“Alright Arthur,” Frank said, running a hand through his hair. “That’s enough.”
“Stay out of this Frank,” Impossible said.
“No, you stay out of this…Skippy.”
Impossible’s face went white.
“That you’re really Skippy, Mr. Impossible’s lovable sidekick? Of course he did,” Frank said. “And I have to say…you look pretty good for a guy who vanished a couple of decades ago. Far away. In another dimension. Hmm…when you really think about it, that retcon business seems a little obvious doesn’t it?”
Impossible glared at Frank.
“If you even think about trying to reveal the truth, I’ll-”
“You’ll what? Kill me?” Frank said. “That’s a little against your code, isn’t it? Besides, he told me that days ago. You think I’d just leave something that extra juicy just rattling around in my head? I dumped all that into the Oculux databank. Of course, it’s already set for mass dispersement, set to a dead-man timer. I don’t enter the code…you get the rest. So you can let me live and place your trust in my distinguished sense of professionalism. Or you can kill me. I won’t be able to set the code and all those precious secrets get sent to every news agency Oculux has influence over.”
“The government would dismantle you,” Impossible said.
“Maybe. Maybe not,” he said. “Either way it won’t be good. For anybody. Especially you. So stay back m’kay…Skippy?”
“Let it go Mr. Sonata,” the Mastermind said. “Nothing you can do will change the events I’ve set in motion today.”
Frank shook his head. The events ran through his mind again, but not just the recent ones. He replayed all of them. Even those stemming from decades past. Everything he read. Everything he watched. Everything he learned up until this very moment. The betrayal. The determination. The no-win scenario. A lifetime of lies.
“This doesn’t add up,” he said.
Impossible and The Mastermind both looked at Frank.
“What doesn’t?” Impossible asked.
“It never struck me until this moment…,” Frank said. “Betraying the League. Creating the Vengeance Initiative. Forming plan after plan. Terrorizing the country. What was it all for? No one really asked that question. Not back then. Not when they were comfortable thinking evil doers carried out evil acts for evil’s sake. From the moment you first dawned that horned helmet until right now, no one really wondered why you did all those things or what the Vengeance Initiative was supposed to be avenging.”
“Frank…don’t,” Impossible said.
“There were plenty of rumors,” Frank said, keeping his eyes locked on the Mastermind. “Rumors to your identity. Your background. Some of them were pretty good too. I remember having a couple of favorites. But it’s only after meeting the man under the mask that I realized all those rumors…well they were all wrong.”
The Mastermind didn’t move. He just watched as Frank spoke.
“I’m warning you,” Impossible said. “Leave it alone.”
“Then there’s this Skippy business,” Frank said. “I understand the government replacing you with boy wonder here, but here’s the thing. You mentioned him being your second sidekick.”
“Shut up, Frank,” Impossible said.
“There’s no record of Mr. Impossible ever having more than one sidekick…”
Impossible vanished and reappeared in front of Frank. The hero grabbed Frank’s shirt and lifted him up. Impossible’s face locked into a scowl. Frank rolled his eyes.
“Again with the grab the shirt thing?” Frank asked. “I’m sending you the bill for a new shirt. Hope you can afford Venetian silk.”
Impossible’s eyes flared.
“I told you-”
“It wasn’t enough…,” the Mastermind said. Frank and Impossible both looked to the Mastermind. “It wasn’t enough to risk our lives. It wasn’t enough…to save the world. It wasn’t enough to sacrifice everything to be the one bright shield against a cold cruel universe. It wasn’t enough to do the impossible. These people…always wanted more. Save the universe and all they do is complain about the inconvenience we caused them. But…I could’ve handled all that because a hero’s job is not to be praised or loved. A hero’s job is to protect the people. So I could have taken the ridicule. I could have taken my name being slandered, being dragged through the mud. Hated, loathed, and feared…because that’s what heroes do. They’re a pillar for those they protect. Even…if that pillar is just a whipping post.”
“Then why?” Frank asked. “If you could take it…why the betrayal?”
“Because eventually, I learned the truth,” he said.
“You don’t have to explain anything,” Impossible said. “Not to him.”
The Mastermind walked to the edge of the roof again and looked down.
“There comes a time…,” he said. “When the world asks for more than you can give. And when you’re exhausted. When you can count all the precious things in life you have left on one hand and can give no more…the world will start to take. They’ll take until the day comes when they’ve taken one thing too many. Then you find yourself lost in the pits of Hell with no way out. Alone and helpless. Left adrift in all that pain and all that rage. After a while, it begins to take over. And after a little while…you start to need it.”
“What did the world take?” Frank asked.
“What does it usually take?” Impossible asked.
“Something precious,” the Mastermind said. “And now the world is ready to take something else. Unless I die today, in the eyes of the nation, I will lose that something. And even after all these years…I’m still not ready to give this world anything more.”
“So that’s it then,” Frank said. “You plan to die.”
“No…not just die,” the Mastermind said. “To save my world I cannot just die…I must fall.”
Impossible grimaced. He set Frank down. His fists closed tight.
“What makes you think that we…that I would ever go along with that?” Impossible asked.
“What makes you think I’ve left you any choice?” Mastermind asked.
Impossible approached the Mastermind, walking toward him until the two stood toe to toe. Impossible looked him in the eye.
“Heroes don’t kill,” he said.
“Then don’t be a hero,” the Mastermind said.
Impossible didn’t say anything.
“Sometimes…a hero isn’t good enough,” the Mastermind said.
Impossible averted his eyes. A bead of sweat slithered down his brow.
“You can end it,” the Mastermind said. “You have to end it.”
“Why?” Impossible said. “Why do I have to?”
“Because I won’t stop. Not this time,” the Mastermind said. “I’ll keep going. Keep terrorizing the world until no part of me can go on. People will suffer. Countless innocents will perish. You can save them if you want to. Their lives depend on the choice you make right now. The same choice I made all those years ago.”
“What choice was that?” Impossible asked.
“To decide what is most important,” the Mastermind said. “Right now. What, to you, matters the most? Is it the life of your old mentor…or is the lives of the people? Answer truthfully. The future depends on that answer, because right now I’m your worst nightmare. I’m a villain that can’t be defeated. Can’t be negotiated with. Can’t be reasoned with. An unyielding force prepared to plunge your sparkling world into chaos. I’ll keep burning everything you swore to protect until you snuff out those flames forever.”
“No,” Impossible said. “We can stop you.”
“You can delay me,” the Mastermind said. “But you know better than anyone…I’ll always find a way. One action can save those people. Your reluctance will make your failure inevitable and the future of countless people rests in your hands.”
Impossible paused. He held out his hands and looked at them. They seemed so ordinary. But they were the hands that once stopped Star Khan’s ship from slamming into the Earth. They were the hands that destroyed the missile that would have sparked a world war. They were the hands that rescued a little girl’s kitten from a tree. The hands that saved a man from driving home alone in the rain. The hands that saved a mother of two from her husband. The hands that saved a sad little girl drowning beneath the weight of her world. The hands that once embraced his childhood hero, because he’d sacrificed everything to be his one bright shield against a cold cruel universe.
“It’s your only option,” the Mastermind said. “This choice has only one right answer. Between the lives of an old traitor and the lives of the people…you must choose the people.”
“Because I’m a hero…,” Impossible said.
“Yes,” the Mastermind said.
“And because that’s what heroes do.”
Impossible shook his head.
“No,” he said. “That’s not what heroes do.”
The Mastermind took a step toward Impossible
“I said you’re wrong,” Impossible said. “Heroes don’t protect. People protect. People protect because that’s what people do. Because it’s the right thing to do. The thing that makes us different…what makes a hero…isn’t the superpowers or the costumes. A hero is a symbol. A guide. A bright shining star to help the lost ones find home again. We make the sacrifices so others don’t have to and we make the tough choices so others don’t have to. Not because we’re better, or because it’s our job. We do it because we want to. Because we know we can take it and still walk out the other side. And even if we didn’t know. Even if we knew we’d crumble we’d still make that sacrifice, that way…if we die, the future can look back on our actions and see what people are capable of. They’ll look back and see, that even in the face of certain destruction, we did not falter. And maybe…just…maybe, the heroes and leaders of tomorrow will find succor in those deeds. Just maybe, when the world has undergone a great struggle, they’ll look back on us at their darkest hour and see how strong a person can be. And that’s what heroes do. Heroes sacrifice when no one else can. Heroes act when no one else can. Heroes do what no one else thinks they can do, to prove it can be done. Heroes inspire. And above all else, heroes do the right thing. So find another way to die, because I won’t be killing you.”
The Mastermind looked Impossible in the eye.
“Not everyone is like you, you know.”
“I know,” Impossible said.
“Justice is fickle to these people,” The Mastermind said.
“Your fate is left to the people and their sense of justice. It’s up to them to make that choice. We can’t make it for them.”
“Even if it’s the wrong choice?”
“Especially if it’s the wrong choice.”
Frank’s phone buzzed in his pocket. He checked it.
Unknown: Ten minutes.
Frank sighed. He brushed his sleeves and straightened his collar.
“You try to be professional,” he grumbled. “You try to be accommodating…”
Frank walked up to Impossible and held out his hand. Impossible raised a brow.
“You offering to jerk me off Frank?”
“You’ve already ruined a mighty expensive shirt Impossible, trust me, you really don’t want to go adding a hand job to your bill,” Frank said. “No. Since you and your team of super losers don’t seem to be solving the current dilemma, I’m going to do it for you. I just need your communicator.”
Impossible folded his arms.
“Why? So you can save your ass?”
“Look, the Mastermind causing mass terror as an official Oculux employee is a pretty flimsy reason to take apart the company. Our lawyers will put up a pretty good fight and in a just world…we’d win.”
“Oh, what a load of-”
“But…we both know with the entire League of Guardians putting their reputations on the line to back the charges, we’ll be in for one hell of witch hunt lead by senator kangaroo. So it’s in Oculux’s best interest to stop these shenanigans ASAP.”
“We don’t work like that Frank,” Impossible said. “Besides. The League will eventually win the day. If I let you help, it might ruin my chance to rid the world of Oculux once and for all. So if we’re going to win anyway, Frank…why should I throw away that chance?”
“Because I have the power to end this right now…and because I’ve had time to get a good read on you,” he said. “You might be able to win, but not without causing more damage and ruining a few hundred more lives. So you can either A, let all that damage happen just so you can take a swing at us or B, you can make the tough choice. Put the well being of these people above your own desires. Be more than an ordinary person. Prove that you’re the inspiring hero you claim to be, the hero…you wanted him to be.”
Impossible looked to the Mastermind, then to the carnage boiling around them. Cars being thrown into buildings. Sunlight glinting off countless shards of broken glass falling to the streets below. Screams of the innocent calling out to someone, to anyone, to make it all stop.
“These people are in peril now,” Frank said. “Oculux will always be here.”
Impossible’s eyes narrowed. He took the communicator from his wrist and handed it to Frank.
“Thanks,” Frank said. He set the communicator to broadcast mode and walked to the edge of the roof. His voice echoed throughout the city. “Attention, villains of Empire City. Hey, this feels pretty cool.”
“Just get on with it Frank…,” Impossible said.
“Anyway…,” Frank said. “This is Frances Sonata of Oculux Limited. I humbly ask that you stop what you’re doing immediately. I, of course, cannot command you to stop, because at Oculux, free will comes standard with any and all purchases.”
“Frank…,” Impossible grumbled.
“But here’s the deal. Unfortunately, this particular battle will result in a lot of trouble for my company down the road. Therefore, we must reluctantly condemn the current situation. So as the wonderfully loyal and caring customers I know most of you are, I ask that you voluntarily stop.”
“That’s your plan?” Impossible said. “You’re just going to ask them to go away?”
“Those of you who comply will receive the full benefits of the Oculux legal department, pro bono. You will also be compensated up to forty percent of losses suffered in today’s expenditures. However…” Frank paused as he watched the battle slowly begin to quell. “Those of you who do not comply will be knowingly and willingly partaking in an activity harmful to Oculux’s well being. Your contracts will, therefore, be immediately terminated, your equipment confiscated, and your name blacklisted. Thank you, and as always…have a terrorific day.”
Frank tossed the communicator back to Impossible. The fighting had already come to a stop. A few villains had already surrendered. Others fled. By the time Impossible’s communicator landed in his palm the city had fallen silent.
Impossible locked eyes with Frank.
“How’d you know?” He asked.
Frank tilted his head up towards the peaceful blue sky and chuckled.
“Villains come in all shapes and sizes,” Frank said. “But they all share one important thing.”
“Oh yeah?” Impossible said. “What’s that?”
“They’re all dreamers,” Frank said. “Soon to be kings and wannabe gods. They’ll do a lot to make their dreams come true. But one thing they’ll never do…is jeopardize their ability to dream at all.”
“Well played,” the Mastermind said. “Both of you.”
Mr. Impossible faced the Mastermind.
“You’re out of moves,” Impossible said. “It’s over.”
“Out of moves?” the Mastermind said. “Incorrect. I still have one play left.”
The Mastermind held out the detonator, thumb hovering over its red activation button.
“When I turned against the league, I knew the government would send everything it had against me,” the Mastermind said. “So when I built this tower…I did so with a mixture of explosives and…Arkanon-Terrorite.”
Frank felt his legs go numb.
“I’m sorry…what did you say?” He asked.
“No,” Impossible said. “That’s the deadliest substance in the universe. Not even you could possibly be that insane.”
“Every brick,” The Mastermind said. “Each coated with chemical 13 to trap the deadly radiation. But once the explosives ignite, the bricks will shatter.”
“Unleashing the radiation…,” Impossible said. “That much terrorite would contaminate this whole section of the city.”
“That’s thinking a little small,” Frank said. “If I were you, Impossible, I’d call off the league. Not even superhumans can survive this stuff.”
“But why?” Impossible said. “Mass murder was never in your repertoire.”
“Desperate times,” Mastermind said.
“Can you stop him?” Frank asked.
“No,” Impossible said. “Even at my fastest, he’ll press that button before I can reach it.”
Frank looked down, swallowed.
“Get out of here Impossible,” Frank said. “Call the league and start an evacuation.”
“And what are you going to do?” Impossible asked.
“What do you think I’m going to do?” Frank said. “I’m going to try and stop him.”
“We can both do that,” Impossible said.
“But I can’t oversee the evacuation of the city like your people can,” Frank said. “So you should probably get a move on if you want to save some lives.”
“But why would you risk your life?” Impossible asked.
“Lots of reasons,” Frank said. “But mostly because if I don’t stop this explosion, I might as well be dead.”
Mr. Impossible thought for a moment.
“Alright Frank,” he said. “But only because we don’t seem to have much of a choice. Good luck.”
“Thanks,” Frank said.
Impossible took off into the air. Frank watched as he flew into horizon.
“Just you and me now bucko,” Frank said.
“You didn’t have to stay behind,” Mastermind said.
“I know,” Frank said.
“Then why did you?”
Frank locked eyes with the Mastermind.
“Because I can’t let you die,” he said.
“I see,” the Mastermind said. “Then you’d risk your life for your career.”
“No,” Frank said. “Well yes, but that’s not the point. It’s true, this was my last chance. It’s true that…if I fail here I’ll most likely get my pink slip in the form of a firing squad, but that’s not why I can’t let you die.”
“Then why?” The Mastermind asked.
Frank’s phone buzzed in his pocket. Another text.
“Because despite all this…you’re still my hero,” he said.
Unknown: 60 seconds
“And a long time ago, you saved my life.”
Unknown: 55 seconds
Frank looked down.
“You asked me how my sister died.”
“I remember,” the Mastermind said.
Unknown: 50 seconds.
“It was suicide,” Frank said.
Unknown: 45 seconds.
“Life with dad was a living hell.”
Unknown: 40 seconds.
“We were supposed to do it together..”
Unknown: 35 seconds.
“Then I remembered you. The Mastermind. My hero.”
Unknown: 30 seconds.
“Because even in my darkest days, the Mastermind kept me going.”
Unknown: 25 seconds.
“He gave me hope when there wasn’t any.”
Unknown: 20 seconds.
“He showed me, that it was possible to fight the impossible.”
Unknown: 15 seconds.
“I couldn’t save my sister. All I could do was watch her fall asleep for the last time.”
Unknown: 10 seconds.
“That’s why I won’t let you die. Because you’re all I have left…
Frank shut his eyes tight and tapped the send button on his phone.
Me: Burn the files.
Frank opened his eyes. He held out his phone, facing the screen toward the Mastermind.
Unknown: CONTRACT TERMINATED.
“If you still have any doubts, ask yourself this. How can it be a trick…when I just burned my whole life for yours?”
The Mastermind didn’t say a word. His thumb quivered over the detonator button. One bit of pressure was all that stood between tens of thousands of innocent lives and total catastrophe.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Sonata,” the Mastermind said. But it wasn’t the Mastermind. Not this time. This voice had emotion. Feeling. Sadness, anger, and guilt. This was the voice of Arthur Warden. “I’m sorry it came to this,” he said. “I wish the world was a better place. I wish I could’ve been good. I wish…I wish I didn’t have to destroy your career. Most of my life has been a string of things I wish I could’ve done. Right now, I wish for a lot of things, but unfortunately, that’s all they are. That’s all they can ever be. Just silly little wishes. Tiny dreams in the mind of a giant.”
“Just put the detonator down. Put it down now!” Frank shouted. “Please, just this once…surrender! Let me save you…”
Arthur shook his head.
“I’m sorry Mr. Sonata.”
Frank reached out, eyes wide.
The last thing Frank saw before the world went dark, was Arthur’s thumb pressing down on the detonator button.