Link draped his arm across his wife’s big command chair and leaned against it. If she wanted t know how his day was going, he was going to tell her and pretend, just as she was, that it was a normal thing. “Cross changed my guards.” He said, unsure of what her reaction to such insubordination might be.” Or even if it was insubordination.
A little hum escaped his wife’s lips. “He told me he was going to. Ivanka and Giovanni were on loan from the Palace Guard. After the assassination attempt, he suggested we might need all the experience we could assigned to rooting out other sleeper agents. Thought I suspect that he wasn’t happy that Giovanni was assigned to you.”
“Because he’s a man.” Link deadpanned.
Amanda shrugged. “Mr. Cross loves the old traditions.” She gave him a concerned look, then glanced past him at the temporary King’s Guard behind him, waiting out of earshot. “Is there a problem with the replacements?”
“Not really.” Link admitted. “They’re a lot more talkative than the other guards. Frankly, I’m not a fan of the seen-but-not-heard philosophy. I was just checking to make sure you knew what was going on… and to make sure Cross wasn’t trying to get me killed.”
That made Amanda chuckle. “Trust me, that’s something you won’t have to worry about. Mr. Cross won’t do anything that hurts Megardia and he knows that nothing good would happen if you died, no matter how it happened. He’ll protect the kids and you with his life if it comes down to it.”
Link pondered the unpleasant little man. “You really think so?”
“Absolutely.” Amanda assured. As she spoke, she called up a video screen on the holographic display above her desk. On it was a squad of a dozen men and women dressed in yellow uniforms with armored pectorals bearing the Megardia ‘M’ crest. All wore goggles with orange lenses over their eyes, utility belts replete with pistol holsters, and thick-soled boots. While the Sovereign Elite and Royal Guard were constants in the palace, the Expeditionary Forces were the ones everyone outside of Megardia saw most often.
To Link, and most people in the outside world, the Expeditionary Forces were Queen Mageddo’s henchmen, sent to steal, kidnap or attack whatever or whoever Her Majesty set them on, often appearing to run interference to engage heroes while their Queen fulfilled her objectives.
The group on the screen was busy loading strange objects into a vehicle that looked like an armored personnel character that had been robbed of its wheels or tracks and granted in their place a set of four stubby wings. The things being loaded looked like miniature cell phone towers which sections covered in a shell of yellow-painted metal.
“What’s this?” Link asked.
“MEF-5 loading a transport for our raid on the house.” Amanda explained. She pointed a slim finger at one of the tower-things. “Those are Yin-Weimer Telportal Beacon Pylons. I originally planned to use a gravity cannon to pull the building out of the ground, but then I remembered the basement… basements never come out in one piece when I use the gravity cannon.”
Link gave her a sidelong look. “I’m hearing this, but it all sounds like bad sci-fi. If teleportation pylons and gravity manipulation exist, why aren’t they public knowledge… or in use anywhere else in the world?”
An amused-looking Amanda ticked the reasons off n her fingers: “Let’s see, some of the materials are too expensive for governments that need to balance budgets and not steal from multiple secure locations; some aren’t marketable for purposes other than ‘villainy’; some of them are highly dangerous in the early phases and testing can’t be done legally under international or interstellar law; some of the scientists are legitimately insane and no one else would give them a lab… The villain community is absolutely burgeoning with people would would be billionaires if not for these issues.
“’Why doesn’t someone just hire Professor Intrigue and keep hm off the streets building rampaging killbots? Because the man wants to build killbots and no one honest is going to pay for a horde of walking Geneva Convention or Quuarram Nebula treaty violations.”
“’Evil is a growth industry’; I think I’ve heard that before.”
Amanda swatted his am. “Nerd. But as I was saying, the plan is the reverse of what I usually do. I’ll draw the attention of the ERIS troops and whoever else gets dispatched to intercept me, then MEF-5 will place the eight necessary pylons around the house and run the teleportation sequence. As easy as stealing cameroniam-233 from a Saudi supply depot.”
She blinked and set up straighter. “Oh! Speaking of which…” swiping a hand in the air she called up a new window on the holographic interface, this one a chat window. “Queen Mageddo to MEF-2 Leader. If you are not under radio silence, situation report.”
After a long pause, a French-accented male voice replied. “MEF-2 Leader, Guy Everett reporting, Your Majesty. Thirty-one minutes ago, we located the armored truck containing the target and confirmed its route. We should have contact within the next fifty-three minutes given its current speed and average traffic on its route. MEF-1 will execute the feint to draw off any hidden defenders, then we will disable the transport and acquire the target.”
“Very good.” Amanda said in her Queen Mageddo voice. “Your last two forays met expectations. Meet or exceed them again and I will see that the whole of MEF-2 is rewarded.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty. We work for the survival and glory of Megardia. MEF-2 out.”
Amanda sat back with a small nod. “Another eleven grams of cameronium, another six months of no energy crisis.”
“Eleven grams?” Link exclaimed.
“The component of the Deep Geothermal Converter we need to make out of that cameronium one has a mass of one point eight three grams.” Amanda informed him, sitting back in her chair. “The problem is, the process decays the cameronium into lucasium and bayonite in less than a month of continual use. And without the converter, the geothermal plants alone won’t be able to supply the areas outside of the major cities. That includes most of our farmland.”
Link nodded slowly, turning the new information over in his head. He recalled the roof-top greenhouses he’d seen when he first laid eyes on the capital city. They were probably necessary to supplement what the limited agricultural areas could supply.
“What about solar?” he asked.
“The panels we can make with local resources are low-output. There are wind farms, but space is at a minimum and suitable build locations are at a premium.”
It took a moment for Link to recognize the feeling that had come over him: Comfort. Not in the sense that he was falling into his role as King, but the prospect of a problem with a scientific solution put him on familiar ground. Whether or not he could actually do anything about the situation at hand, he was now in his element.
“What about your personal power source? Considering all the things it can do, I imagine it could power quite a lot of mundane tech.”
Still watching the feed of MEF-5 prepping their transport, Amanda nodded. “It can, but that’s a last resort. My grandfather had a chamber constructed to link the Source directly into the national power grid, but while inside, I’m useless for anything else. If there’s an attack…”
“Understood.” agreed Link. “And there’s no coal, no uranium, and no natural gas. No major rivers you can dam either, if I’ve read the maps correctly. It sounds like your long term plan is to steal the means to synthesize you own cameronium… why not just steal uranium?”
This made Amanda sigh, then reach up to squeeze his arm. “Sweetie, you’re a scientific golden boy, but politics… not so much. Cameronium is rare, but it’s still just a component for high end electronic systems. The theft of it is a crime, but on par with stealing a fleet of luxury cars. Uranium is grounds for international action. And while Iran or North Korea have allies to ensure they won’t be wiped off the map in retaliation, we don’t.”
Link let out a groan. “I should have thought of that. I mean if that was the solution, you would have done it already after all.” He scrubbed a free hand through his hair. “I need to actually have a look at what we do and don’t have around here—maybe I can help with the energy issue.”
“The people would love you are more for that.” said Amanda. “Especially out in the rural areas, they’re constantly aware that power rations might be instituted at any time.”
That was the first real crack he’d seen in the happy facade of Megardia. Link worked to keep a scowl from coming to his face when the thought crossed his mind that there are probably many other problems abounding outside the overly-opulent palace. “I’ll see what I can do.” He promised before deciding to finally get around to what he originally came to the war room to discuss.
“I promise we’re doing everything possible to track down any other agents, Link. In the meantime, the kids and you are in the hands of people that I trust, and once I get the house back, I won’t be leaving Megardia until I’m sure things are properly locked down.” The words tumbled from Amanda’s lips and even with the suit, she seemed a far cry for Queen Mageddo.
She’d been waiting for that question, he realized. Dreading it.
“Actually, I was thinking I might be able to do something about that.” A queasy feeling wriggled through his gut. He was stepping out of that earlier familiar ground. It also made him feel self-conscious when Amanda looked at him like he’d said he was a Martian.
When Amanda didn’t seem up to voicing a response, he pressed on. “That woman, the one that girl who had better not be Nathan’s new girlfriend killed… Moccasin?”
“Right. Well she tried to play me against you back when I was in custody. Not just trying to get me to slip up, but once she realized I wasn’t in on your big secret, she seemed sure I’d turn on you.”
His wife squeezed his arm again. “And I can’t be more thankful that you didn’t.”
Link nodded and slid his arm out of her grasp so as to hold her hand. “I don’t think it was ever a real possibility.” He paused there and avoided her gaze. “Buuut, if Moccasin thought that, the whole organization might think that… might think I’m playing along so you won’t go spare and kill me.”
Despite his best efforts, Amanda managed to catch his gaze with wide, concerned eyes. “Link… what are you suggesting?”
“I’ll explain, but first… is the man that tried to kill you last night still…”
“Alive?” Amanda asked. Now it was her turn to look away. “Yes. He’s in a suite like the one you were in until I can contact one of my telepath friends to extract everything he knows. Why”
The suite was not like the one he’d been held in, Link noted as he stepped across the threshold of the room. There wasn’t nearly as much furniture or any real trappings of comfort. The bed was a queen-sized, but had no covers on it beyond a fitted sheet that looked attached to the mattress; there was desk, a chair, and a small table, but all the light came from recessed lamps in the ceiling and absolutely nothing was loose or light.
Unsurprising, considering the man had tried to bite down on a suicide capsule less than twenty-four hours before. Speaking of: the thin, pale would-be assassin was rising from the bed the moment the door opened. Link braced himself for an attack,only to find the man pausing in confusion at seeing him.
Link took a deep breath and offered the other man the slightest of nods before turning to address the King’s Guard. “Ladies, just… we need a couple of minutes.”
Nadine’s eyes flicked to the assassin, then back to Link. “Your Excellence, I strongly advise against this.”
Rolling his eyes, Link turned and put his best approximation of a dangerous expression. “He’s a stick figure, Nadine. I don’t need to ask my guards to help me with this—the man tried to kill my wife after all.”
“Who is the King here?”
He terse question made the guard recoil as if slapped. Link heard the thump of her performing the fist-on-heart salute. “You are, of course. My apologies, Your Excellence.”
Link nodded, still glaring at the assassin. “Leave us. I’ll call when I’m done.”
Without another word, the pair withdrew, closing the door behind them. Almost instantly, Link let out a long breath and visibly deflated. He took a moment to glance behind him as if the King’s Guard could see through steel doors, then back to the assassin, who was regarding him much like a tiger who just spotted something in its cage that it couldn’t tell was foe or food.
Feeling distinctly like ‘food’, Link let his nerves show and risked closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. “Please tell me you’re American. That the cavalry’s coming.”
It was as if he could actually feel the tension rise in the room.
At length, the other man spoke, terse and obviously on guard. “I’m not with the Americans if that’s what you mean.” After a beat, he continued with, “What is this?”
Link opened his eyes. The assassin hadn’t moved from his place by the bed. Whether that was a good or bad sign, he couldn’t tell. “So you can’t help me and my kids?”
The assassin replied with a cold stare.
Swallowing his anxiety, Link crossed the room, every now and then throwing a glance back at the door. When he spoke, he kept his voice low. “When you said ‘ERIS’ last night, that was Extraordinary Response International Services, right? Look, they picked me up and started asking me these crazy questions—I didn’t believe any of it until my wife sent her goons to kidnap me.”
When the assassin didn’t interrupt, Link pressed on. “A-and this? This is a nightmare. Sure, I’m supposed to be king or whatever, but you know what that really is? The Royal Consort. You know what a consort is?”
Something in the assassin’s mask cracked and Link thought he saw a smirk start to twitch the other man’s lip. “Yes. I know what a consort is.” Smirk or no, he kept his voice dispassionate.
“Yeah, well I don’t want to be one.” Link hissed. “So here’s the deal: you’ve got a way off the island, right? Take me and my kids with you.”
The assassin shook his head. “I was meant to die. I have no exit strategies.” There was no pity in either his voice or tone.
Link groaned and made a show of rubbing his temples. “Oh come on! You’ve got to… well you got to the island some way, yeah?”
Silence. The assassin stared at him before shaking his head. “No. No, I do;t believe you. Mageddo has too many resources. She could’ve easily brainwashed you in the three days you’ve been here. She might have the children hostage. Stockholm’s, maybe. Or maybe you aren’t even the husband.”
He was so distracted running the scenarios that Link actually landed a punch on his jaw.
“Gah!” Link muttered, shaking his hand. The assassin stared at him and flexed his fists, ready to fight. “God dam it. What the hell are you made of?” No sense in admitting that his punching skills were non-existent.
“What was the point of that?” The assassin was no longer dispassionate. In fact, he sounded deeply passionate about giving Link an ass-kicking.
Link glared at him, still nursing his hand. “That’s still my wife, man. I still love her, I just can’t… Well would you want to raise your kids like this? I tried to talk Amanda out of it, but she’s like ‘loyal’ to this place or something. So I’ve got to pack up the kids and get, know what I mean?”
“And punching me was going to help that?”
“No, I punched you ’cause you were talking shit about the mother of my children. If you’re useless, fine. I’ll find another way. I’ve got unfettered access to the Palace’s computer network, maybe with some work I can make a way out the same way I looped the camera feeds to this room.”
He started to turn, only to find a hand closing over his arm.
“You can do that?”
Link fought against the smile trying to form on his lips. “Yeah. Yeah I can. Amanda based the whole Palace secure network on an operating system I wrote.”
“And no one can see or hear us right now?”
That had a dangerous feel to it. Link instantly thought of those movies where the villain asked some hapless minion ‘And did you tell anyone else about this evidence against me?’. Still, he had to see things through. “Hell, I don’t want Amanda to know I saw you at all, much less that I was thinking of taking the kids.”
“Then I’ll tell you this for free.” said the assassin. “If I were you, I’d get the kids underground for the next week or so. You know what Mageddo did to The Philanthropist’s parents?”
Link swallowed, the shaking that was taking over at that moment not at all an act. “Oh god, the rumors aren’t true, are they?”
The other man nodded. “You’ve seen them fight. The Philanthropist has a code against killing, but it always looks like she’d let it slip just for Mageddo.”
“…I find it hard to believe The Philanthropist would kill anyone.” At least he hoped she wouldn’t.”
“Are you willing to bet you kids’ lives?”
Link stared at the assassin for a long moment. Gibbering fear was starting to crawl up his gut, into his throat. “No…” he muttered. “No.” Turning, he bolted for the door. To his surprise, the assassin didn’t even try to take advantage and the door closed behind him without incident.
“Your Excellence?” Ilia asked as the two fell into step with him. Both guards, of course knew what he originally intended by going to the assassin’s cell, but hadn’t expected to see him so unnerved.
“Has Amanda left on her mission yet?” Link asked as he hurried toward the security station and the elevator beyond.
Nadine checked her watch. “She will have departed half an hour ago.”
“Damn. And I bet there’s no way to call them back.”
“Not until they arrive.” Nadine said, worry now showing in her eyes. “The transport’s stealth technology renders it transparent to most forms of energy while active.” She gave him a concerned look. “Your Excellence, what’s wrong?”
Link took a deep breath. “ERIS plans to use the most powerful superhero in the world to attack Megardia.”