Once more, continuing the slow process of restoring the fiction from the previous incarnation of this site… not sure why it wasn’t all brought over during the great migration, but, oh well. Today’s exciting adventure is a morally uplifting Horatio Alger type tale of a young woman who pulls herself up by her bootstraps to attain success in a traditionally male dominated field, making it appealing to liberals and conservatives alike.
Learning The Ropes
The young woman settled comfortably into the leather chair, and tried to look warmly – but not too warmly – at the paunchy, thin-haired man across the desk. Her blouse was unbuttoned just enough to be attractive without seeming slutty, and her auburn hair was almost, but not quite, perfectly styled. Her smile was practiced and perfect.
The man, whose nameplate declared he was Mr. Smith, sighed and made a show of looking at her resume. He coughed once, flipped the pages, then sighed again.
“Uhm, look, Miss…”
“Yes, right, Miss Harcourt. Says it right here, ha ha, should have seen that”, he added in a dull, humorless, monotone, as if reading a joke off an invisible teleprompter. “I’m not sure you’ve come to the right place. We deal in, ah…”
She smiled again, almost genuinely. “‘Unique opportunities for talented individuals interested in working for future and current leaders in a variety of specialized industries’. I read your website.”
“Yes, well, the boys in marketing cooked that up very nicely, but I’m not sure you fully understand. Our..our clients demand a great deal of very special services.” He paused, then added for emphasis. “Very special.”
She nodded. “I have no problem with that.”
He rolled his eyes. “Let’s be clear..I’m not talking about sex. At least, not any normal kind.”
She nodded again. “I know. Look, I’ve done my research. How do you think I even found this place? I know what you do, and I know what I want. I think you’ll see I’m quite qualified.”
He glanced at the resume again, this time actually reading it. “Hmmm…black belt, sixth dan…not bad. Qualified on a variety of aircraft, I see. Just missed the Olympic biathalon team. Uhm…it says here you failed to complete your graduate work in biochemistry at MIT. Why was that, precisely?”
She paused and searched for the right words. “Ethics issues.”
“Yours or theirs? The ethics, I mean.”
Her face darkened. Genuine emotion showed through the cracks. “Those ignorant fools had no idea of the potential of my work! If they only understood…” she paused, coughed demurely. “We disagreed on certain elements of the moral boundaries of post-functional biological experimentation.”
He put the resume down. “In other words, they caught you mutilating corpses.”
She shrugged. “It may have been something like that. Does it matter?”
“Only a bit. You’re quite unlikely to be involved in that kind of work right off, you know. You have no real credentials in this field, and our clients will be more interested in your directly practical abilities. They tend not to value the input of new hires into the running of their operations.”
She folded her hands. “I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut when I have to.”
“Hmm. Well, frankly, openings at the moment are poor, but I think I can find some work for you. Uh… before I put your resume in front of prospective employers, though, I need to make sure there’s no particular fields you won’t work in. Do you have any quirks I ought to know about? Women, children, old men, kittens, genocide?”
She shook her head. “Not really, no. Not if the pay’s good and everyone’s up-front about what they’re doing.”
He let out a long breath. “Right. Fine. There’ll be some more detailed examinations, of course, but I think we can work with you.” He held out a clammy hand. “Welcome to the minioning biz.”
Black-garbed, she moved through the dark ventilation shaft, her feet clad in material both soft and gripping, so they neither thumped nor skid as she made her way towards the distant point of light that marked the grate. Once there, she deftly undid the screws, taking care to let not one fall and hit the metal of the shaft with a Cooperian ring. The metal grid was then carefully removed, and she slowly let herself out of the passage, dropping silently to the floor and moving towards the glistening ruby that sat on a pedestal just out of reach.
She stopped a few feet short of it, and took a small aerosol bottle from her belt. Spraying the contents revealed a maze of glistening lines, a net of lasers which would detect almost any intrusion. A keen observer, though, would note one small path through the overlapping beams, one channel through which a grappling claw could be deployed. Smiling, she did so, and the crimson stone was caught. All that remained was to retract it, and then…
A smarmy voice boomed out. “Hah! Caught you red handed!”
She turned. Standing at the opposite end of the room was a buxom blonde wearing short pants and a shorter shirt. She was young, perky, and athletic, and Miss Harcourt despised her utterly. Behind her mask, she sneered, then spoke.
“Uhm…come and get me, you bitch?”
The blonde rolled her eyes and put her head in her hands. Lights came up. She shook her head and walked over.
“‘Come and get me, you bitch’? Is that the best you can do?”
Harcourt pulled off her mask, enjoying, briefly, the cool air of the room. “Sorry. I was busy sneaking and stealing. You’ll note I didn’t set off a single alarm. That should count for more than…than…” she paused, then spit out the word. “Banter.”
“Style trumps success every time. A look at the records of our client base should tell you that. Look, Harcourt, I even fed you an easy one. I use a color pun. You say…”
Harcourt sighed. “Fine. ‘Red handed, eh? How about I beat you black and blue?’”
The blonde nodded. “There! Now, when you learn to do that on the spot…then you’ll be ready. Let’s do the exercise again.” She looked. “You, uhm, know the ruby’s just plastic, right?”
Harcourt’s wrist twitched in an odd way, and the ruby, which had somehow vanished into her skintight body suit, reappeared in her hand. “Yes. But I wanted to practice other techniques.”
“You do realize I am a fully trained assassin? As well as a world-class biochemist?”
“I read your resume, yes. And you realize what I do to those who dare to question my authority?” The man sneered, or tried to; with half his face sheathed in grey metal and the other half a mass of horrific scars, his facial expressions were limited.
“Well, depending on how much you paid, you either fire them and send a scathing report back to the company, or you have them slowly dissolved in acid from below while being eaten by army ants from above.”
The scarred man nodded. “I always pay top dollar for my underlings. Do we understand each other, Agent 14?”
Harcourt nodded. She knew it would be like this, mentally, but the emotional impact of being treated as a disposable cog…it was harder than she’d expected, much harder. Her ambition, though, was stronger than her ego…it was the only thing that was. She gulped, and said, as subserviently as she could, “Yes Sir. I am sorry, Sir. I shall…guard this corridor, Sir.”
“Excellent. Report on any disturbances. And…I shall review all security tapes, so if anyone does happen to challenge you…be sure your banter reflects well on me. You have your orders.” He turned and left, his black and red cloak rippling behind him. After he passed, the floor level fans cut out, as they were no longer needed.
Miss Harcourt looked around. It was a grey, featureless, corridor, lit with dim bulbs every ten feet or so. She wasn’t entirely sure where it led to or where it came from, and that information, she had quickly learned, wasn’t remotely essential to the execution of her duties. She was only one step above the grey-suited drones whose only purpose, really, was to be a wall of distractions, a means of keeping invaders occupied while their methods, powers, and abilities could be scrutinized and monitored. That she wasn’t assigned to so low a place was due to her exceptional test scores, which barely outweighed her lack of field experience.
It was a start. It was much like the first time she had dissected a frog, at the age of 10…such a little thing, really, such a small beginning, and yet, it had shaped the trajectory of her life, a long arc which had landed her…in a dull, bland, empty, corridor, coming from nowhere, going nowhere, and staring at nothing.
No. Not quite nothing.
Someone was coming down the passage. Carefully, but not perfectly. He clung to the shadows as if he was one with them, moving with near silence. He was clearly aware of her, since she was, as per orders, standing in clear view, but he seemed unconcerned.
When he got within twenty feet, Harcourt called out.
“Halt, who goes there, etcetera.” She did her best to not sound bored, but she was afraid she wasn’t pulling it off well.
The man started. He clearly didn’t expect to be seen.
“You know, there’s not a lot of shadows in this corridor. You did your best, but next time? Use the ventilation shafts. It’s what they’re there for.”
The man emerged from his cautious crouch. “Uhm…”
Harcourt shrugged. “Well, I guess ‘next time’ was a bit off. Let’s say…’next life’. Because, uh, I have to kill you and all.” She could have slapped herself. Perfect banter, she thought, then I go and ruin it. This will probably show up in my report.
Suddenly back on solid ground, the man smirked, his bright blue eyes flashing handsomely. “I normally never hit a lady, especially such a lovely one, but…glurk…”
The conditional phrase was drowned out in bloody cough as he staggered back. Harcourt ended the kick gracefully, then followed it with a spin which caught him in the stomach. He fell back, staggering against the wall, and she moved in with a rapid flurry of attacks, beating him to the ground.
He coughed again. “You…you..will never take me…a…”
She glanced at his uniform. A small name tag said he was Captain MacAllistair. Hastily, she flipped open the small PDA she’d been issued.
“Huh. Your name’s not on the list of prisoners. Guess you’re right. I won’t take you alive.” She smiled. There was some promotion-worthy banter!
Mr. Smith frowned as he looked over the employee review sheets. “I don’t know what to make of you, Harcourt.”
She tried to avoid wringing her hands. Five assignments, five “mixed” reviews. The black marks on her record were bad enough, but she’d also reviewed the company’s dismissal policies. Not so much ‘golden parachutes’ as cement overshoes.
“I did prevent Captain Daring and his Daringeers from penetrating the volcano lair of Doctor Armageddon.”
The man nodded. “Yes, yes, you did…killed two of them and maimed three others….but, ah, the good Doctor did have a fiendishly clever deathtrap set up for them. He was angered that he didn’t get to use it.”
“It wouldn’t have worked. Barracuda are allergic to wasabi. Of course, if that flaw could be corrected…I believe it’s on the 14th chromosome…”
“Harcourt! Back to the present! Even if the trap wouldn’t have worked, that’s not your job.” He sighed. “You are a very competent fighter, and your banter is starting to score above average…but you keep thinking you’re smarter than your employers.” He drummed his fingers. “I just don’t think you’re cut out for minioning.”
“Sir…Mr. Smith…I. Look. I’ve been training for this for years, it’s all I’ve…” He silenced her with a gesture.
“We have openings in the Underling department. You have a lot more leeway there. Any objections to being left behind to stall the heroes while your boss makes a swift getaway?”
“Will anyone object if I kill the heroes then?”
“No. Not at all.”
She coughed and staggered through the coiling black smoke. Something exploded in a shower of sparks; someone screamed. Far away, there was the hissing of an airlock door. The remains of the radar screen showed an approaching airship. She spied the crimson armored figure of her employer and made her way to him. “Perhaps an evacuation is in order?”
Lord Malice glared back at her with eyes quite literally ablaze. He considered, for a moment, unleashing his Omega Gaze on his trusted lieutenant, but decided against it. He had more worthy targets approaching.
“You doubt me? You doubt me after all this time?”
“Uhm…two months? That reminds me, they said you were late invoicing last week and that I should…gah!” The deck of the great zeppelin lurched violently. She tried to make out the gauges on the control panel through tearing eyes.
“We’ve…cough…we’ve lost the two rear reversograv impellers! Emergency…emergency power only!”
Malice hovered over her, his red armor glowing brightly with the barely-contained power within. “What of the stabilizers?”
“Still…still holding! But we’ve only got a few minutes before the strain kicks out all the other reversogravs!” She sighed. This was what she’d signed up for, after all. Time to earn her pay. “I can hold them off while you head for the escape pod…” And once you’re out of sight, she thought, I can work something out, probably involving a quick costume change and a sincere “He went that-a-way”
“No! The turbulence beam has almost reached ultimate magnitude! We must hold position beneath the omnitransducer!”
“But you’ll die as well!”
“Yes, but the world which rejected my rule will die with me!”
“Right.” There were easier ways to make a living that dying, she thought, but this was the only path she could see to her goal… which she couldn’t achieve if she were dead. The temptation to simply knee Malice in his armored danglies and run for the pod herself was strong, but she reminded herself that they were armored, and that while betraying one’s master might be a good career move for freelancers, she was on salary. A very, very, good salary.
A tromping sound was coming from the door which led to the command center. Looked like Commander Rage and his crack commando team were on their way. Classic last minute battle to the death, with the fate of the Earth hanging in the balance. It wasn’t nearly as interesting the sixth time around; all she wanted was to live long enough to collect her Near-Apocalypse bonus.
The shadowy figures emerged from the smoke, five of them. Rage was in front, his face twisted into its trademark sneer. He jerked a thumb at the woman to his right. “Mooncrescent! Take out the help! The rest of you jerks, get on Malice!”
The slim woman nodded, then spun into a fighting crouch. Harcourt had read her profile. She wasn’t bad, but she relied on speed and a rapid disabling attack, as well as paralytic poison on her clawed gloves. She could be dealt with.
Mooncrescent, seeing that Harcourt wasn’t charging, took the fight to her, executing a tumbling leap that took superb advantage of the broken girders and twisted metal which filled the control room. She finished with a perfect somersault that sent her flying at Harcourt, claws out.
Harcourt swung a metal beam and caught her in the stomach. She went flying back like a leotard-clad baseball.
Harcourt followed, intending to take her down and then do just enough to help Malice to reasonably justify her pay but not enough to actually let him destroy the world. Her opponent had recovered more quickly than she’d expected, though, and managed to stop her oncoming flight with a swift kick. They both fell together on the floor.
Suddenly, Harcourt got a good look at her. “Anderson?”
The woman’s eyes opened in recognition. “Harcourt? Hey, not bad, you made it to Malice? That’s pretty high ranking minioning!” She then kicked out, narrowly missing her foe.
“Minion, nothing! I’m pulling down Loyal Underling pay!” Her punch shattered an already smoking computer console. “Why did you switch teams? Don’t tell me the benefits are better!”
Mooncrescent struggled to find her balance and set up a counterattack. “Nah, they actually suck. You won’t believe the deductible for limb replacements. It was…uhm…er…”
Harcourt’s face cracked in a smile. “You didn’t!”
The other woman sighed and shrugged. “I did. Hearts, flowers, an unexpected last minute change of mind that saved my beloved from certain doom. God, I know how sappy it sounds.”
Harcourt sneered. “It really does. Won’t catch me doing that.” She ducked under Mooncrescent’s punch, grabbed her arm, and twisted it painfully around behind her back. There was the sound of bone snapping. “Hope they increase your coverage after this. You get an apocalypse prevention bonus, don’t you?”
Wincing in pain, Mooncrescent just shook her head no. Harcourt glanced around. Malice’s armor was starting to crack, with scarlet light pouring out of it. “Well, this looks like a wrap. I’m going to do the whole escape pod thing, and, hey…when you’re out of intensive care, look me up. We should do lunch and you can give me all the gory details.” She then tossed her opponent back towards the others, trying not to inflict too much extra damage. She really didn’t want this to turn into one of those tedious vendetta things that always seemed to keep cropping up.
On reflection, the lunch date was fun, if a bit strained, especially when the ninjas attacked and neither one was sure the other hadn’t sent them (as it turned out, they were after the barista, who apparently had some sort of mystic tattoo or something).
“We are very close to victory, sir…”
This one disdained armor and other affectations. He was dressed in an impeccable tailored suit, and the only bone he tossed to tradition was an unnecessary goatee. He had once experimented with an eyepatch, but decided the boost to image was secondary to the penalty to gunshot accuracy. He glanced up at her from behind his desk.
“Are we?” He smirked. “Please, tell me how my plans are going.”
She ignored the sarcasm. “The virus has made its way into most of the major financial institutions of the world, as far as we can tell, undetected. Once the final trigger is in place, you’ll have central control over…well…everything. You’ll be able to gather millions…billions…and hide the losses. It’s just that…”
He glowered at her. “Go on…”
“Well, you…uhm…decided to run the entire system from a single secure mainframe at the heart of this very skyscraper. Anyone who had physical access to it, and who could crack your login, could simply wipe the botnet out.”
He laughed. “You consider that a flaw? I assure you, this building is absolutely impenetrable! To the outside world, we’re a harmless manufacturer of smoked eels. No one suspects a thing…”
“Of course, sir, of course…but I was a bit late to this assignment, some sort of problem with your last assistant as I recall….”
“Water under the bridge. You were saying?”
“Well…suppose a team of charmingly geeky nerds stumbled on traces of the virus, tracked it down, and were even now making their way through the ventilation shaft to the core?”
He nodded. “The building has very small shafts. Unless we’re assuming very cunning mice, I think we’re safe. Anything else?”
“One of the programmers you hired, angered over being fired, inserted a back door into your system?”
“Well, I didn’t fire them…I gave them limited contracts, huge severance bonuses, and a strain of slow acting ebola which should have killed the last of them six weeks ago.”
“A son or daughter who seeks to take over your empire for their own?”
“Vasectomy at 19.”
“I am impressed, Sir. So, we are just moments away from incredible wealth? Enough money to do…well, almost anything?”
“Yes. Prepare to see something new, Miss Harcourt. Victory. Perfect and flawless.”
She smiled, and was about to say something, then thought the better of it. Instead, she simply shot him through the head. He flopped out of the chair, and blood began to pool on the floor.
“Never leave your password on a yellow post-it note”, she told the corpse. A part of her wanted to say it while he was still alive, so she could see his face and enjoy it, but she knew how that went. Even the slightest warning of impending betrayal, and they pushed the shiny red button that sent you into the piranha tank, or worse.
She sat down and studiously ignored the harsh metallic tang of blood filling the air. Password entered, a few keys pressed…there. The network shifted to life under her command, its tendrils reaching into every major banking center on the planet. She skimmed over them, taking a little here, a little there, always enough to hide itself in rounding errors or mistakes by a data entry clerk. A thousand false accounts bloomed, and the ingenious software at her fingertips let her manipulate them as if they were one.
First things first, she thought. I’ll need some barracuda…a nice tropical island where I won’t be disturbed…and one more thing…
“Mr. Smith? This is Miss Harcourt. I’m afraid I’ll be leaving my current assignment early…yes, I’m aware of the substantial penalty to my annual bonus. However, if it’s not a violation of company policy, I’d like to engage your services myself. It isn’t? Oh, good! Here’s my initial order…”