Mistress Quickly flitted like a shadow against the night sky, riding a whirring silver fan over dark pine and moon-pearled crags of rock. The shattered debris of the moon stretched out above her.
Maude still wasn’t sure why the Maestros of Evil1 had blown up the Moon. Compensating for the loss of proper tides alone ate up over half the planet’s GDP. Gatehouse hadn’t stopped Hitler or the Black Death, why should they have thought some uppity supervillains would’ve warranted their attention? They’d never had the chance to learn from that mistake.
Arrogance, pure paranoia and arrogance it was. But that was alright. That was what made the Maestro Alternative so great to begin with: everything worth stealing here belonged to a dickhead.
Mistress Quickly veered sharply around a bone-white precipice, sending rocks and pebbles tumbling down the cliff face in her wake. She slowed her approach as Mt. Rushmore came into view in the distance.
Not Mt. Rushmore, she reminded herself. Not even the Six Grandfathers or Cougar Mountain. Here it was Mt. Victory. The Maestros’ victory.
Just like the one at home, four stoney faces were carved into the mountain flank, lights under their chins like children telling each other ghost-stories. Maude didn’t know whether they’d ever been the four presidents she knew, but it didn’t matter now. Now they were the founding members of the Maestros of Evil. Perpetually helmeted Red Knight2; the long-missing, sorcerous Night-Hag3; skeletal, bearded Scripture4; and on the far left, compound-eyed, insectile King Juhidrix5.
Maude tapped a button on the rim of her flight-goggles. Her vision zoomed in on a shaft of light shining in the narrow valley behind King Juhidrix’s head. Two fascistically jumpsuited young men were toting guns either side of twenty-foot tall glass doors cut into the rock. Above the doors was a bronze skull struck through with swords and daggers like spokes in a wheel, because subtlety was for people who didn’t blow up the fucking moon. Beneath that were copperplate letters reading “MAESTRO MUSEUM.” No other qualifiers, lest they spoil the alliteration.
Mistress Quickly passed over Juhidrix’s antennae and clicked her heels. Her glider came to a dead stop in the air. The magnetic light that lit its underside went dark as it folded into the soles of Maude’s boots. The super-scientist plummeted straight down, cold air rushing over her sleek black battle-suit and mask.
She landed on her feet with strange silence in front of the guardsmen. An impact like that should’ve shattered all the bones in Maude’s legs. Instead, she felt her boots warm up and vibrate, the potential energy travelling up through her suit and pooling in the palms of her gloves.
Maude could hear the guardsmen raising their guns, barking out demands in their shaky, barely post-adolescent voices.
“Identify yourself, subject!”
Mistress Quickly looked up at the two men, her goggles glowing bright red like owl eyes at night. Her modulated voice rasped, “Do I look like a ‘subject’?”
Maude clapped. A wall of air hammered forward through the guardsmen, throwing them through the reinforced glass doors like they were paper-screens.
A claxon started blaring. Heavy steel security doors slid down in place of the ruined glass.
Maude stood up and dusted off her hands. So far so good. She turned to face the back of Juhidrix’s stony head and switched her goggles to see-through mode. Far below, a dozen bobbing lights were starting up the eight hundred feet worth of granite stairs that wound up the mountain to the museum. She zoomed in. More guards, all armed. To be expected, really.
Mistress Quickly strode to the staircase landing at the mouth of the canyon and opened one of the hyperspace pouches on her belt.
Something the size and shape of an orange flew up into Maude’s magnetized palm. She pulled out a metal sphere with a black band around its middle, twisting round the top half thrice and blithely tossing it down the staircase.
Now to deal with the doors.
Maude strolled back to the entrance, not missing a beat as a distant explosion and even more distant screaming echoed up the mountain. She rapped the metal plate of the security doors with her knuckles. Solid stuff. Drilling or cutting through it would take time she probably didn’t have.
Actually, there was an idea.
She reached back into the pouch she’d procured the bomb out of, muttering, “Tempus,” under her breath. She closed her fingers around a spray-can with a blue hourglass stenciled on it. Maude gave it a good shake and sprayed.
The metal reddened like ripening apples the instant the droplets settled, only to turn brown and dissolve just as quickly. Who knew time itself could be vapourized and stored? Mistress Quickly, that’s who.
Just as Maude expected, the guardsmen already had their guns up and ready when she stepped through the hole.
A flurry of bullets hit Maude dead-centre. Or more accurately, they hit a few thousand Maudes in a few thousand practically identical timelines.
None of them felt a thing.
Maude chuckled, before lunging forward and snatching the gun from the guard on the right, smashing it into his comrade’s helmet visor in a mess of blood and black glass. She spun around, firing two quick rounds into the other guard’s knees.
The guard screamed like a dying cockatoo as his legs collapsed under him. Maude stalked over to his side, broken glass crunching like dead leaves beneath her boots. She knocked off the guard’s helmet with a sharp kick.
“Alright, buster, tell me—”
The guard—the boy, really—sobbed. “Please don’t kill us!”
Maude’s nose wrinkled behind her mask. God, the Maestros recruited them young, didn’t they? This one still had pimples! Poor bastard probably signed up to escape some state-sized ghetto.
Maude sighed. “I’m not gonna kill ya, kid.”
“Is George okay?”
Maude glanced over at the other felled guard. He was out cold, but breathing steadily. A grocery list of vital statistics was scrolling next to him in the HUD of Maude’s goggles.
…97% percent chance of recovery.
“He’ll be fine.”
Not-George let out a relieved, brittle breath. “Good.”
Maude sat down beside the young man. “How’s this sound, kid? You tell me which pocket you keep your keys, I staunch your bleeding and give you some night-night juice. I’m sure you and George will get Purple Hearts for your trouble. Or is it a Purple Skull here?”
Not-George didn’t even try to make sense of the madwoman’s rambling, only closing his eyes and nodding shakily. Less than two minutes later, Maude left the boy to enjoy his freshly bandaged knees and the top shelf painkillers she’d shoved into his neck.
In Maude’s world, budget issues had left the Hall of Records behind Lincoln’s head nothing more than a hallway to nowhere in an oddly rectangular cave. Here, though, the Maestros had taken the project to a twisted conclusion: cavernous eighty by one hundred feet marble chamber, full of bronze and glass cabinets housing the grisly trophies of the Maestros of Evil. A monument to their conquest of Earth—and a tourist-trap for their more privileged slaves. The sort of folk who could stand a boot on their neck as long as they got to be on top of someone.
Mistress Quickly stood in the middle of the hall, scanning the exhibits with her goggles. Aside from the flash-mummified superheroes, the ragged capes fluttering in the fan-driven air of their cabinets, and the ubiquitous skewered skull that dominated the floorplan, the hall didn’t differ greatly from any other museum Maude had visited. There was even a little donation box in the east corner:
All donations go towards stabilization of the lunar debris field
Another important similarity the Mt. Victory Maestro Museum had to other such institutions was that everything in it was basically glorified garbage. If it weren’t, Maude might’ve actually had to break a sweat getting in there.
Pendragon’s sword? Useless. Pendragon’s power came from Pendragon, not the overpriced, roughly sword-shaped hunk of metal he lugged around. Thunderbolt’s cape? Even if Maude went in for sentimental value, this one was fake. The real thing was languishing in Archangel’s6 private collection over in Manhattan. The constitution? Please.
Nobody stuck useful things in a museum. However, as anyone who’s ever been to a garage sale might tell you, it was terribly easy to mistake treasure for trash.
Maude’s eyes lit up when she saw the cabinet at the end of the hall. It was a surprisingly spartan little display. A phial of dark red blood held between two gold tapers, set against starscapes painted onto the cabinet walls.
Maude’s HUD locked onto the phial:
Throneworld platelets detected. Probable source: Imperial White. High probability of cell viability.
The mad scientist trilled in delight and ran to the cabinet like a schoolgirl. She eagerly read the display plaque:
This blood was shed by the wicked Child-Princess Tilaearys during the ‘Throneworld’ attack on Earth after the Maestros’ successful destruction of their lunar spying facility in 1954.
There were a lot of reasons Maude was robbing the Maestro Alternative. One was that at the moment, home was somehow even more weird and paranoid. Another was the complete lack of guilt. But most importantly, the Empress of the Southern Spiral had never bled on Maude’s Earth.
Mistress Quickly unlocked the case with Not-George’s key, gingerly placing the phial into a hyperspace pouch.
Fools. The Maestros could’ve bred an army of high supers if they knew what prize they had. Maude wasn’t even sure what she would do with the blood yet, but there was no way she’d just stick it in a fucking museum—
That was when Mistress Quickly heard the sound every super-thief dreaded: a slow clap.
She turned around. “Shouldn’t you be in Montana, Archangel?”
Three men were standing in a row at the head of the hall. Maude only recognized the one in the middle—a chiseled blonde with slicked back hair in a vault of heaven body-glove and a thick white cape. Archangel, the king of America.
“Those terrorists and their bleeding heart rogue supers are just one of many problems I need to manage, Mistress Quickly. It’d be greatly appreciated if you stopped adding to my burdens.”
Maude smiled. “Look, if you wanted to keep that starship wreckage7, you shouldn’t have put in bloody Fort Knox. Like painting a bullseye on it!”
Archangel sighed. “I don’t expect you would understand the good we could’ve done with that technology, Quickly.”
Maude laughed. “Good? Archangel, mate, your friends paint skulls all over anything.”
Archangel folded his arms. “You can’t judge based on appearances.”
“You blew up the moon!”
Archangel waved a hand. “I will admit, the early days could be… excessive, but I like to think I’ve molded the Maestros into a positive force for order.”
“And, humble public servant you are, all you asked in return was a Black Sea mansion and a different girl for every day of the week.”
Archangel’s divine face twisted in rage. “You don’t know what I’ve given up…”
Oh no, time for the tortured heel speech. This could take a while. Maude tried to turn Archangel out, focusing on exit strategies.
“…When Thunderbolt looked me in the eye and told me we were losing, what was I supposed to do?”
No fire escapes. Maude wasn’t surprised. Evil rarely obeyed health and safety codes.
“I saw Washington turn to jelly…”
Was he still going?
“The perfect is the enemy of the good, Mistress Quickly! I swore that day—”
One of Archangel’s companions—a trenchcoat clad, green-haired Japanese man who seemed bred for 1990s sci-fi covers—blessedly interrupted his spiel. “Stealing Princess Tilly’s blood are we?” He smirked, “Don’t tell me you’re secret girlfriends or something.”
Best not let them know the blood was useful. “I did it for the challenge.”
The great thing about wearing a mask was that you could grimace without giving the game away. Maude hated “gentleman thieves.” Who the hell thought not needing to steal made it more noble?
Archangel raised an eyebrow. “You robbed a lightly guarded tourist display in a sparsely populated territory. For the challenge.”
Archangel looked to the super on his right, an elderly man in what looked like a purple bathrobe. His head was pitted crystalline growths, as though his brain were one big gem that didn’t quite fit inside his skull.
“What’s she really doing, Sanguine?”
Maude swore under her breath when she saw Sanguine put his fingers to his temples in the multiversal psychic gesture. The crystals on his head flashed red.
“She’s taking the blood back to her home reality to reverse engineer Tilaearys’ powers.”
“She’s from another dimension?” Archangel lips hardened into a frown. “And why aren’t we reverse engineering her fucking powers?”
Sanguine threw his hands up between him and Archangel. “Hey, pal, wasn’t my call!”
“Yeah, I’m going,” said Maude.
An absolute bear of man in a stained leather apron materialized in her path. He towered over Maude by nearly two heads, and his thickly bearded face was purple with fury. “What the fuck have you done now, moron?”
Maude jerked backwards. “Dad?”
“Forgotten who I am, retard?” her father jeered right in her face. “Not surprised. Wish I could forget I was your dad, too. Christ, your mother should’ve drowned you with the kittens!”
Maude stood there, frozen to the spot. She could see spittle droplets on her goggles.
…Which weren’t registering any vitals.
Maude grabbed her hand-cannon off her belt and spun a wheel on its hilt, literally firing from the hip.
A dart struck Sanguine square in the chest. The psychic looked down at the projectile. “Well, shit…”
He teetered forward and fell hard on his face. Maude’s father faded back into memory.
Mistress Quickly flicked the gun’s ammo-wheel again and aimed at Archangel and the green-haired Maestro. “Your psychic should’ve looked harder. I haven’t been afraid of that arsehole in years.”
Archangel looked down disdainfully at Sanguine before turning to his remaining comrade. “Scrapper, you’re up.”
Scrapper shucked off his trenchcoat and cracked his knuckles with a metallic pop. “My pleasure, captain.” He screamed like a broken microphone as curved chrome tubes erupted from his calves, tearing through his trouser legs in a spurt of blood and black oil. He grinned hungrily at Maude, revealing a set of black iron teeth
Scrapper rocketed at Maude like a demented figure-skater, the protusions in his legs belching jets of flame.
Maude dove to the right, letting Scrapper sail past her while she rolled over and fired a few high-impact rounds into his back.
Scrapper’s jets extinguished, the Maestro sliding to a stop. He inhaled sharply, pulling the bullets inside of him with a grinding slurp. He turned to face Maude. “Thanks,” he said, his voice hissing and distorting. “Haven’t had depleted uranium in ages!”
Bullets erupted from the super’s fingertips, his arms juddering backwards from the recoil. They hit Maude like a cloud of wasps, every bullet stinging just a little more than the last as her suit struggled to spread the impact out across the timelines.
“Sound and fury!”
The hall went white. Thunder boomed in the Maestros’ ears. Both men tried to simultaneously cover their ears and shield their eyes, coughing
The light faded. Mistress Quickly was gone.
“Where’d the bitch go?” Scrapper asked. “She teleport or something?”
“No,” Archangel growled, his watering eyes darting around the hall. “If she could just leave, she would have already.”
Camouflaged against a wall, Maude swore inwardly. Why had she skimped on a teleportation unit?
Archangel stepped over George and Not-George into the hole Maude had made in the security door, putting his hands on either edge of it.
What Mistress Quickly wouldn’t have given for a giant fucking sheep right then.
“Unless she can tunnel through rock, this is Quickly’s only exit. Smoke her out.”
Scrapper bent backwards, a mass bulging under his tight black shirt. With a sound like a fork in a blender, a cannon barrel erupted from his chest.
The supervillain strained like he was giving birth. A cannonball flew out of him, colliding with the Pendragon display in an explosion of broken glass and plastic shards. He turned in place and fired again. And again. Maude had to slide to the left as one hurtled right where her head had been. The hall shook. Marble dust rained down from the roof.
Archangel caught a cannonball heading for the entrance. “For Christ’s sake, man, you’ll cause a cave in!”
“We’re invulnerable, who cares?”
Archangel gestured with the lead ball at the still-unconscious Sanguine. “He’s not.”
Maude suppressed a groan. She was going to be here all night. And her invisibility-web was only good for five minutes.
Scrapper glared at Archangel. “Look, if I’m doing such a crap job, why don’t you get off your spandexed ass and help?”
Smoke from the ruins of the Thunderbolt display drifted up to the ceiling, bringing the fire-sprinklers to chittering life. Water droplets rained down on the hall, creating riverlets of rubble and dust, as well as revealing what looked like a startled woman made of glass…
Scrapper grinned. “Or you can trust my methods.”
Scrapper roared, plumes of smoke flowing from his nostrils. Tumorous metal growths bloomed from his cheeks, and his hair was forced out of his scalp by metal wires. His eyes exploded as glowing orange headlights bulged in his skull, while his torso was torn in half by a rolling and shifting mess of guns. Hydraulic arms ending in pincers, claws and scroops forced their way out of his back, all snapping at Mistress Quickly.
Scrapper’s voice rumbled like an industrial furnace. “It feels so good to be naked.”
Maude became visible and clicked her heels, rising into the air on her glider as a breeze of bullets blew under her, swerving and weaving as it followed her upwards. A thick metal cable shot out of Scrapper’s maw, writhing through the air and trying to grab at Maude’s legs.
Okay, Maude thought as she circuited the hall ahead of the metal worm like a mechanical hare. He likes metal. So no bullets. Or axes, or knives, or hammers. What else is there?
Mistress Quickly opened a hyperspace pouch. “Bounce.”
A red rubber ball flew into Maude’s hand. She threw the ball hard. It struck the corner of a still intact glass case, splitting into two identical red balls as it richotched. Both balls split again when they hit a tapestry of the Maestros crossing the Hudson and an old Red Knight suit. Those balls split on impact in turn. Soon the whole museum looked like the inside of a cooking packet of popcorn, new balls popping into existence every second.
Scrapper grinned smugly with what was left of his face as the rubber balls bounced harmlessly off him and Archangel. He even retracted his tongue.
“You shot me, and you think these will take me down?”
“Not exactly,” replied Maude.
The cloud of balls rapidly became a rising flood as they pooled on the floor. Soon they were up to Scrapper’s ball-joint knees.
His words were lost as the super was buried alive in the rubber balls. The rubber wave crest fell towards the entrance. Archangel reflexively took flight to avoid the surging mass. Maude swooped under him and grabbed the guards by the scruff of their necks, dragging them out of the museum behind her.
Mistress Quickly just managed to get clear into the night air when the balls spewed out of the hole behind her.
She hastily propped the pair semi-upright against the back of King Juhidrix’s head, patting them both on the chest.
“Good luck, fellas,” she told the two, before riding up and away from Mt. Victory.
She’d only gotten five hundred meters away from the carved faces when she heard the boom. Maude looked behind her. Archangel was flying right at her with his arms at his side, screaming his rage into the night. Scrapper wasn’t far behind, now a tangled bush of machinery propelled through the air by enormous jet-turbines.
Maude swung around on her glider and aimed her gun at the incoming supers. She was trying to decide between a hurricane or a sonic blast when a wave of water T-boned Archangel mid-air.
“The hell?” Scrapper shrieked, so distracted he blew right past Maude.
Maude looked up.
There was a little boy dressed in what looked like a dancer’s leotard made of a summer seascape. He was riding atop a bridge of water through the air, like a carpet winding and unwinding across the sky.
He wasn’t alone. Flying under her own power beside him was a girl who looked like carved moonrock wrapped in an elaborate tye-dyed costume. And above them was a green, yellow and red Chinese dragon, upon which rode yet three more colourfully dressed children, and an old woman with a hand clamped tight over her akubra hat.
And was one of them a cat?
The old woman called down, “Excuse me… Miss? Are you named Mistress Quickly by any chance?”
“Recently, yes,” answered Maude, her voice slightly amplified. “You folks on my side?”
“Think so,” said the girl closest to the dragon’s head, wearing something that looked like a comic book collection had been skinned alive to make it.
Maude rose till she was level with the dragon. She asked the old lady, “Have the Free Staters started fielding ten year olds8?”
Sarah shook her head. “We aren’t locals. We’re… from the same place as you.”
“And how did you get here? Ain’t exactly a bus running to the Maestro Alternative.”
“Fire-portal-thing in your plane,” said Allison.
Maude blinked behind her goggles at the flying girl. “You found my mobile-bunker?”
“It’s an airplane,” said Allison.
“I believe my son was tracking you. Sorry.”
“Wait… what’s your name?”
“No. You’re the Flying Man’s mum?”
“Joe told you about me?”
“Only nice things,” Maude assured Sarah. “How is the uptight bastard?”
“My son is dead.”
Everyone hovered for a moment, silent as the stars above.
“I’m sorry to hear,” said Maude. “Confused, but sorry. He was a good man.” She looked back at Allison. “You’re not his daughter, are you?”
Allison bit her lip. She really didn’t want to laugh right now in front of Mrs Allworth. “Nope, I can just fly.”
“And your eyes glow.”
Allison shrugged. “That too.”
“So, why’d you come looking for me?” asked Maude.
Allison cleared her throat and said, “We need you to help us free all the supers in Australia.”
“That’s… a big ask.”
Allison took a deep breath, ready to launch into the Pitch again, when a flying explosion of shrapnel smashed into her side, sending her back towards Mt. Victory.
Arnold screamed. “Allie!”
Scrapper slammed Allison into a dark alcove in the mountain, pinning her against the shadowed rock.
A pale, mottled face rose from within the metal mess to leer at the little girl. “That didn’t kill you? Surprising! Means I get to have fun.”
Allison felt the Earth call up to her through the mountain. Heat flowed into her through her back. She burst into red and purple flames. “Big mistake.”
Far off, Maude and the Watercolours heard a harsh, metallic scream. The mountain bled a thin stream of white-hot metal between the Red Knight and Night-Hag’s faces.
“I think your friend’s fine,” Maude told Arnold. “I’m—”
A very wet Archangel grabbed Maude by the neck and swung her around to face him. “You bitch. I was going to recruit you! Let you help us fix the moon. And then you go and kill two of my men!”
Maude wheezed, “Technically it was just the one…”
Archangel’s sneered and raised his fist—
There was a green flash and a blast of thunder. Archangel was gone.
Maude breathed a little raggedly as she massaged her windpipe, before turning back at the dragon. The boy in the starry black cloak waved at her.
“As I was saying, I’m impressed.”
Allison flew back into their midst, dripping wet with molten slag. “Hey guys.”
There was a rumble. The mountain shook.
Mabel asked, “Hey, Arnold, where did you put the flying guy?”
“In the mountain—”
Archangel burst out of Night-Hag’s forehead like an inverted Athena. “Bastards!”
Billy waited until Archangel was only a metre or two away, before leaning forwards and roaring with all his might. The force of it pushed clouds towards the horizon, and caught Archangel directly in the face.
It was the first time in years that someone had made the lord of America bleed. He struck the mountain a second time, and this time, did not return. The entire mountain face crumbled and collapsed like a waterfall of rock.
Billy beamed around at his friends. They applauded.
“Okay,” said Maude. “You know what? Let’s hear your proposal.”
1. As with many similarly named groups, the “Of Evil” part was a nickname the Maestros earned rather than one they had to force. ↩
2. A millionaire (billionaires not having been invented then) weapons manufacturer unexpectedly plunged into an active war-zone. Unfortunately for the world, he liked what he saw. ↩
3. Elsa Lieroinen quickly became bored of the Maestros. ↩
4. A former Primitive Baptist preacher with a unique interpretation of the two-seed doctrine and a literal tongue of flame. ↩
5. In truth, “King” was a more than fanciful translation of Juhidrix’s actual role in his home society: a drone. Hailing from a eusocial species, Juhidrix fled his (fatal) wedding night to try and build what could only be described as a patriarchal bee-hive on Earth using pheromone drugged humans. ↩
6. Highest profile superhero convert to the Maestros during the Fall, current High Lord of the former United States. ↩
7. The Montana Object: a wrecked alien vessel that crash landed into the Big Horn Mountains in 1942. Its only apparent occupant—a titanic aquatic creature—was evidently burnt to death during reentry, although researchers have noted what seem to be laser burns along its hull… ↩
8. As a general rule, no. However, the resistance fighters of the American northwest and beyond were often assisted by the Golden Boy, a costumed super-child rumoured to be the son of Aurora, commonly considered the last of the superheroes. ↩