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The Supervillain Stalled in His Lair


 
Candy illustration for "The Supervillain Stalled in His Lair" by Lincoln MichelThere is nothing that occupies the Supervillain’s mind more, nothing that is a more constant source of obsession and angst, than his secret lair. Even the Superhero, his great nemesis, manifests as an afterthought compared to his lair (although the threat of the Superhero is, of course, a prime source of the anxiety the Supervillain feels about his hidden home).

His worst moments of worry occur at times such as these, when the Supervillain is working in his laboratory. He has been perfecting a potion for four days without sleep. The Supervillain can feel the sweat seeping out of his pores and pooling in the space between his mutated flesh and his neuro-enhancing metallic body armor as he operates instruments of impossible complexity and terror. He tries to relax and breathe.

Here, hidden deep in the belly of his dark lair, and surrounded by his machines and secret plans, the Supervillain hears every creak as merely the first assault on some outer wall by one of his innumerable enemies. The laboratory’s protective properties—its sound-annihilating bionic walls, and its location at the heart of the lair after a host of traps and security systems that range from genetically modified mosquitoes equipped with paralyzing poison in their three-pronged mouths to the decoy doorways that open into the unknown depths of the Earth itself—are the very aspects that would prevent his knowledge of an attack until the last, inescapable moment. Ironically, his own security endangers him. The Supervillain would be completely unaware right up until the second the walls—or ceiling! or floor!—of his laboratory were burst apart by rockets, alien technology, or plain old radioactively enhanced fists.

How can anyone work doom knowing that any distant din might be the first in a series of dings and crashes that, although still faint, almost imperceptible for some time, would grow louder and louder until all was destroyed?

Even now, the Supervillain can hear a repetitive, muffled clicking coming from some indiscernible part of the lair. The Supervillain holds two glass flasks in his hands, one green, one colorless. He is mixing a formula that should, if his chemical calculations are correct—as they invariably are—produce an opaque yellow liquid that will be used to launch the first phase of his newest, many-phase plan. The measurements must be correct to the tiniest molecule.

The sample potion will be tested on a trio of imported red-fronted lemurs—their brains, through some trick of biology, containing important structural similarities to adolescent humans—which are currently rustling their cages and hooting what may be mating calls at a volume that almost, but not quite, drowns out the clicking that nears his door.

The laboratory is illuminated with a blizzard of electronic light.

The Supervillain slowly stirs in the final ingredient with one hand and measures the acidity with the other. As the clicking grows louder, his imagination grows increasingly frenzied. His superior brain cycles through all the possible sources of the sound with inhuman speed. His metal-sheathed fingers clench painfully down on his tools. When the clicking reaches his door, the Supervillain cries out in terror. He actually shouts out loud, this destroyer of heroes and scourge of worlds.

He turns his masked head towards to the door. Instantly, he feels foolish. The Assistant, Cecelia, stands in the open doorway with a faint smile and a small glass of blackberry liqueur, the Supervillain’s favorite.

“The lair?” he shouts reflexively.

“All is well,” Cecelia says calmly. “There have been no disturbances on any measurable spectrum, not even from the negative zone.”

Her elegant shoes—which contain laser pistols of his own design in their heels—click as she walks slowly towards him.

The Supervillain leans back in his chair. His muscles relax, allowing his skin to separate slightly from his metal casing. He hopes that she could not discern his agitation behind his metal face.

“I thought you might need a break,” she says. “You’ve been working so hard lately. Too hard, I think.”

The Supervillain sighs. “Cecelia, you know how important this plan is to me. The Superhero must pay!”

“He must pay,” she says, “and you must be the one paid. But he will only pay the price if you are rested and capable of collecting payment.”

“I’ll relax when he is atomized. When he is no more. A super corpse.”

The Supervillain takes the glass and sips, letting its dark contents wash his insides. Cecelia steps behind him and begins to massage his shoulders before stopping, realizing, no doubt, that he cannot feel her tenderness through his armor.

The Supervillain asks Cecelia about her day. The Supervillain, whose mind is occupied with elaborate plots of destruction and terror on a continuous basis, is not terribly interested in the actual particulars of Cecelia’s day. But he finds it calming to hear her recite the banalities of a more normal life. As she talks about the bumper-to-bumper traffic on the drive to the mountain lair, or the latest brand of non-supercat kitty litter, he can tune out the particulars and just listen to her voice. It’s a bright and sparkly voice, like a bottle of just popped champagne.

The Supervillain needs this time of relaxation. The Supervillain does not think that non-supervillains understand the stress that the villain’s lifestyle entails. Not even Cecelia can appreciate his constant anxiety, much of which stems from his secret lair. The deliberations that must go into every aspect of the secret lair are endless, paralyzing in their scope and persistency.

Even the initial decision to build a lair is fraught with issues, starting foremost with the choice of location. Each option comes with its own benefits and perils. Some supervillains choose to operate undisguised in the very center of their cities, ostentatiously announcing their reign of terror for all to see. The Supervillain’s own friend, Tri-Mind, erected a twisted spire in the center of the City, using its triple electric prongs to induce perpetual R.E.M. sleep in all of the City’s residents. The ensuing “Slumberflu,” as the media dubbed it, pacified the City for three days until the Tri-Tower was sunk into the earth by the Volemen Squad.

Although not lacking in an admirable theatricality, the downsides of making your lair such an obvious target are clear. Great villainy requires great patience. Too many supervillains destroy their potential too quickly—the brightest candles burning quickest in their maniacal flames.

Other villains—typically rich businessmen driven mad by power or paranormal mind manipulation—operate out of the center of the City in a subtler manner, conducting capitalistic evil from their top-floor penthouses. This option did not appeal to the Supervillain, whose disfigured appearance prevents him from easily assuming the guise of a normal life without donning irritating makeup.

Several close friends, including Cecelia—a woman who occupies his mind only a fraction less than the lair—urged him to remain in his childhood home and simply drill down, expanding his domain through the dirt. (Long before he was even the Supervillain, he and Cecelia’s families were neighbors. The two played the usual games of house and pulling pigtails. Other than a stolen peck under the bleachers of a homecoming football game sophomore year, no romance ever occurred between them.) While it is often inevitable that a superbeing might construct underground caves to conceal a lair, the idea of having an entire lair hidden below the small suburban house of his childhood struck the Supervillain as overly sentimental. Nostalgia has been the downfall of so many heroes and villains alike.

Plus, the logistics would have been a nightmare. Constructing around the water pipes, sewer networks, and other infrastructure that worm through the earth of the suburbs would have occupied all of the Supervillain’s cunning, leaving little mental space for the domination and destruction that is supposed to be his job.

Even in his current hidden mountain fortress the constant chores his lair requires fill up so much of his time that often the Supervillain feels less like a true villain and more like a bored housewife!

In the laboratory, the Supervillain carefully removes his metal faceplate. He lays it on the table and picks up a small hand towel and a spray bottle of cleaning fluid. It seems he had squeezed an extra drop of liquid into the bubbling potion when Cecelia startled him, causing a small eruption that spattered acid onto his mask. His once smooth and shiny visage now looks pock-marked, as if he were a teenage robot going through a phase of android acne.

He cleans the mask delicately, returning his metal face to its proper shine. His face clicks back in place.

The Supervillain, whose own body is half machine, perhaps feels more of an attachment to his lair than most evildoers. His lair is powered by systems and computers that link up to his suit of armor, which itself links directly into his body. He can launch missiles—in silos located many rooms away—from a panel on his wrist, or change the ambient music in the hallways with a tap on his knee. The lair is, in a very real sense, an extension of himself. He is the lair, the lair is him.

The Supervillain returns to his work. A while later, the lemurs, which have greedily swallowed the potion, begin to shake and howl in pain. One begins to tear out her own fur. The bloody clumps are flung against his laboratory wall. Their eyes roll back so that only the whites can be seen. Soon these whites pulse with red, angry veins.

Well, it works at least, the Supervillain thinks to himself.

He paces around the laboratory practicing his maniacal laugh. He does this for exactly ten laps. A little ritual. Even his super-mind is not above a little superstition.

The Supervillain decides he needs some fresh air. He takes a hat and an inconspicuous trench coat from his hanger and steps onto a robotic platform. The platform shuttles him off, hovering a few inches off the floor, through the various tunnels, doorways, and halls of his lair. He exits, making sure to turn the lock on his atomic-powered door, and recalibrates the cloaking device behind him.

It’s a windy day, a fact that the Supervillain is only made aware of by his armor’s sensors. Birds of different hues float through the sky. The sun warms his metal façade.

The Supervillain strolls off, resisting the urge to turn his head and reassure himself that his lair has not been transformed into a pillar of salt in the seconds that have passed. This is an absurd worry given that his cloaking device would hide such destruction even in the event it occurred.

Finally, he is far enough away that he can turn his head and see only trees behind him.

The Supervillain’s anxiety does not abate when he is away from his lair. The worry remains even when he is simply enjoying a short walk along the riverside and attempting to rid his mind of all thoughts of the lair, the Superhero, and indeed the whole world. (And what if he could banish the entire world from his mind, dominate it this way with his thoughts—would that be enough to make him happy?)

In certain ways, the Supervillain’s worry actually increases when he is not physically present to monitor the lair. When he is gone, there is the persistent possibility that he will be unable to return. That he will be captured and placed in a magnetic sleep, or folded neatly into an extra-dimensional prison. His lair will be left unprotected. Cecelia will be abandoned. If he were to escape decades or millennia later, what ruins would he find on his return?

Or if he is not captured, what if there is nothing to return to? Only a pile of rubble and the smug grin of the Superhero posed in front of the ruins, hands resting on his perfectly sculpted hips.

Has he had this worry his whole life? Is it encoded into his very DNA? Would he pass the same angst to an offspring? The Supervillain, who has always had an uneasy relation to his own mother, has never had any children of his own. There is, he thinks, a part of himself that would like to settle down and raise a few little scamps, if only he could find the right woman. Often, in his private fantasies, that woman is his Cecelia. That would only come after many things, of course: the fulfillment of his present plans, the destruction of the Superhero, and the domination of the entire world to his singular genius and glorious rule.

(Although he never had any actual children, the Supervillain did—or perhaps does—have a clone. This clone was made by a team of villains, Die Doppel Gang, who were attempting to conquer a parallel Earth with a clone army composed of Earth’s most terrifying supervillains. That was one of the few times that the Supervillain was forced to actually team up with the Superhero, however briefly, in common cause. The memory makes the Supervillain shudder.)

Having strolled with his anxious thoughts for some time, the Supervillain, comes upon the edge of a public park. He sits on a solitary bench. It is a warm day, too warm for a trench coat, especially one draped over metal armor, but the Supervillain has no choice if he wants to avoid detection.

He begins practicing relaxation techniques that he learned in a short-lived yoga class. (This class was obviously not public, but rather a private class offered up by a friend of Cecelia’s and attempted by the Supervillain only at Cecelia’s insistence. The friend offered up the private session after Cecelia smuggled a hypnosis beetle out of the lair’s mutant zoo and dropped it into her sleeping friend’s ear.)

His flesh bumps softly against his metal chest as he breathes. He listens to the sounds of the children playing Frisbee and the warm hiss of a dog urinating on the roots of an oak tree. He begins to feel calm. He closes his eyes and visualizes a peaceful pond in a lonely wood. The forest he imagines has no heroes and no villains of any stripe, only small furry mammals and singing birds. This is his “happy place” as his friend Dr. Psychokill defined it.

Static erupts from his left wrist.

“Sir, can you hear me? You have disappeared from every monitor!”

The Supervillain opens his eyes and looks down at the image of Cecelia on his wrist communicator. Lines of static interrupt her face. She looks so small and helpless. If someone assaulted the lair while he was away, his guilt would—No, he has to push these thoughts out of his mind.

“I’m doing reconnaissance, Cecelia. You know, for the plan.”

“Oh. The plan. Yes. I,” Cecelia says, her voice is as delicate as the colony of cyborg termites he set loose upon the City’s historic downtown, “I just wanted to make sure that you were okay.”

“I’ll be back shortly,” he says, clicking off the communicator and gazing lazily out at the children kicking balls and the parents unpacking picnic baskets on the park’s green grass.

(The Supervillain does wonder, in the rare moments he is not thinking of his own anxieties and fears, if Cecelia’s anxieties might dwarf his own. On several returns, the Supervillain has noticed small piles of long hair plucked out by Cecelia in his absence. She taps her nails incessantly. Do Cecelia’s anxieties cause the Supervillain’s? Or does his cause hers? Perhaps their anxieties feed into each other, growing larger and more terrible in each other’s presence like the extraterrestrial blowfish men of Gamma XXI.)

A Frisbee bonks against the Supervillain’s kneecap.

Soon a young boy is running over. His blonde hair is as bright as a daffodil, and his cheeks jiggle as he jogs.

“Sorry, mister!”

The Supervillain remains still and silent.

“Hey, I know you, don’t I? You’re on the TV!”

“Sometimes,” the Supervillain admits.

“I think you’re pretty cool.”

The Supervillain cannot help but twist his disfigured lips into a simulacrum of a smile. He is also perplexed. He knows that children often identify with villains, and like to say “bad” or “wicked” to indicate “good” or “enjoyable.” But this child looks so wholesome. The Supervillain can’t imagine there is any connection between them.

“You’re the Steel Stallion, right? I have all your action figures.”

Rage pulses through what is left of the Supervillain’s flesh. He is not, by any means, the Steel Stallion. In fact, he has beaten the Steel Stallion in at least three of their last four encounters and maintains he would have won all four if the Superhero had not intervened.

The Supervillain lifts his left hand ready to kill this worm with any of the dozen lethal weapons—from projectile spikes to deadly bio-metal gas—laced in his gauntlets.

Instead, he bursts out laughing. To be confused with one’s enemy is an error that confirms the cosmos have a sense of humor.

“What’s so funny, Mr. Stallion?” the boy says, laughing with him.

“Here,” the Supervillain says, reaching into a secret panel on his belt. “It’s candy.”

“Gee, thanks!”

The boy unwraps the swirled ball and sucks. The Supervillain smiles behind his faceplate, and waves the boy off. Perhaps this is all the Supervillain needs: to remember to appreciate the randomness of life.

He chuckles again and stands to leave as the little boy runs back, purple Frisbee in hand, before collapsing halfway to his parents’ picnic blanket. The boy emits a bloodcurdling shriek and claws open his cheeks.

“Oh God, Jimmy! What’s wrong?” he hears someone shout.

Then the park erupts with howls and cries.

Good, the Supervillain thinks, as he walks out of view, the potion works on humans as well as lemurs.

Did he ever have a toy lemur when he was the age of that child? The Supervillain has long been fascinated with those mysterious creatures. They evolved entirely by themselves, through their own will and determination. They didn’t appear with everything handed to them like that worthless Superhero. Their name derives from the Latin word for ghost, thanks to their eerie howls and wide, mysterious eyes. (Eyes and howls that were displayed in full force when they were flailing wildly in their cages.) When he first became a villain, he thought about naming himself after these inspiring mammals. But “The Caped Lemur” or “Lemur Man” didn’t inspire the proper level of terror.

The Supervillain knows these lemur facts because he did a report on lemurs when he was in second grade. His mother had kept his Crayon illustrations on the fridge for many years.

Of course, all of this was before he was the Supervillain. That he was ever not a Supervillain—not a source of fear for citizens across the City or a name uttered with disgust by public officials—but simply another person bumbling his way through the confusing struggle of existence, feels almost unbelievable to the Supervillain. An odd dream drifting away in the fog.

The Supervillain wanders out of the park, dropping a smoke bomb to obscure his exit. Using the propulsion systems built into his boots, he glides above the woods. He checks his wrist-radar for any possible tails. His nearly invisible security cameras rotate in the trees below.

The Supervillain thinks about how much time has passed from his days as a child playing with toy dinosaurs to this moment alighting on the ground in front of the terrible, towering metal doors of his mountain lair of doom.

He raps his knuckles on the Assistant’s desk as he walks past, whistling an old tune.

“You seem reenergized, sir,” she says, perking up. “Did you absorb another blast of Sigma rays?”

“Merely excited to get back to plotting, Cecelia,” he says.

Descending to the sub-sub-basement, the Supervillain smiles to himself at the absurdity of it all. Was it always in his nature to be a supervillain? Did the little blond-haired boy chewing taffy and tossing stones from a small bridge to see them splash already have the desire for villainy? Was the Supervillain hidden inside that boy’s chest like a Russian nesting doll?

And what of the other little boy, the one he poisoned in the park? If he survives, through the intervention of some scientific genius hero, and grows up, could he too be destined for villainy? Or heroism? The Supervillain’s random act might have just altered the boy’s destiny. He may have inadvertently created his own successor or future archenemy.

Who can know where life will take them? the Supervillain muses to himself, while pumping, through a series of intertwining tubes, his diabolical chemicals into the City’s water supply, which will turn all prepubescent children into feral half-beasts, causing a panic that will distract the Superhero long enough for the Supervillain to begin his takeover of the City’s telecommunication systems. How funny life is! the Supervillain thinks. How wildly unpredictable, frightening, and thrilling the whole enterprise can be!

 

Lincoln Michel is the online editor of Electric Literature [1] and the coeditor of Gigantic [2]. His work appears in Tin House, NOON, The Believer, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, and elsewhere. His debut collection, Upright Beasts, is forthcoming from Coffee House Press. “The Supervillain Stalled in His Lair” is part of a novel-in-progress tentatively titled DOOM MOOD. He tweets @thelincoln [3].