Look at you. All you people of Empire City, going about your lives. Taking comfort in knowing…that whatever trouble might arise, your precious heroes will always save you. You smile those big smiles and shout their names. Because you love them. At least…you love them…as long as you need them. But when there is no great catastrophe, when there is no invading army from across the stars, when your lust for violence, judgment, and hate have remained un-sated. When the hunger for blood has become too great- it is your heroes on which you turn.
Because you fear them. Because they are different from you. So you shackle them like animals. You judge them by high ethical standards. Judge them…by your petty beliefs, by your vein stipulations. Because if they are not better than you…then they’re just like you. They’re as human as you are. They’re as fallible as you are. They’re as ugly…as you are.
So it isn’t enough for you to be saved. No,no. You have to be saved correctly. It isn’t enough to avert catastrophe. It has to be averted correctly. It isn’t enough to fend off an invading enemy. It has to be fended off…correctly.
Heroes of Empire City…these people judge you by a just moral standard. Or…a standard they believe to be just. But regardless as to how many lives you save, how many enemies you defeat, or how many times you save the world…your first mistake…there will be no warning. No second chances. You will find yourself alone. Freezing cold as you are cast from the sun. And unlike these precious people, when a hero falls…there is no one there to catch him.
In a few moments, I have no doubt your league of…giants…will arrive to stop me. Today…I am going to show you…that even giants can fall.
Villains of Empire City. Many years ago, I first stood atop this building…to teach these people…a lesson in respect. A lesson, I intend to re-teach. These people need a lesson in respect. Help me teach it to them.
Microphone feedback whined throughout the city. Then Mastermind was gone. His image had vanished. The advertisements began playing again and the people were stunned. Panicked. Frank was already halfway down mainstreet, heading to Green Tower. By the time he screeched to a halt in front of the building, chaos had erupted. A handful of villains had answered the Mastermind’s call. The League of Guardians were already responding. At least, most of them were. Frank knew one Guardian would be heading right for the Mastermind.
Frank dodged some falling rubble as he made his way across the Green building parking lot. He looked up at the battle waging overhead.
“Hey! Watch the car assholes!” He shouted, shaking his fist at them. “Talk about having bad days…”
The door to the building was unlocked. The room was vacant. Just a plain concrete floor with green brick walls. Frank made his way inside and up the elevator. He took out his phone and dialed October.
“Hello again, Mr. Sonata,” she said in her usual friendly tone. “How can I help?”
“Yeah, October, can you patch me through to Housekeeping?”
“Of course,” she said. “Just a moment.”
The line clicked.
“Housekeeping,” a man’s voice came over the phone.
“Hey Tim. It’s Frank,” he said.
“Hey Frank! How’s it going?”
“Look. Tim. I need you to check the Oculux database.”
“Alright,” Tim said. “What are we looking for?”
“Come on, Tim,” Frank said. “You know what a hack is.”
“Of course, but if we were being hacked, I’d think we’d know.”
“You might not notice this one,” Frank said.
“Okay…do you happen to know the source of the hack?”
“Yeah…,” Frank sighed. “The League of Guardians.”
“Don’t worry. Everything is too protected,” Frank said. “They can’t make a mass extraction of our files without alerting the whole building, but they will be looking for a few specific files.”
“Which ones?” Tim asked.
“Anything regarding a Mr. Arthur Warden or the Mastermind.”
“What would you like us to do?”
“Just protect them for now.”
“You don’t want us to purge the files?”
“Whoa! Not so fast with the itchy trigger finger,” Frank said. “You burn that contract, you’re burning me right along with it. Look, I’ll let you know. Just…stay by the phone. Alright?”
“You got it, Frank,” Tim said.
The doors slid open when he reached the roof. Despite the trouble, it was a beautiful day. Clear blue sky. Happy yellow sun. The Mastermind was standing at the edge of the roof, staring at the streets below, hands clasped behind his back.
“You’ve missed your que Mr. Warden,” Frank said, stepping out of the elevator. “I’m afraid the cameras might start rolling without you so…you know…now that you’ve gotten your whole ‘I’m back’ speech out of the way. Let’s go.” Frank clapped his hands together. “Come on. Everybody’s waiting. Time’s a wasting.”
“I’m afraid I won’t be attending your PSA, Mr. Sonata,” his voice was the same. A cold calculating monotone.
“I’m sorry Mr. Warden,” he said. “I know my natural charm may feel very accommodating, but this isn’t a request. See, we have a contract. What you’re doing now is not only endangering yourself, but Oculux. And taking any action to endanger Oculux is specifically stated in your contract as a big no-no.”
“And what do you plan to do…if I refuse to cooperate?”
Frank took out his car keys. A small number pad hung off the keychain.
“Well…that armor you’re wearing might look like your old Mastermind set, but it’s still an Oculux product,” He typed in a few numbers. “You think you’re the first villain to try and take the equipment and run?”
The Mastermind turned to face Frank.
“Was that supposed to do something?” He asked.
Frank stepped back. He typed in the code again. A chill bolted down his spine.
“Your armor was supposed to shut down,” he said.
Mastermind stepped forward. Arms dropped to his side. Frank spotted what looked like an old-fashioned detonator in his hands. Black handle topped with a red button. This one had a frequency changer dial on the bottom. It was the same detonator he’d given Arthur inside that little black box.
“Mr. Sonata, when I created this tower, I did so having every intention of making it my primary base,” Arthur said. “Every mad genius I had, put their heart and soul into making this place a force in and of itself. Not an inch of this building has gone to waste. Even the walls may grant advantage if one knows the correct frequency code. And one of those advantages includes the ability to jam any frequency I choose. Including that dial pad of yours.”
“But how did you know I was going to-”
“Oculux sparked my career, Mr. Sonata,” he said. “I’m quite familiar with your…methods. A perusal of your databanks gave me easy access to the specifics.”
“You never intended to follow through on your end did you?” He asked. “You just needed our resources.”
Mastermind looked away. Sighed.
“You should have been more careful, Frank,” he said, but his voice was different. For those few words, the monotone wavered. Frank heard sorrow. A touch of remorse. For those few moments, he sounded real again. Sounded human again. Like Arthur again.
“Then why?” Frank asked. “Why go through this big song and dance huh? I don’t see an endgame here, Arthur. What’s the point of all this?”
Mastermind moved a few steps closer.
“Isn’t it obvious?” He asked.
“No. It isn’t,” Frank said. “Because that was a pretty speech you gave minute ago, but it was total bullshit.”
“I assure you, Mr. Sonata, I meant every word.”
“I’m sure you did,” Frank said. “And admittedly, as you’re biggest fan, it gave me an awesome rush. Kinda like seeing your favorite band play live in your hometown. I loved it. I want my own copy, but this whole ‘I plan to re-teach’ thing. That part was bullshit.”
“Is that what you believe?”
“I like you, you know,” he said. “Oh, not the icon I worshipped as a kid. He’s my hero. Probably always will be. But heroes aren’t people are they? They’re romanticized versions of people. Perfect in every possible way. Meeting all face to face like…well you’re not meeting a hero, you’re meeting a person. Small. Flawed. Fallible.”
“It takes a lot of patience and skill to deal with people on a regular basis,” Frank said. “And that’s just regular people. The kind without laser cannons or a gang of super mutants. Not only, on a normal day, do I still succeed at doing my job. I am…was…Oculux’s number one guy.”
“My point is…I’m good at reading people,” Frank said. “Once I get in their heads it’s like re-watching an old movie. The same thing happens every time. Even when they try to switch it up…give me the new hipper version with pop culture references and some kind of wise-cracking cartoon rodent. Same formula. Different package. That’s my first advantage.”
“And what is the second?”
“You don’t know?”
“You’re starting to vex me, Mr. Sonata.”
“It’s obvious isn’t it?” Frank asked. “I’m still your biggest fan.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Oh come now,” Frank said. “Do you really think I watched all those videos, newsreels, and movies. Read all those articles, and interviews, and newspapers. You really think I did all that just for the privilege of reading about my hero? I was studying you. Your plans. Your moves. Hell, even the way you spoke. So that’s my second advantage and it’s a considerable one. Most people…I get a few minutes to get a good read. Maximum. With you…I’ve had my whole life.”
“You think knowing me…will allow you to somehow convince me to uphold our contract?”
“Maybe,” Frank said. “I don’t know right now. What I do know is this whole plan you’re pretending to put in place is sloppy. It’s too random. Too many variables you couldn’t control. This invasion is just another step. Another move toward your final goal. Whatever it is. Because that’s how the Mastermind works. Terror and misdirection. Never letting your enemies know which move was real and which was false. And even if your first plan failed…you always had a plan B.”
“You’re right,” Mastermind said. “Conquering this city is not my ultimate plan. My goal has still yet to be met. You’re also correct about the consistency of my methods. Unfortunately…my plan A failed as I suspected it might. But believe me Mr. Sonata, I tried. I tried so hard to make it work. I tried so hard to be good, but now…all I’m left with is plan B. Behold its hideous glory.”
“I’ll ask again,” Frank said. “What’s your end game here?”
The Mastermind lowered his head. Chaos raged around them. The sky was full of superhumans. All of them battling for dominance. SWAT teams were surrounding the building. The League of Guardians were out in force: Valiant II, Iron Hammer, Twilight Monk, White Knight, Razor Wolf, Nightwatch, Brightfire, Titanman. Frank could spot nearly every member. The villains who answered the call were mostly D grade. The lowest in the system. No contest. It was a massacre. Just a whole lot of chaos. They seemed like nothing more than a delaying tactic. But for what? There were no hostages. No grand lost treasures. No magical devices. No escape pods. No multi-dimensional overlords ripping their way through the walls of reality. Nothing. He was just standing there. Waiting until the world came crashing down on top of him. There was no victory scenario. In every possible outcome, the Mastermind was going to lose.
“I’ll ask again,” the Mastermind said. “Isn’t it obvious?”
Frank’s phone buzzed in his pocket. He took it out. Read the text.
Unknown: Hack found. Breach imminent. Twenty minutes until databank is compromised.
Twenty minutes to bring this to a peaceful conclusion. Twenty minutes to save his career. Twenty minutes to defeat a madman with reason. Twenty whole minutes.
Not so bad. Right?
Then Mr. Impossible floated down from the sky, arms crossed, and landed behind the Mastermind.
“Give it up,” Impossible said. “It’s over.”
Mastermind lifted his head.
“No, Mr. Impossible,” he said, turning to face the superhero. “Now things may begin.”