind cover and tagging a third directly above me. Spotting a bedpan on the floor next to me, I hurled it across the room before popping out with both guns blazing.
It worked. The trail of the bedpan was followed by a hail of gunfire that lit up my targets like Christmas trees. Before they knew what hit them, six more were down. Getting impatient, the four left on my side of the room decided to jump down through the windows. One of them tagged the edge of a table with his foot and fell hard, cursing. That was when Daphne decided to join in, screaming as she let loose from the open hatch. Unfortunately, she only managed to hit one in the shoulder, though he did fall spinning to the floor and stayed there.
Fortunately, she had the good sense to duck when they returned fire, but I was so proud of her I could have burst. Leaping over the table, I grabbed the closest of the goons and quickly put a stun bolt in the one that had sprained his own ankle before throwing the one in my arms at the last fully capable henchman on our level. Unloading with both guns again, I cleared the top floor, then finished off the last two before they could untangle themselves from each other.
“Bravo,” Robur applauded as the emergency lights finally came on, casting the whole scene in dim red light. He stepped casually through the window and floated gently down to our floor, still clapping. I fired some stun bolts his way but they glanced off a personal forcefield that dissipated the energy immediately. He walked towards me confidently through the barrage, confident in his safety. “You are certainly fit to be the mother of my children. Now, surrender to me before I am forced to make this… unpleasant.”
I didn’t have to read his mind to know what he was thinking. There was lust in his gaze, the violence excited him. I noted that his hand had healed since our last encounter; I was betting he had a regenerator gadget around somewhere.
Casting aside the guns, I smiled seductively for him. “You wouldn’t expect me to give up without a fight, would you?”
“Non,” he said in a low, dangerous, tone, “but right now, I just want you to lie down and take it.”
When he levelled his hand at me, I ducked. Take it from me, when a villain points a gun at you, surrender. When they get serious and look like they’re about to shoot beams from their hands, RUN. Green lightning flashed between his fingers a moment before an arc scorched the air over my head, making my hair frizz up from static as it burned the wall behind me.
Of course, sometimes running will only get you shot in the back. Deciding that this was one of those times, I rolled towards him instead of fleeing like I really wanted to. Luckily, I’d read the nature of his personal forcefield right and slid through it with ease, hopping to my feet to deliver a haymaker to his jaw. It didn’t land, his arm shot out to grab my wrist, stopping my fist in its tracks. I tried to wrench my arm away with all my strength but his grip was implacable. His outfit started to whir and hiss as he strained against me and I realized my mistake.
“My costume enhances my strength far beyond your might,” Robur boasted, pushing me back over the central table while keeping my wrist firmly in his grip. His eyes roamed down my body appreciatively as he stepped in between my legs. “Let’s skip the foreplay, shall we?”
I squeaked when he peeled off one of the breast cups off a little too fast and groped me, squeezing hard enough to make me wince in pain. My skin crawled when he bent to kiss my collarbone, pinning my arm as I futilely beat the other against his back and tried to kick him away. It was no use, he had me under his control, grinding his crotch against mine, thankfully still fully clothed.
Looking up, I saw something I hadn’t noticed before. Hanging from the roof was a set of armatures, each tipped with a useful tool. One held a bank of lights, another some sort of electronic scanner. The one that caught my eye in particular was a jet injector still loaded with some sort of pale blue liquid. Of course, I didn’t care what was in it, I just grabbed it with my free hand and thrust it into Robur’s neck, the pressure on the head setting it off.
He screamed, clutching the side of his neck as his body started to warp and twist unnaturally, falling to the floor as his legs started to make sickening cracking noises. I didn’t stop to watch. I just grabbed my guns and dove back through the maintenance hatch.
Daphne was waiting for me, curled up next to the hatch. “Sorry,” she apologized, her eyes wide with fear, “I didn’t want to accidently hit you.”
“You did good,” I told her sincerely, pausing as I lay on the floor for a moment to pull my dress back up and stick it in place. “Don’t worry, I’m fine.”
“Here,” she said, offering the drone controller to me. “You dropped this.”
“Donald, I could kiss you,” I said, taking it from her before pulling us both to our feet, “come on, we’re not done yet.”
I took her hand and led her back to the remote drone at a run. It was waiting for us at the base of the ladder just like I’d programmed it to. “Did you take care of that Marcel guy?” Daphne asked as I opened the storage compartment for us.
“No,” I said, ushering her inside before getting in and closing the door behind us, “that’s why we’re still in a hurry.”
Setting a course for the bridge was harder; it was several floors above us underneath the dining room where I’d first met Robur. Momentarily shuddering at the sense memory of his roaming hand and wet lips, I prayed he was still screaming before putting all thought of him aside. Daphne clutched my arm as the drone lurched into action, turning corners far too fast for most norms to be able to handle.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” Daphne commented after a particularly sharp turn.
“Almost there,” I reassured her, putting my arm over her shoulders. Looking down, I became acutely aware that she wasn’t entirely the Daphne I remembered. If anything, she was cuter and definitely better built. She even made the hospital gown look good. I remembered the feel of her lips on mine after prom, the way her body pressed against mine just like it was now…
“Are you sure you’re ok?” Daphne asked, looking up at me with her deep brown eyes. “Your heart’s beating faster.”
Shaking my head, I looked away, sure my cheeks were getting red. “It’s nothing,” I answered evasively.
She looked like she was about to say something more when the drone screeched to a halt and we slid from the back of the container to the front.
“End of the line,” I sighed, handing Daphne her gun before I kicked open the door again, “ready?”
Daphne nodded, looking resolved as she gripped her weapon with white knuckles.
“Just relax, follow me, keep your head down, and watch my back,” I ordered before sliding out into the duct.
The drone couldn’t get as close to the bridge as it had to the labs, so I slung the controller back around my neck as we walked down the shaft. The map led us down a narrow, branching corridor and up a long ladder. When we got to the top, I looked back down and put my finger to my lips in the universal signal for ‘keep quiet’. Daphne nodded in acknowledgement. Climbing up into a crawlspace, I had to mince along on my elbows under the steel grates overhead, which buckled and clanked as people moved around on the floor above us.
I was in the middle of formulating a cunning plan when the grate directly above me flew upwards and I was yanked kicking and screaming out through the hole by an invisible force. Air whooshed past as I was slammed into a wall, which hurt the wall a lot more than it did me but effectively nailed me in place. Bellhops cringed away from Marcel who had his hand raised towards me like Darth Vader. I expected better than this from you, he signed with his free hand while giving me a disapproving glare. Glancing to one side, I saw that there was another man there who wasn’t cringing. He was dressed like the bellhops but he was older with silver epaulets on his uniform.
“In this situation, we Americans have a saying,” I replied angrily in French. “Cram it up your ass, douchebag!”
Control and finesse wasn’t my goal, I just balled up my anger as tightly as I could before letting it loose. The sudden wave of force bowled all the bellhops over as small objects flew in seemingly random directions. Wind whipped through the compartment as the windows blew out, depressurizing the bridge. The telekinetic force I was radiating was far stronger than the wind, however, and I grit my teeth as I concentrated on keeping a steady stream of force flowing out of my body.
Marcel willed a semicircular field of force in front of him, cutting but not canceling the pressure I was putting out. Leaning forward, he dug the balls of his feet down and slowly pushed himself towards me, his glare now one of implacable anger. Reaching into his back pocket, he pulled out what looked to be a simple hand-held Taser but I was guessing that if he got close enough to touch me with it my goose was cooked.
I tried to redouble my efforts as he inched forward, closing the distance. Every time my will faltered, he was able to gain another foot, and I knew I couldn’t keep it up forever. My heart hammered in my chest, causing my temples to throb painfully with each pulse. Sweat beaded on my skin and trickled down my brow as the Taser sparked in Marcel’s grip.
A sudden bright flash and it was all over. Marcel and I dropped at the same time. He face-planted on the floor and I crashed down in a heap, unable to get my legs under myself properly in time to soak the fall. Looking up over Marcel’s prone body, I saw Daphne blowing the smoke off her gun’s heat sink. “Whoa,” I complimented, picking myself up, “nice save, Donald.”
“Call me Daphne,” she insisted before aiming her gun at the bellhops on the floor. “And you fucks stay RIGHT WHERE YOU FUCKING ARE!”
She gave me chills; I was so proud. Looking around the room, I found it to be the standard sort of control room like you see in the movies. Panels and desks full of equipment, sensory apparatus, computer screens, knobs, dials, controls, maps, and all that. Of course, I’d made it a bit messier with scattered bodies, small objects, and broken glass. Drawing one of my own guns from the small of my back (and thanking the heavens that the designer had included a safety and thus prevented me from getting shot when I slammed into the wall), I pulled the older bellhop up by the scruff of his neck and let him know I wasn’t messing around by shoving the barrel in his face. “Good evening, Acting Captain,” I greeted pleasantly. “Please rescind the media blackout and reinstate my access to Eurydice before I get the sudden urge to perform amateur laser eye surgery.”
Credit where credit’s due, he took one look at me, kept his composure and complied fully with my demands. After commending him for his abundance of common sense, I handed him over to Daphne so I could work. “Eurydice,” I said aloud, “I want to place a call to the following number: 13-555-578394.”
A black holographic screen flickered into existence in front of me as the dialtone came through the ship’s speakers. It didn’t have a chance to ring twice before my mother’s visage appeared on the screen. She was sitting on a throne of twisted girders piled with cushions, her arms resting on the shoulders of Égalité and Fraternité while Liberté lay at her feet, looking up in adoration. “FINA!” I winced when Mom shouted my name in surprise, pushing the boys away as she jumped to her feet. “Where are you? Are you ok? Tell me who took you so I can rend them LIMB FROM LIMB…”
“Whoa, Mom, slow down,” I begged, the sound of her voice making me feel warm and safe already. Walking over to the map, I took note of the Jules Verne’s position before continuing. “Daphne and I are ok, we’re on a sky fortress in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean…”
Something I didn’t see rocketed through the window and bodyslammed me at high speed, knocking me across the room and through the front panel of one of the machines. If I hadn’t been an Exemplar, the impact would have broken every bone in my body. As it was, I crumpled to the floor with several cuts and what I was sure was going to be a giant bruise down my back.
The woman who’d hit me towered above me, her beautiful face contorted in rage as her curly blonde hair fluttered in the wind. She was huge, nearly seven feet tall, with breasts the size of watermelons and an impossibly wasp-waisted figure. Underneath the powerframe with built in jetpack she was wearing (a bare-bones exoskeleton without armored plates that simply enhances the user’s strength) she was still wearing the clothes I’d last seen her in: a scarlet jacket with gold epaulets and tight white pants. Of course the pants were a lot tighter than they’d been before and had ripped in several places. In fact, they looked more like capris than trousers now. Similarly, her jacket had been unable to contain her breasts without popping a few buttons, which left her cleavage prominently exposed inside the ridiculously tight garment. Her midriff was left bare by her expansion and she’d obviously had to leave the boots behind since they would have been far too small for her new feet.
“YOU!” Robur bellowed, beyond expressing herself in multiple syllables.
“Hey Robur, nice rack,” I complimented before kicking her in the knee.
Her foot slipped out from underneath her so I could kick her in the face when she stumbled. Thinking she’d be down for the count, I kicked out with my legs and leapt to my feet only to have her gauntleted fist ram into my stomach as she rose back to her feet.
“Son of a BITCH!” I gasped, ignoring the pain to sock her across the jaw. She blocked with her arm and tried to headbutt me, which I dodged as I grabbed her wrists and forced her back against another console. As we wrestled, I heard Daphne shouting numbers at the holographic viewscreen with the Acting Captain bent over the desk and her gun pressed against the back of his skull. The bellhops had their eyes on her, apparently unwilling to risk their XO’s life.
“Eurydice,” Robur screeched, finally regaining some of her cognitive facilities, “kill the intruders!”
“I’m sorry, guest,” Eurydice replied, “you do not have appropriate access permission for that command. Please contact your system administrator.”
“HA!” I laughed in her face. Growling, she tried to bite my arm out of spite but I simply grabbed one of her prominent nipples and twisted. She screeched like a cat on fire and accidently hit the actuator on her jetpack, a short burst from her thrusters catapulting her out the window and dragging me along for the ride.
We were both screaming when we hit the nose of the Jules Verne, scrabbling for traction to stop ourselves from sliding down the ever steeper slope that plunged down toward the icy water thousands of feet below. I hit the metal plates hard enough to leave dents with my fists while Robur’s gauntlets screeched as they gouged long scratches in the steel; it was all to no avail as we inevitably fell over the edge.
We both landed hard on the observation deck only a few meters below the lip of the nose cone, far enough below that it couldn’t be seen from the bridge. My back thanked me for another jarring impact by sending shooting pains down my limbs and making me see spots. Fortunately, Robur wasn’t in any better condition as the weight of her power frame slammed her harder into the deck.
I scowled when she started moaning and trying to get up, flopping like a turtle on its back. Dragging myself to my feet, I put my full weight into an elbow slam. “Just… stay… DOWN!” I screamed, punctuating my point by getting back onto my knees to deliver a double-fisted hammer blow. The power frame whined and whirred torturously as the battering I delivered snapped already-overstressed metal and ruptured hydraulics.
Despite the damage, Robur still managed to backhand me with enough force to knock me on my ass. “You’re dead,” she growled, finally managing to turn over and claw her way towards me. I kicked her hand away and scrabbled backwards out of reach but my back hit the railing after only a few feet.
“I’m going to strangle you to death,” Robur threatened, her eyes filled with hate, “I’m going to wrap my fingers around your scrawny throat and watch the life fade from your eyes…”
I could see a white, comet-like object was arcing from the horizon. I didn't think it was real. I thought it was from being throttled. But it hit the deck less than a second later, landing so hard that I thought the entire ship must have wobbled mid-flight. When the light faded, mom reached down and lifted Robur up by the collar until her feet dangled in the air. “Luuuuuucy,” mom admonished, wiggling her finger in Robur’s face, “you’ve got some splainin’ to do!”
There’s nothing like waking up in your own bed. Especially when you’re waking up next to a gorgeous half-Asian girl, even if said girl is wearing pyjamas. After everything that had happened on the Jules Verne, I wasn’t ready for intimacy but having someone I cared for nearby was a great comfort. Sleeping in the same bed with her did get mom off my back about sex, though, which I was profoundly grateful for.
I gave her a kiss on the cheek before carefully sliding out of bed. Looking at myself in the mirror, I cringed when I remembered the little show I’d put on to distract the bellhops during my escape. The memory made my skin crawl. “I must’ve been out of my mind,” I whispered to myself as I quietly snuck out of the room and gently closed the door behind me.
Mom was ready with a fierce hug for me downstairs. We lingered there together for a bit before getting to breakfast, sitting in silence as we ate together watching the TV.
“…things are back to normal here in Paris,” the reporter said, showing people walking busily through the park in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. “Remarkably, reports of property damage have been minimal with no casualties reported. The only injuries caused may be attributed to the gendarmerie’s use of non-lethal weapons against enchanted citizenry. The citizens and tourists affected have no memory of their time under Strega’s spell. The bomb planted on the Eiffel Tower was even found already disarmed and has been removed.”
“You weren’t actually going to smash all those innocent people, right?” I asked seriously, putting my cereal aside.
Mom put her spoon down in her bowl and squeezed my shoulder. “Honestly, I don’t know. When I returned to find you gone and all the trackers I had on you disabled, I really thought I might be digging your body out of the ground. After I traced the leak back to the Bloodline mole in Boston ARC, terrorizing Paris was kind of a reflex action, I just made it up as I went along.”
“Considering the lack of real damage, opinions on the street are surprisingly favorable for The Strega,” the reporter continued, “a recent poll showed a remarkable 42% approval rating for her actions while another 11% didn’t condone her actions but at least understood her motives. Local businesses even say that the loss of revenue for the three days they spent as glass statues has been offset by a boom in pro-mutant tourism as the members of Les Défenseurs de la République have taken to the streets of Paris.”
The picture cut to Le Coq, the Foghorn Leghorn lookalike surrounded by primary school kids. “As a father, I know the lengths I’d be willing to go to, to get back my little girl,” he said in his gruff ‘badass’ voice. “You think THIS was bad? Pray you never live to see the day Le Coq has reason to come for you.”
“Honestly, I don’t remember much after the fight,” Fraternité said with a smile, “I don’t even remember if she took advantage of me, not that I’d mind if she did.”
Mom giggled and blew him a kiss. I just rolled my eyes.
“Anti-mutant groups have spoken out over the incident, claiming that Strega simply proved to the world how dangerous mutants are,” the reporter continued when they cut back to him, “but whatever the case, Paris breathes a collective sigh of relief and celebrates their lucky break.”
“They glossed over that building you destroyed,” I noted, ignoring the next news item which was something about celebrities hugging kittens.
“The Bloodline has connections with every government in the EU and more besides,” Mom explained. “They don’t want anyone looking too hard into what the Legacy Corporation was up to as much as they’re interested in placating us.”
“Do you really think Robur was acting alone?”
“Impossible to say,” she shrugged. “I find it highly likely, though, so I’m not going to push their buttons. We’ve had a nice little truce for the last fifty years and we all have enough problems without making more for ourselves. The real stupidity here was putting a yutz like Robur in charge of something bigger than a matchbox car. I figure those responsible will get their due anyway.”
“What did you do to Robur anyway?” I asked, hoping to catch her off guard.
It didn’t work. She ignored me. “Oh, that reminds me,” she said, changing the subject, “I bought you a present for your new school.”
She produced a long, flat box from thin air and handed it to me. It was really light, which puzzled me as I removed the ribbon. While I was at it, Daphne came downstairs. “Ooooh, presents?”
Mom pulled Daphne down to sit in her lap so they could both wait while I worked the knot. The two of them had gotten closer since we got back, it was almost as if I had a new sister. Opening the box, I found a simple piece of paper inside. Taking it out, I read the contents aloud. “We do hereby recognize the transfer of the professional alias ‘Envy’… to Seraphina Sophia Valocco?”
“I searched high and low for just the right one!” Mom squealed. “I had to buy the rights to it from the last Envy but… it’s all yours now!”
“Oh my god,” Daphne said, snatching the piece of paper from my hand so she could read it. “Does that mean you’re, like, a real supervillain now?”
“Well, she did take on an entire sky fortress and win,” Mom pointed out, beaming with pride.
Close to tears, I hugged them both. I had everything I’d ever wanted and, for now, that’s all that mattered to me.
* * * * *
“Can she speak?” one of the shadowy figures asked, waving his hand past Robur’s unblinking eyes.
“Yes, master,” she answered dutifully, keeping her eyes downcast. Her hands were clasped in her lap and she wore an old-fashioned maid’s outfit. Despite her calm exterior, her mind screamed as the old Robur watched events unfold around her, unable to control what her body was doing.
“That’s… disturbing,” another commented. “Robur, what did Strega do to you?”
“Robur was punished for being a naughty girl,” she replied to her own chagrin. “Robur likes being punished, master.”
“She’s pliant,” the first shadow observed, “and an Exemplar.”
“Pity she’s not a higher level gadgeteer,” a feminine voice added.
“We must work with the assets we have. Marcel, take her away and add her to the breeding roster.”
They waited for the superpowered mime to escort the girl out of the room before continuing.
“What about the Jules Verne and Seraphina Valocco?”
“Strega allowed our personnel to evacuate before parking the Verne in Karedonia of all places. I’ve no doubt she destroyed the samples that were collected from her daughter. In the meantime, the Farm has been relocated to a more stable environment.”
“And we won’t respond to such an insult?”
“No,” the feminine voice insisted, “Robur wronged Strega and she has been punished, let that be the end of it.”
“But the girl…”
“…will be kept safe enough at Whateley,” she finished his sentence for him. “Besides, she will join us of her own free will… in time.”