Cannon Fodder Sample Chapter
Alec could already hear glass breaking downstairs. It was a wake for an evil overlord, after all.
He itched in the formal pants and shirt that he’d scrounged up earlier. His home had gone strange on him. Everything was still there: the worn-out molding, the artificial torches set in brackets on the walls, the cabinets of poison over the stairs. The scorch marks. But this house had no Aunt Viper in it anymore.
Time to face the music, he thought.
He took a step down, then heard a voice behind him. “Hey.”
Listeria emerged into the fake torchlight on the landing. She’d been his friend in villain school, though she was a couple grades ahead of him and already an evil overlord in her own right. Alec was used to seeing her in a spangly skintight bodysuit, but today, she’d ditched it for a dress. It only added to the feeling that everything in the world had gone upside down.
“I heard,” she said.
Alec wanted to snap something back like of course you’ve heard, do you go around attending wakes and you have no idea why you’re there?, then he took another look at her and choked. There was something very un-evil in her eyes. If the Norgolian Society of Evil Overlords ever found out about a look like that, she was toast.
“This is never going to happen again,” Alec said. He couldn’t meet her eyes. “Get that?”
Listeria started to say something, then stopped. After a few moments, she nodded at the stairs. “Let’s go.”
Alec was glad to have his friend with him as they headed down. The sounds of the wake swelled, then they came into full view of Aunt Viper’s – now his – parlor. Even though that afternoon they’d pushed all the furniture out of the room except for one table, there were so many villains in there they could scarcely move. The NSEO villains didn’t know how to dress right for a wake. Half of them wore black to work anyway, so they’d come here in black capes, black leather, black armor, black spikes. The other half of them worked in the skintight stuff, so tonight it looked like they’d rummaged around in their closets for something less clingy.
The only table left in the room held a casket. A very closed casket.
The villains had bunched up as well as they were able and gotten to drinking. Every few seconds one of them would shove his neighbor or pick a pocket. But at the sight of Alec at the foot of the stairs, the action died away.
“You don’t look like her,” somebody said.
Alec gritted his teeth and waded into the crowd of people. It was impossible to avoid bumping elbows and shoulders, which was a dangerous thing to do around these people. He would have rather been just about anywhere else right now, but he had to find the NSEO’s arms dealer if he was going to go through with his plan.
A hand grabbed his chin and turned his head.
Alec found himself looking into the eyes of a woman in a maroon sweater with a paisley tie. She had a tanned hide and she smelled of cigarette smoke. He didn’t know this evil overlord, but he knew he’d better not piss her off.
“Are you really the Viper’s nephew?” Another twist of the head. “I can’t see any of her blood in you.”
Alec put a hand up to his chin and made an experimental pry under those chipped fingernails. She let go.
Five or six other villains had gathered around to watch. One of them was over six feet tall and had a poofy black beard.
“Answer me, boy,” said the cigarette woman.
“I don’t know,” Alec said. He felt himself flush.
“What do you mean, you don’t know?”
“Quit it,” said another overlord. “He means that you can never be sure who the father is.”
“I have to go talk to the Merchant of Death,” Alec said. He tried to push past the ring of villains, but didn’t get far because of the crowd.
“How could that be? I don’t remember Viper mentioning a brother,” the cigarette woman said. She turned to the crowd. “Does anybody remember her mentioning a brother?”
“Viper said he could call her Aunt Viper. She didn’t say why,” Listeria said.
Listeria had quietly inserted herself at Alec’s side. Alec wished she hadn’t. He’d been handling it on his own just fine.
The cigarette woman rounded on her. “And you would know because you’re the new spy girl, would you?”
“It doesn’t matter,” the bearded man said in a basso voice that stopped the conversation in its tracks. “How are you going to take your revenge?”
Alec didn’t like the way the bearded man was looking at him. He was a tall, broad lump of a man inside a shirt with sailboats on it. He had an eyepatch over one eye. The other eye regarded Alec like he was a small piece of ham.
“I’ve got something in mind,” Alec said. “That’s why I need to go talk to the Merchant of Death.” He edged away.
“Are you going to cause maximum destruction to the Empire? Rain down violence and tears? Bring little Walker to her knees?”
Something was wrong with this guy. He was already red in the face. He made an expansive movement with his arms and smacked another guy in a catsuit in the elbow. The catsuit guy growled.
“I’m working on it.” Alec risked a glance over his shoulder. The crowd had closed behind him. Not much chance of an escape route back upstairs.
“What have you killed so far?” The man put his fists up. “Huh? Huh?”
What the heck was he supposed to do? Were they supposed to fight? Then to his relief, he spotted a face he recognized in the crowd. It was the Merchant of Death.
“Did I hear my name?” The Merchant attempted to swoop into their circle, but it turned into something more like a shove past a pair of bald men in suits. “Move over, Black Jack. If I’m correct, this young man would like to talk to me.”
“Come on, let’s fight!” Black Jack roared. “Let’s show off what you can do!” He swung his arms wide again and this time knocked the cigarette woman in the nose.
Suddenly the parlor had a lot more room in it than it did before, and Alec found himself in the middle of an open space with Black Jack, the cigarette woman, and the Merchant of Death. At least Listeria had had the common sense to beat it.
The Merchant spoke close to Alec’s ear. “Duck.”
Alec ducked. He felt air ruffle his hair as an arm swung just past his head. Someone shrieked. Then the Merchant’s hand was pressing on his shoulders, guiding him out. They shoved their way to the door at the far end of the parlor. The Merchant wrenched it open, pushed Alec through, then himself, then slammed it shut.
Alec leaned back against the wall, still too dazed to speak. His heart pounded. The old portrait of Maximus the Disgusting glared down at him from the opposite wall. It had been there for as long as he could remember.
“Never liked crowds anyway,” the Merchant said. He dug a watch out of his coat pocket and examined the dial for scratches. Apparently satisfied, he returned it to his pocket.
Alec’s tongue finally began to work again. “Was that–” He looked at the door. “Is that what Black Jack looks like in real life?”
The Merchant of Death nodded.
“Was he drunk?”
The Merchant tilted his head in a way that didn’t entirely answer the question. “How are you holding up, Alec?” he said.
Now that he wasn’t in danger of being trampled anymore, the misery was back. The feeling like he wanted to crawl into a hole and stay there forever. It had been dogging him for the past two days, ever since it had happened.
It must have shown, because the Merchant of Death put a hand on his shoulder. “She was clever.”
Clever wouldn’t save you when a hero and twenty fully armed Imperial Troopers mobbed you. But Alec made himself straighten up, take a deep breath, and look the Merchant fully in the eye. “I’m going into business.”
“Thought you would,” the Merchant said.
Something went thump against the wall behind Alec. The roof timbers rattled.
“Let’s talk about this somewhere else, shall we?” the Merchant said.
The two of them walked rather briskly away down the hall.
“I’m looking for something really big,” Alec said. “And scary. The most important part is that it gets the good guys really, really freaked.”
They took a turn into the Viper’s study. Alec wasn’t sure he could ever get used to thinking of this stuff as his own. It was all so Viper. Though her lab was in the basement, she would bring her work up here most days and get grease stains on all the books. Simulated firelight played over shelves filled with manuals and recipe books and broken doomsday device parts. The whole place smelled like mineral oil. A piece of butcher paper that was taped up by a bay window outlined her plan to make pencil leads made out of real lead. She’d come back from that one with a broken leg.
A table by the fire had been converted into a work table. Alec remembered the lessons at that table, Viper with her lists bashing the names of the poisons into him. Digitalis acted on the heart. Arsenic pretended to be phosphate in the body. The liver of a tropical fish shut off nerve cells.
The Merchant of Death pulled a couple of chairs over to the artificial fire, away from the work table, and they sat down. The fire lit up strands of silver in the Merchant’s hair. For an evil overlord, getting old enough to get gray hairs was an accomplishment.
“May I ask what you’re planning to do with this?” the Merchant said.
“I’m not going to tell you that!”
“Hm. Appropriate answer.” There was a quirk that was almost a smile. “Well, Alec, I think I can cut you a deal.”
Alec’s heart leapt into his throat. What, now? He’d thought he’d have to wait a few weeks, then the Merchant would get back to him with a shrink ray or something.
“Don’t let on to the others that I said this, but you’re your aunt’s nephew, all right,” the Merchant said. “Do this right and you could punch that mayor who thinks she’s an empress in the nose.”
He drew a roll of paper out of an inside coat pocket and spread it out on the table between them. It was a pen-and-ink drawing of a sea monster. Technical specs written in the same cramped hand as the drawing squeezed themselves into the margins wherever they would fit around… Well, it looked like a lump of melted blubber. A head rose out of a pile of tentacles, with shapeless beady eyes and a shapeless slack maw. Teeth that looked like the bristles of a toothbrush. One of its tentacles clutched something that Alec thought might be a toy.
Alec reached out, hesitated, but the Merchant didn’t seem to be stopping him. He took the paper up and looked at it closer. The monster wasn’t holding a toy. It was a car.
One of the dark sea gods?
“A kraken,” the Merchant said in a low voice. One of the magically burning logs chose that moment to snap and they both jumped. “Recently I got my hands on a way to control it. I’ve been hanging onto it for you, and if you’re game, we can arrange a time for a handoff.”
But one of the dark sea gods? Alec’s heart pounded even harder. This was all happening so fast. Too fast.
“Why?” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Why are you helping me like this?” Alec set the drawing down. “I’ve never seen a superweapon like this.”
The Merchant took a long time in answering. “You are also clever.”
“But you saved this back for me?”
“Would you believe that my ulterior motive is that I like you, kid?”
Alec didn’t believe him. At least, he didn’t believe that that was the whole story. Evil overlords didn’t just help each other. But for reasons of his own, the Merchant of Death wanted Alec to have a really killer weapon.
The Merchant tapped the paper. “The Empire’s oracles will have already seen this coming. About fifteen years ago, they saw the one who was destined to defeat you and put him into training. Are you ready for that?”
That was the one part of Alec’s plan that he was really sure about. It didn’t matter whether he had a kraken or a shrink ray or whatever. All he needed was somebody who was supposed to go up against him. And then he’d make sure the government never killed another evil overlord again.
“I’m ready,” he said.
“Excellent.” The Merchant took the paper and let it roll up with a snap. He handed it back over to Alec. Then they shook hands in the villain fashion, that was, gingerly and keeping their eyes open. Alec had learned the hard way from the NSEO that you could never be sure who was packing a poisoned barb, even the old Merchant.
“By the way,” said the Merchant, as Alec tucked the roll under his arm. “Have you given any thought to a villain name?”
For the first time in days, Alec almost smiled. “Captain Egregious,” he said.