The Bureau had been abuzz ever since the speech. It wasn't decided by the Director, this was way above his pay-grade. The president herself had made the call. By now the situation was so dire that everyone knew something was happening; it couldn't be concealed from the public any longer. Beginning with the eruption of a long-dormant volcano two years back -- at first attributed to geologic forces, until scientists ruled that out. Followed by the historically low crop yields worldwide. The weird flashes that everyone had seen in the night sky. The inexplicable, unlocalized hum that had begun in Omaha, and gradually gotten louder until it became a deafening roar that had driven away every person in a ten mile radius, where it abruptly stopped. The sudden, silent disappearance of every single inhabitant of Budapest.
But it seemed as if everyone but the Cabinet was surprised by just how public the president had decided to go, when she declared during her second State of the Union address that the United States's top national priority was the defeat of two people known only as the Doctor and the Contessa.
Isabel -- no, it was Voltage now -- had been watching. President Ross stood perfectly straight behind the podium as she concluded her speech. If it hadn't been for the white knuckles she gripped it with, you could have believed she was discussing economic policy. "This is a matter that affects every single man, woman, and child in the United States. Every single man, woman, and child in the world. The earth will not be safe until they are stopped.
"Congress has unanimously heeded my call to temporarily suspend the Posse Comitatus Act, allowing me to begin placing troops in every major city to help protect our citizens. I urge every citizen to be watchful. Any unexplained behavior from a fellow citizen could be a clue that helps us find and eliminate this threat. Any unexplained phenomenon you see could be a hint that saves thousands of lives.
"The deaths of these monsters will not only protect our children and our future. They will avenge the Americans that have already been killed. In order to protect the secrecy of our efforts I cannot offer any further information about how we will proceed, but America will prevail. Our nation's darkest hour will end. Terrorism will not destroy this nation and terrorists will not walk free. May God bless and protect America."
The standing ovations and the president's firmness didn't hide the fact that she was not standing in the hall of Congress. The flat steel walls that surrounded the chamber in which she stood revealed that she, and Congress, and every other official at the address, were in hiding.
It hadn't been officially announced to the rank and file at the Bureau, but it was widely assumed at headquarters that it would be they who were tasked with handling the threat. It was an open secret that Ross herself, during the years in which her official bio claimed she was teaching schoolchildren in rural Appalachia, had actually been working for the Bureau. That was back in its early days, when it was a tiny handful, less than a dozen, paid for by some line item in the Defense budget and living in an unassuming house somewhere near Embassy Row.
Ross had been one of the Bureau's first recruits, during the early years of the Cold War. She remained famous in the Bureau for her stylishness starting from her first assassination. She had flown in and plucked the imam from his pulpit as he spoke, and flew him out so quickly that some of his audience concluded that God Himself had decided to induct the man into Paradise early. But she only stayed on a few years. A few Metas had even speculated on whether her rise to power had somehow been unnatural, although she was not known to have mental powers. As soon as she retired, she started winning elections: city council, mayor, state legislature, Congress, governorship. Never more than one term in any office, never an election lost. The Metas who suspected her of having unfairly gained the office of president differed on whether or not it was appropriate for one of their own to assume leadership of the regular people that way.
Voltage walked to the Infirmary again. For what seemed like the hundredth time, she had managed to burn herself. She wasn't one of the lucky Metas who were invulnerable to their own powers, and even though the other Electricals and the regulars who were in charge of the place were amazed at the strength of her abilities, it would have been worth being weaker if it had come paired with not being subject to electrical burns. Learning the control required to use her powers without accidentally exposing herself to them was agony.
She signed in and sat down in the waiting room. For once, no one else was there. Which made her jump when a pair of hands landed on her shoulders. "Gotcha, Volty," came the cheerful Texas-accented voice of her attacker, who then unveiled and plopped down next to Voltage.
She knows my name! "Hi, Wallflower," she replied. Wallflower must have chosen her name ironically, although she was good at avoiding notice. The Invisibles were the real elites at the school, since it was the most useful power for their usual missions. Wallflower was the elite among the Invisibles because she also had the unusual pairing of limited control of sound. She couldn't do much with it, unlike some Metas, but she could render herself completely inaudible.
But disappearing wasn't her usual style. Her loud clothes and louder everpresent laugh usually made her the center of attention, which clearly suited her fine. She also had been with the Bureau for a few years, and had gone on real missions, unlike most of the other Metas, who were too new, recruits from after the Bureau had decided to increase its size to handle new threats.
"There's a rumor going around that they're going to get rid of Mandate Number One," said Wallflower. "I hope they do. If we're going to have to save the world, I want credit for it."
Voltage gasped. Concealing the Bureau's -- and the Metas' -- existence was the first thing they pounded into her head once they had let her join. "But we'd be in so much danger!"
Wallflower grinned. "Aww, it's not that bad. They didn't used to really enforce it. I mean, ShadowSeraph and Sister Smoulder had comic books until a year or two ago."
Voltage gasped again. "They're real?"
Wallflower laughed. "Oh, baby, you are new. You've never seen 'em around because they're freelancers, but they've been with the Bureau for years."
"Jesus, who else is? Is Superman real too?"
Wallflower's laugh was even louder this time. "No, unfortunately, or the rest of us would have a lot less to worry about."
A voice called out Wallflower's name and she stood up. "All right, Volty baby, I'll see you around. You want to hang out once they let us out today?"
Voltage halfway thought she heard bells ringing. "Sure, I'm done with training at 6."
"Sweet, me too. I'll find you."
Voltage had been wondering all afternoon, but even once Wallflower found her and they headed out to hang out at a diner, it took half an hour of conversation before she worked up the nerve to ask. "Wallflower, do you think they're going to ask you to go after them?"
"To be truly honest I wish they wouldn't, but yeah, Voltage. And I'll say yes. Someone has to do something about them."
"What's it like? You know, to actually kill someone?"
"It's not easy but when it's someone bad, you know you've done something good for the world. And there's no one as bad as these two."
"What if I can't?"
"Voltage, babe, when it's your turn, you'll be able to do what you've decided to do."
The president was in attendance. It didn't seem like she had anything to say, so perhaps she was present just to underscore the seriousness of the matter. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs stood up and addressed the Metas; the entire Bureau, several hundred now, sat watching. "We'll keep this briefing, well, brief. I'm sure most of you are aware of the key points, since it's difficult to keep information secret from a group that includes telepaths.
"The Doctor and the Contessa are, as I'm sure you are all aware, the most singularly dangerous threat to national security and, it's no exaggeration to say the entire human race, that has ever existed. We are counting on the Bureau to eliminate this threat. All missions involving the pair will involve deadly force. In essence, this is, as it were, a 'license to kill'. You are all unconditionally ordered to kill the pair on sight if you have the opportunity. You may kill their subordinates if necessary. You may kill innocent members of the general public if it helps you catch them, although we would prefer otherwise.
"They cannot be permitted to survive. There is no jail that we are certain could contain them. There is nothing any of our analysts have come up with that will convince them or force them to stop. We know very little about them personally; we have yet to even find a photo of them.
"Here is what we know about them. They are both at least thirty years old. It appears they use, as an alias, the names Robert and Julia 'von Wicked'. We have yet to identify either of their real names, so we have little information about their pasts. 'Robert', the Doctor, is British. He is white, a few years older than his companion, and he seems to be an engineering genius. He has a broad base of scientific knowledge and in particular is known for having crafted an army of gigantic nuclear-powered robots, which are virtually invulnerable.
"'Julia', the Contessa, is American. She is possibly of Hispanic origin. She bears the twin distinctions of being the most dangerous human being on earth in any sort of physical combat, and being possibly the world's foremost military tactician. Robert built the army but Julia commands it and she commands it with ruthless effectiveness. That is not to mention the fact that she commands a highly skilled squadron of humans, numbering in the hundreds at least, all highly trained in martial arts and the use of virtually every weapon.
"Because of their technological and military might, it has been determined that a conventional military response will be ineffective, and a nuclear response will either be ineffective or trigger nuclear retaliation, likely both. Any operation targeting the Doctor and the Contessa will have to be covert. If you kill either of them, it will be an enormous victory. If you kill both, expect everything from a Medal of Honor to a Nobel Peace Prize.
"They are apparently based in the Himalayas, in a fortress dug into a mountain; we have determined this through analysis of supply networks, although they clearly have other locations at their disposal and, seemingly, the means to travel between them without being observed. We cannot identify their precise location. We are uncertain as to the degree to which they have compromised the U.S. government or other governments, although our seeming lack of data on them suggests that the problem is substantial.
"We will be organizing individual missions to attack them, led by members of the Bureau. I use the word 'missions' because, in all probability, it will take more than one, perhaps more than three or four, before we succeed in finding them and killing them. Your nation salutes you and, while we must conceal the existence of the Bureau, we will make sure the names of our fallen heroes are known to every American."
Wallflower was right. She was the first choice. A few weeks passed before a mountain had been located that was the von Wickeds' probable location. She had been training hard since the briefing; she had discovered that her powers could, with intense effort, be applied outside her body, and she worked -- even in her spare moments, most of which she spent with Voltage -- until she could make an entire helicopter invisible and inaudible.
Voltage worked too, figuring out not only how to launch lightning bolts but to control electrical devices. In their stolen moments together, she would practice things like making a clock run backwards. Wallflower would make it disappear and reappear.
Their last night before the mission Voltage held her. She leaned against the wall in her bunk, and Wallflower sat between her legs. Voltage ran her fingers through Wallflower's spiky blond hair. "I hope you're planning to come back to me, Charlotte."
"I am, Isabel. If it doesn't . . . go well, at least I got to meet you first. I love you."
"I love you too, Charlotte."
Contact was lost with Wallflower shortly after the mission began. Pieces of her body -- somehow more grotesque for still being invisible -- were found in the Capitol building and the Bureau headquarters. Voltage spent a week sobbing before she resolved that she would be the one to destroy the von Wickeds.
But she was still too new at the Bureau to be permitted to go out on missions. They kept her in training while they continued to send out missions. The mood at the Bureau was grim without Wallflower, and it grew grimmer yet week by week, when Moonshadow disappeared, and then Ravensbeak, and Obsidian, and Silverdust, and Frost and Candlestick and Sky Dancer and Blade and dozens more.
Voltage was summoned to her commander's office eventually. She knew what this meant. And she hadn't kept it a secret that she was waiting for a chance at the von Wickeds.
"Voltage, we haven't sent an Electrical yet. To be honest, we don't know if it'll help. At this point it would be absurd to tell you you are likely to survive, let alone succeed. It's up to you whether or not you want to do this. If you agree, you'll be paired with Fog of War. He's an Invisible who is able to shelter others over a short range."
"I know him, sir."
"You've said before now that you're anxious for a chance at them. Is that still true?"
"Truer than ever, sir."
She stood before them. It was amazing just to see them in the flesh. But there they were, Robert's creations disabled, Julia's army foiled by her and Fog of War's invisibility. Snow swirled around them and she shivered, somewhat lightheaded from lack of oxygen but that didn't matter at this point. They were hers. They were dead.
"This is for Wallflower!" she shouted. She aimed the nearest robot's laser at the monsters, charged it up. But Julia had heard her cry, and pointed at her, her other hand making rapid signals. Voltage couldn't seem to move as fast as normal. She kept on, charging the weapon, and the robot was just about to shoot, when something hit the back of her head. Everything went black.
The Chairman came back but the President did not; she hadn't emerged from her bunker since the earthquake that had caused Maine to drift out into the Atlantic.
"This has been kept from the public. You will regard this as if it were covered by Mandate Number One. The president's daughter has been kidnapped. She is not even an adult -- she just turned 14. Kara Ross did not deserve to be a victim. She was not involved in the decision to attack the targets. The president's resolve is, to be perfectly frank, flagging. She has been talked into one last mission. All of you, the Bureau's employees, are safe. You will not be involved, and thus you do not need to know the further details of the mission. I am here as a courtesy, in thanks for the lives of your brothers and sisters that have been lost.
"The American people are in your debt. One day, when this is over, the names of Wallflower and Silverdust and Voltage and the others will be carved on a memorial. Once the American people are safe."
Once the president had addressed the nation and she had, going against every advisor on her staff, promised the von Wickeds that no further attempts would be made on them, things seemed to calm down. The Doctor and the Contessa seemed to be willing to call it a truce, and attacks on American soil seemed to stop.
Kara Ross had been returned in body if not in mind; her fate was kept a secret to avoid a panic. If the daughter of the president, kept along with her in a secret bunker, couldn't be protected, how vulnerable were other citizens?
The president finished her term and then withdrew from public life. She didn't even attempt to run for reelection. She hadn't even bothered with a press conference after she broke down sobbing during her last State of the Union address. After that event, her closest and longest-serving advisor removed a thin file from a locked filing cabinet in the White House. He carefully burned the legislation the two of them had drafted together, back when she was first elected a City Councilor, the legislation to repeal the 22nd Amendment and allow President Ross to continue serve as many terms as she wanted. He also burned the documents that, with sufficient analysis, might have proven which of the atrocities blamed on the von Wickeds had actually been theirs, and which of them Ross had engineered.
The Von Wicked Chronicles
by Excalibre and Evil Catullus
I remember when it was me who made you want to take over the world and enslave humanity
Latex. High heels. Knives. (Excalibre's writeup)
It's not my fault that I'm so evil
I was a teenage Overlord
Lady Deathblast's Lover
This little light of mine
The Thanksgiving battle
My funny villaintine
Robots and comic books
This wicked life
The education of little overlords
All things truly wicked
Darkness lights its own way
How it all began
Sometimes I think you love that doomsday machine more than you love me.
They are mine. They are dead.
There is a crack in everything
Hell hath no fury like a villainess scorned