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There’s no sound in space, but my saucer cannons simulated a shriek with every blast. A swoosh followed every barrel roll. And when my autogunner scored a hit, a sophisticated program supplied the appropriate level of response, ranging from a simple ping to a full-fledged explosion. I could have programmed it to provide an explosion every time, but that would’ve cheapened the experience.
The atmosphere burst with color as the cannons belched their staccato rhythm. My ship blasted the enemy fighters to scrap, but an impressive fleet stood between my target and me. The shields were holding, but I had only a few moments before I was disabled.
I’d gone over my exo options before mission. Neptunons might have been the smartest race in the galaxy, but outside of our exoskeletons, we couldn’t do much more than flop around. We could drag ourselves across the floor, a means of mobility both embarrassing and ineffective. Our brains had grown too fast, and we just hadn’t possessed the patience to wait around for nature to bestow what we could give ourselves. Over the centuries, we’d only grown smarter and squishier.
The obvious choice for an exo on this mission would’ve been a big, burly combative model. But I’d opted for stealth, taking a modified Ninja-3 prototype. It stood barely five feet tall and space limitations meant it didn’t pack much weaponry. But I wasn’t planning on fighting every soldier on the station. It sounded like a laugh, but time was a factor. Terra was a little over six minutes from total subjugation.
I slipped into my exo, loaded myself into the launch tube, and prepared to fire.
“It was a pleasure serving with you, sir,” said the craft’s computer.
I ejected, rocketing through space in a jet-black torpedo that was practically invisible in the darkness of space. A stray plasma blast could’ve gotten lucky and struck the torpedo. If it didn’t destroy me outright, it would knock the torpedo off course, either sending me spinning into the void of space or plummeting to Terra. But I’d done the math and decided to take my chances.
The torpedo breached the station’s hull. I kicked open the torpedo’s door and exited. There were no guards. Only a couple of technicians gasping for air. The artificial gravity held them in place, but the decompression had taken all the oxygen.
A security team stormed the room. I vaulted over their heads before they got off a shot. A few punches from my exo’s four arms knocked them all senseless before they could even realize I was behind them. The Ninja-3 had several built-in blades, but I tried not to kill people just for annoying me.
I took a second to grab the emergency oxygen masks off the wall and toss them to the technicians.
Then I was on my way. My exo’s camouflage feature allowed me to avoid guards. I slipped through the security net without much trouble, though it took a few minutes. By the time I reached the device, I was running short on time.
The immense orb hovered in a containment field. Hundreds of lights, purely ornamental, blinked across its surface. Its ultrasonic hum filled the chamber. Only a Neptunon could hear the sound without having their brain melt.
I blasted the device. It shattered into a thousand little pieces. There was nothing inside. Just a ceramic mock-up of a doomsday weapon.
A door opened, and a Neptunon in a hulking exoskeleton marched into the chamber. He banged his hands together. Their metallic clapping echoed.
“You didn’t think it would be that easy, did you?” he asked.
All Neptunons look alike. We even have trouble telling each other apart. It wasn’t surprising that this one looked like me, but the resemblance went deeper.
The clone had been a mistake. I don’t often make mistakes, but I own up to them when they happen.
“A decoy,” I said.
Emperor Mollusk, Mark Two, laughed maniacally. Had I really sounded like that? The clone carried a set of memories minus a few years of experience and the personality to match. Looking at yourself, at who you used to be, wasn’t pretty.
“You should see the look on your face,” he said. “How does it feel to be outwitted?”
“Someone was going to do it eventually,” I replied. “At least I can take some small comfort that I outmaneuvered myself.”
“Yes, if anyone could do it…” He raised an eye ridge in a pompous, self-satisfied manner. We don’t have eyebrows.
“The fleet, the personnel, the space station,” I said. “This must have cost you a small fortune.”
“Ah, but it was necessary, wasn’t it? I knew that only one being in this system had the knowledge and ability to pose any significant risk to my plan. I couldn’t hide an operation like this without something to distract you. So I devised a small game for your amusement. Little clues leading to a fun diversion then a full-blown operation that was every bit as involved and complex as the real thing. But at the heart of it…nothing.”
I said, “Meanwhile, you build your weapon somewhere else, somewhere unimportant, somewhere unnoticed. It was exactly what I would’ve done.”
“And now nothing can stop me. In three minutes, Terra shall be mine.”
“You don’t want it.”
He chuckled, but one look at my face told him I was serious. Neptunons might not have the most expressive features, but we get by.
“Having billions of dominated souls chant your name in unison can be great for the self-esteem. Although, really, self-esteem was never our problem, was it?” I asked.
Mark Two studied me skeptically. He suspected a trap, trying to figure out my angle. There was no angle. Just a lesson learned.
“Once you’re crowned Warlord of Terra, you’ll see that it’s a lot more responsibility than I…we…planned.”
He scanned for any sign of deception. I had never been a very good liar. Strange, considering my hobby as a world conqueror, but it was a conscious choice. Being a skilled liar might have made the job easier, but telling the truth, with the occasional lie by omission, increased the difficulty level.
“Let me tell you how everything will go if you succeed,” I said. “You’ll become ruler of this world. You’ll hold it in your hands like a beautiful blue pearl. That’ll be enough at first. Just to have it.
“But then you’ll start tinkering. Oh, you’ll have the best of intentions. You’ll fix those little pestering problems the Terrans themselves never could. Hunger. War. Poverty. Those will be easy, a long weekend.
“After that, you’ll struggle against the relentless urges that drive you. You’ll realize, intellectually, that there’s little left to do. But you won’t be able to help yourself. Terra will become your own personal science project until your inevitable nature nearly destroys the world. Several times.
“Now, providing you manage to prevent this, you’ll learn some restraint. But it’ll always be there. That insistent desire, that nagging need. You’ll never be able to suppress it. Not completely. And you’ll find yourself wondering if tomorrow is the day you destroy it, most probably by accident.”
Mark Two said, “I’ll learn from your mistakes.”
“Or you’ll just make slightly different variations of the same ones. Regardless, the Terrans have been through enough under one warlord. They don’t need another.”
A klaxon blared, signaling the final countdown. I pushed a button on my exo, and the station blast shields lowered. Mark Two frowned, realizing that I’d hacked his systems.
Mark Two shook off his confusion and resumed his laughter. “I don’t know what happened to you in the time since you were me, but it doesn’t matter. Terra will be mine, and there’s not a thing you can—”
“I already stopped it. You didn’t think you could hide your operation in Minneapolis from me, did you?”
He smiled. “No, that was merely another decoy.”
“Of course, it was,” I replied. “As were your machinations in Lisbon, St. Petersburg, and Busan.”
His smile dropped.
“I’ll admit you almost had me with Melbourne,” I said. “But the decoy in Geneva was sloppy work, if I may be so bold as to offer some criticism.”
He wasn’t angered. He was curious. He was me, after all. And I was rarely frustrated by my failures. I preferred using them as learning opportunities.
I pressed another button. I kept the gravity and lights on for convenience, but everything else in the station went dead. The countdown ended. The doomsday device, the real device hidden aboard this station, wound down.
Mark Two glared. “How did you—”
“I’m you, remember. Just you with a few more years’ experience. Everything you’ve done, I’ve already thought of. Every contingency plan, every possibility, I already did five years ago before you were even hatched from your tank.”
He hid his incredulity behind a scowl, but I sensed it. If the situation were reversed, I’d have been the same. I hadn’t been one hundred percent certain that I would foil his plans. But I was a humbler guy now than I was when I had been him.
His mottled flesh darkened with rage. I could see where he was coming from. I’d failed before, but I’d never been outwitted. But I’d never had to face off against myself. Now it’d all gone freshwater for Mark Two, as the old Neptunon saying went.
His hulking exoskeleton lumbered forward. “You may have stopped me this time, but you won’t be around to stop me the next.”
He threw a clumsy punch that would’ve pulverized the Ninja-3 if I hadn’t sidestepped the blow. He followed that with a haymaker that I danced under. I glided behind him and used a microfilament blade to slice open the hydraulics behind the exo’s right knee. It wobbled but didn’t fall.
He hadn’t even bothered to change the specs. Perhaps he wasn’t a perfect clone after all.
Mark Two teetered on his damaged leg as he struggled to line me up in his sights, but it was a simple thing for me to scamper up his back. I stabbed a few vital systems along the way. The last thing I hit was the stabilizer. His powerful exo tumbled over, ten tons of scrap metal.
A hatch opened, and he ejected in a smaller exo. The clear, fluid-filled dome that held his head bubbled with his frustration. I’d never lost my temper like that, but then again, I’d never been foiled so effortlessly. Or maybe the cloning process had simply been incapable of re-creating every bit of my pragmatic genius. He must’ve known his backup was no match for my Ninja, but in his anger, he didn’t care. I dodged the blasts he sent my way and dismantled his exo with three efficient cuts. It clattered to the floor in pieces.
He flopped around, glaring daggers. Neptunons could survive out of water for extended periods, but it wasn’t comfortable.
“You can’t stop me,” he gurgled. “I’ll be back.”
“No, you won’t.”
I activated the station’s self-destruct countdown. Just a little something I’d slipped into his blueprints when he wasn’t looking.
“So that’s it?” he asked. “You’re just going to leave me here to die?”
“I’m afraid so. No hard feelings.”
Mark Two undulated in a shrug. “No, I suppose not. I’d do the same to you if the situation were reversed.”
“I guess I haven’t changed so much after all,” I replied.
We shared a laugh.
“Just tell me something. It would’ve worked, right?”
“It would have worked,” I said.
He grinned. “That’s something at least.”
“Yeah, it’s something.”
I made my escape without incident, boarding my automated rendezvous craft, and watched the station explode from a safe distance.
It was quite beautiful.
Then I pondered the small world below, oblivious to its own fragility.
I no longer held my official title of Warlord, but the Terra Sapiens, the most plentiful inhabitants of the planet, still worshipped me as a de facto god. Though they no longer made a big show of it.
In the first few years of my reign, I’d managed to solve a few of their problems.
I’d ended their wars by introducing aggression suppressants to the water supply. It didn’t make them any less disagreeable, but it kept them from rioting over the outcome of sporting events and shooting each other over imaginary lines drawn on maps.
I’d solved their energy crisis with the discovery of the molluskotrenic energy field. Its boundless energy production now supplied endless amounts of power to the people of Terra. More power, every day. I hadn’t figured a safe way to switch it off yet, and the vast abundance of the energy was beamed harmlessly into space. There was still too much, and if the engine I’d built to harness it ever suffered catastrophic failure it might very well destroy the engine. Or possibly blow a hole the size of Pluto in this world.
I had a contingency plan should that happen, an alarm that would alert me when it was time to leave the planet. In the meantime, I did my part. I kept every light in the house on and never turned off the TV.
I’d repelled the invasion of the Saturnites. Without me, the Terrans would’ve been digging their planet hollow for their Saturnite masters. The mole people of the Undersphere Empire would’ve fought back, and the whole thing could’ve been a disaster with the Terra Sapiens caught in between.
I’d sent the Saturnites scurrying off to their homeworld in such a hurry they hadn’t stopped to pick up all their soldiers, and a few thousand warriors were left on the planet. Fighting was all Saturnites knew, and you’d think rock-skinned warriors on a planet of mammals would have an easy time of it. But those aggression suppressants had been top-notch. Terrans didn’t fight wars anymore, and Saturnite soldiers were under standing orders to not cause any trouble.
Some had become police officers. Others were bodyguards. Some had taken to petty crime and leg breaking. But most of them, not truly being hostile and finding themselves stranded on an alien world, had taken up manual labor.
The Saturnite bagboy crushed my eggs.
The cashier rolled her eyes. This probably happened quite often. “Cragg, what did Mr. Mooney tell you about being careful?”
Cragg frowned. “It was an accident.”
“I’m so sorry, Lord Mollusk,” said the cashier. Try as I might, I couldn’t break them from calling me Lord. “We’ll get you new eggs.”
“It’s not necessary,” I replied.
“Oh, but we insist.”
“Really, it’s fine. After I put them through the nutrient extractor, it won’t matter.”
The extractor, necessary for me to digest Terran foodstuffs, turned everything into a colorful paste. I usually dumped all my groceries into the extractor as soon as I got home and shoved the paste into the cupboard. But the cashier insisted. I was a hero of Terra, and the inhabitants liked me. They didn’t have any other choice.
All the other employees were busy at the moment, and rather than send clumsy Cragg after the eggs, the cashier decided to fetch them herself. This left me alone with him. He glared with murderous resentment but didn’t say a word.
The cashier returned with my eggs. She put them in a bag herself, loaded the bag carefully into my cart, and smiled. “Thank you, Lord Mollusk. Come again.”
Cragg trailed behind me, pushing the shopping cart through the parking lot to my saucer. It was a compact model, but it still took up two spaces. I helped him throw the groceries into the storage compartment. He squeezed the bags a little too tight. I heard glass breaking and my bread was no doubt mutilated.
When I handed him a couple of bucks for his trouble, he growled, “You think you’re better than me?”
My first instinct was to say yes, I did, but I couldn’t kick a Saturnite when he was down.
“Hero.” He spat a few pebbles onto the concrete.
I could understand his frustration. We were both conquerors. The biggest difference between us was that I’d succeeded while he had failed. But history is written by the winners. Especially winners with access to global mind-control devices.
“If you don’t want the money—”
He snatched away the cash, glowered at it. My picture looking up at him from the bills probably didn’t help heal the wounds.
“Have a nice day,” I said.
“Screw you.” He stomped away.
I climbed into my saucer and rocketed over the city. I didn’t get very far before a Venusian scout craft appeared like a cigar-shaped bird of prey. Its shadow fell over my ship.
An all-too-familiar gray-scaled Venusian commander appeared in my monitor.
“Hello, Zala,” I said.
She snarled. If I’d been the sensitive type, I might have wondered why so few people smiled when talking to me.
“Emperor Mollusk, you are hereby ordered to land immediately.”
“Do we really have to do this now?” I asked. “I have a…thing…I have to get to.”
“Your…thing…will have to wait.” She leaned in close to the screen. “Don’t make me shoot you down.”
A cursory scan of the Venusian craft informed me that I could disable it with the push of a few buttons, but I was bored enough to see what Zala wanted from me. As if I didn’t know already.
The Venusians had had it in for me since I’d tried to conquer their planet after falling short on Neptune. I hadn’t really come close to subjugating Venus. Only claimed a couple of continents for a few weeks. No good reason they shouldn’t have been over that by now.
But there was that time I’d fed their Beloved and Immortal Queen to sand scrakts. After that, I was guaranteed a place among their most wanted. I still felt bad about it. I hadn’t even done it on purpose, but so far, a sincere “Whoops, sorry about that” hadn’t done much to ease the tension.
I found a street big enough for both my saucer and the scout craft. The Venusians crushed a Toyota with their landing gear. The Terrans might’ve panicked at the sight, but my appearance meant everything was under control so they just carried on with their business. A cop started redirecting traffic.
“Thank you, Officer.”
The officer smiled. “My pleasure, Lord Mollusk.”
A Venusian battleguard squad descended from their ship. Battleguards clank. It was all the armor.
This was just my everyday, walkin’ around exo, but it had some upgrades. A steel-blue paint job with metallic detailing. A few feet taller to allow me to see the world from a Terran’s point of view. It wasn’t as combat ready as the Ninja-3, but it had a few extra gadgets to give even a fearless Venusian battleguard pause.
Venusians were a reptilian species. They came in many colors. They sported tufts of feathers along their spines, and biochemical flashes glinted in their eyes. The effect could range from sparkles to burning glares. They were also the only sentient species in the system that still had tails.
Zala, the tall, lanky commander, stood at the front of the battleguard. Her scales were a bluish shade of gray. The few feathers visible on the back of her neck were red with flecks of orange and purple. Her eyes barely glowed. Normally, they’d glitter with righteous rage at the mere sight of me.
She pointed her scimitar at me. The sharp edge could slice through titanium provided she got a good swing behind it. “Fugitive Mollusk, I have been ordered to place you under protective custody. Please come with me immediately for your own safety.”
This was surprising. I liked being surprised. It happened so rarely.
“Can you repeat that?” I asked.
Zala sighed. She was having trouble with the words, so foreign to her.
“Don’t make me say it again.”
I grinned. “Oh, one more time. Just to be sure I heard you correctly.”
“Protective custody,” she replied softly. “For your own safety.”
“My own what?”
She snarled. I smiled.
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” I said, “but aren’t you more interested in, and I believe this is your most commonly used phrase, bringing me to justice?”
“You aren’t going to make this easy on me, are you?”
“Why should I?”
Zala sheathed her scimitar.
“You will be called to count for your crimes, Mollusk. But it has come to our attention that your life is in great danger, and I have sworn to see you placed on trial before the High Court. And the only thing that could prevent my keeping that sacred oath is my death. Or your own. And I cannot allow that.”
“I’m flattered you still care,” I said. “Even after all these years.”
Her eyes sparkled. “Venus never forgets.”
“I have an amnesia ray you could borrow if it will put this nonsense behind us. Not that I mind these impromptu visits. They do brighten my day.”
“I will not be mocked, Mollusk.”
“Who’s mocking?” I replied. “I was beginning to feel neglected. Of all my enemies, you’ve always been my favorite. I enjoy your indefatigable passion. Most everyone else would be discouraged after the string of failures you’ve experienced. But not you. You always come back, ready for a fresh lesson in futility. It’s inspiring in a way.”
She scowled. One day, I’d push her too far, but it was just another experiment I couldn’t resist. A study on the limits of the Venusian honor, so perfectly embodied in Zala, the most perfect of their perfect warriors. I comforted myself that my death would most likely be efficient and painless when I found that limit.
But today was not that day.
Zala said, “Whether you like it or not, you are under my protection now. Are you going to cooperate? Or will I be required to incapacitate you?”
“If you could incapacitate me, I’d be sitting in a Venusian prison right now.”
“Thanks for your concern,” I said, “but I don’t really need your protection.”
“You don’t understand, Mollusk. People want you dead.”
“I heard you the first time. Should I be surprised? I’ve made a few enemies. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”
Zala gestured, and her battleguard stepped forward.
I held up my hand, and the guards hesitated.
“I don’t know if Zala gave you the story of the last battleguard that attempted any reckless seizing, but you might want to reconsider this.”
She glared. “He’s bluffing. We will drag him to Venus, to a hero’s welcome.”
“I wasn’t aware you gave scorched skeletons parades on Venus.”
“If he had anything dangerous, he’d have already used it.”
“I resent that. I’m trying to not vaporize people just for being annoying.”
“If you’re really interested in penance,” said Zala, “then you should have no problem surrendering yourself to us.”
“I never said anything about penance. I just said I’m keeping my vaporization tally down.”
“Have you no conscience?” she demanded. “Do you feel no remorse for your crimes?”
She snarled. Her left eye flashed. I’d said the wrong thing. I did that sometimes. I blamed it on my upbringing. For all our technological and scientific achievements, Neptune education didn’t cover conversational skills. Especially with the less advanced species that shared our system.
“Seize him or may the Eleventh God strike you down as the cowards you are!”
That got them moving. Venusians took their gods very seriously. Probably because, unlike so many other divinities, they intervened quite visibly in mortal affairs, and nothing set them off more than a show of cowardice. Given a choice between vaporization and explosive decapitation (the Eleventh God’s smite of choice), they did what they had to do.
They drew their rifles. They had to put down their swords and shields first. The primitive weapons clattered to the pavement. They attempted to blast me, but their weapons clicked and spit puffs of smoke from the barrels as they pulled the triggers.
“Focus pulse,” I said. “It disables sophisticated electronics by draining their power source. Effective, though its range is limited to a few hundred feet. And it’s easy to counter with some basic shielding. You really should consider updating your weapons technology.”
“We’ll cut you out of that tin suit if need be,” said Zala.
Her guard drew their scimitars and charged at me. The skill of the dreaded Venusian swordmasters was the stuff of legend. Deservedly so. When facing off against their grandmaster, I’d only survived by developing an exo with six swords, and even then, I’d had to cheat to win. Although it was only cheating if you lost.
The Venusians had disagreed, but I’d won, so it was irrelevant what they thought.
Before they could bring their blades to bear, my saucer unleashed a magnetic field neutralizer. The armored battleguard rocketed up in the air, up and away until they were tiny dots floating above our heads.
I excluded Zala from the effect.
“You’re a coward,” she said.
My brain didn’t burst out of my skull. You might think that my colorful history with Venus would’ve angered its gods. They were a brutal, unforgiving lot, but they limited their wrath to Venusians. I’d had dinner with six of the eleven divinities once, and if you could get past the ritual blood drinking, they were a fairly likable and jovial group.
“Mollusk, if you willingly board my ship, I swear to you, by the Unspoken Name of the Forgotten Thirteenth God of Most Hallowed Venus, that no harm shall come to you and that I will not take you anywhere against your will.”
She lowered her blade and pointed it at my feet. She bowed. It wasn’t much of a bow, barely a nod of her head. But it was a gesture that spoke volumes of her commitment. It must’ve wounded her warrior’s pride terribly, though the only trace of reluctance was in a slight paling along her neck and a wilt in her feathers.
Venusians didn’t make vows to their gods casually, and the Thirteenth God was reserved only for the most unbreakable of oaths.
“Okay, you’ve got my attention.”
I lowered her battleguard slowly to the pavement. A residual magnetic charge caused them to stick together.
“Talk to me. But in my saucer. Your minions can catch up.”
Zala boarded my saucer, and we took off. I trusted the battleguard would know where to find us once the charge wore off.
“So what’s the problem?” I asked.
“Haven’t you heard a word I’ve said? There are assassins coming to get you.”
“And haven’t you heard? Assassins are a fairly common occurrence in my life. You’ll have to give me more than that.”
“Even the Celebrants of Oblivion?”
“Hmmm. That is serious.”
She studied my face. When we chose, Neptunons could do inscrutable better than anyone with the possible exception of the Sol Collective. But, outside of clouds of sentient helium, we were the top of the list.
“You don’t believe me?” she asked.
“No, but I’m intrigued. If you don’t mind me asking, just how did you find out about this assassination order?”
“Venusian intelligence is the most efficient in the system.”
“And how did they find out?” I asked.
“That information is issued on a need-to-know basis.”
“They didn’t tell you, did they?”
“I don’t need to know the details. I have my orders.”
“So they could be making it all up,” I replied, “for all either of us knows.”
Zala said, “For what purpose?”
“I don’t know. Just considering all the possibilities.”
“I am a decorated veteran of the Imperial Protectorate. They wouldn’t dispatch me unless the situation was of the highest priority.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
Zala had been third in command of the Protectorate not so long ago. Then I’d conquered half of Venus on her watch, and she’d been demoted to a field agent in the aftermath. To be sure, she was a high-ranking agent, but a demotion was still a demotion. And, whether she ever admitted it or not, part of her obsession with capturing me was to redeem an otherwise spotless career. As a symbol, Zala was useful to her queen, but perhaps they no longer trusted her with anything important.
We landed on the roof of my townhouse and took the lift down to my loft. The lights snapped on, and she scanned the post-modern furniture that came with the place. I had a few pieces of art. Some Neptunon seascapes to remind me of home. The original Mona Lisa that Leonardo da Vinci had hidden away for fear that Terra would never be ready for the secrets of faster-than-light travel encoded in its brush strokes. The miniaturized Tower of Pisa, which refused to stand straight even at only eight inches tall. The skull of the Loch Ness Monster, unfortunate victim of a Scottish chupacabra outbreak. Edison’s spirit radio; it didn’t contact ghosts but the one-dimensional entities of another plane, though the entities liked to screw around and he could be forgiven the mistake.
“Souvenirs,” I said.
Zala studied a huge painting, dominating a wall. I was the subject, standing in my most regal exo, looking majestic with an atom clutched in one hand and Terra in the other.
“I didn’t ask them to paint that,” I said. “They did it on their own.”
Zala shook her head, took in the rest of the room.
“You live here?”
“Whenever I’m on the continent. I have a few dozen other homes scattered across the globe. But this is my primary home.”
“I thought it would be…”
I could’ve explained to her that once Neptunons matured, we spent most our time plugged into exos. While it might be nice to get out and stretch every twelve hours, it also made us feel a bit vulnerable. Given that we were little more than highly developed brains in spongy bodies, we didn’t like exposing ourselves to the capricious whims of a dangerous universe with only cartilage and a camouflage reflex to protect us.
We didn’t talk about it, but there was a definite inferiority complex running through Neptunon society. It was why we didn’t mingle with the rest of the system and why the homeworld was locked away behind an impenetrable force field. It was that unspoken paranoia that ran through the heart of every Neptunon, leading us to develop the greatest technology. The irony was that, aside from our wonders of science, there was nothing particularly valuable on the homeworld. Nothing worth invading over.
But those wonders of science…they were a hell of a prize.
This wasn’t lost on my people, who continued, without any sense of irony, to advance science in fantastic and inconceivable ways to deter our envious neighbors while only making ourselves a more desirable target, fueling our science-tastic furor to remind everyone that we were the smartest beings around, even as it fueled our paranoia.
I kept this to myself. I might not have much love for Neptune, but I was as loyal as the next exiled supervillian so I saw no reason to share it with a Venusian agent.
“I keep a tank in the bedroom,” I said.
“Don’t you have a security system?” asked Zala.
Two dozen legs skittered quietly behind her. Her finely honed reflexes kicked in, and she spun around with her gun already in her hand. The giant centipede hissed and clicked its mandibles. She blasted it, point-blank, but it only scorched the creature’s armor. It lunged and, with one snip of its scissor-like jaws, clipped the weapon in half. The centipede knocked her to the floor and used its immense bulk to pin her there. Like any good Venusian warrior, Zala planned on going down fighting, and she wrestled and punched at the monster.
I emitted an ultrasonic signal. The beast climbed off her and scampered to my side.
“Good girl, Snarg.” I patted her between the antennae, and she squeaked.
Zala stood. “By the hidden moon, what is that?”
“My pet ultrapede.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to have a pet.”
“Snarg was a gift of the ambassador of the Undersphere. She’s the fiercest ultrapede ever bred for the royal family. How could I turn down a gift like that?”
Snarg narrowed her seven milky white eyes as I scratched her palps.
“She was already formidable. I just modified her a bit, added a few beneficial mutations and cybernetic upgrades, and voilà, the perfect security system.”
“I would expect something more high tech from you.”
“Yes, you would. And that’s why I don’t have anything like that. Security networks can be hacked. Technology can be circumvented. Snarg is more reliable and surprising. She’s also sweet as can be.”
The ultrapede crawled away and curled up on the couch.
“You shouldn’t let it on the furniture,” said Zala.
“Who could say no to that face?”
Snarg shrieked contentedly.
“I would still think you’d have a more elaborate system.” She picked up the two pieces of her broken gun.
“Don’t really need it. The Terrans love me.”
“But you must have experimental technology here that could be dangerous in the wrong hands.”
“Oh, I have a few things lying around, but nothing that could do much damage anymore. I have a secure storage facility elsewhere where I keep the more amusing research. But I haven’t been there in years.”
I could tell she doubted me.
“I’m not conquering anymore,” I said. “I keep telling you. I gave that up.”
“You can’t change who you are, Mollusk. You see the universe as your own personal plaything, other lives as tools to your own twisted ambitions.”
“I see the universe as a grand mystery,” I replied.
“One that you can exploit as you see fit,” she said.
“I prefer to think of it as experimentation for the greater good.”
She spit out a harsh laugh. “Define the greater good, Mollusk.”
“I can’t. That’s one of the mysteries I’m working on.”
I projected an equation on a viewscreen on the wall.
“I thought I had a passable proof for a few hours. Then I found I dropped a seven, and the results became meaningless. But I’m optimistic enough in my own brilliance to think I can still crack the problem.”
“You can’t honestly view morality as an experimental process.”
“Why should it be any different than anything else? At least I’m honest enough to admit that I haven’t found the answer yet instead of arbitrarily declaring X is dishonorable while Y is not.”
She studied the lines of numbers and symbols. “Tell me, Emperor. Where do all your crimes fit in this?”
I highlighted a portion. “It’s this variable right here.”
“I would expect it to be bigger,” she said with a smirk.
“I did too. But then it turned out that I was overestimating the value by several powers.”
She read the frown on my face.
“And that displeases you?” she asked.
“Considering the effect I’ve had on the system, the fact that it’s such a minor factor only proves I’m missing something vital. Or maybe not. Perhaps the equation is right, and I’m just too dissatisfied with the answer to admit it.”
I dumped the groceries, bags and all, into the extractor. It hummed to life.
“Well…?” asked Zala.
“What’s the answer your equation has given you?”
“I thought you said morality couldn’t be proven through experimentation.”
“It can’t,” she said. “Whatever answer you reach will surely be a reflection of your own twisted perceptions.”
“Hoping for a glimpse into the inner workings of my mind?” I said. “I’m surprised you care.”
“Indulge me, Mollusk. Indulge yourself. If there’s one thing I know about you, it’s that you do enjoy any chance to showcase your much-commented-upon intellect.”
“It is very satisfying,” I admitted.
“You want to tell me.” She leaned against the counter with a condescending smile. “Don’t act as if you showed me that equation by accident.”
Most of the time, Zala was easily manipulated and stubbornly predictable. But she also had her flashes of insight. Those two qualities put her on the short list of enemies I counted myself lucky to have made.
“Meaningless,” I said. “That’s the answer.”
“Yes, but what do you think it means?”
“You don’t understand,” I replied. “Meaninglessness is its meaning. It doesn’t matter how I manipulate the numbers. Whether I multiply compassion or square cruelty, even if I allow myself to remove the specter of fallibility and double the predestination quotient, even assuming that intelligent life is not just inevitable but an end goal for the universe itself, it always adds up the same.”
I pushed a button and faded the equation from the screen.
“It’s a zero-sum game. None of it matters.”
Zala said, “It’s a convenient form of nihilism, Emperor. One that lets you avoid any guilt for your crimes.”
“Being convenient doesn’t make it wrong,” I said. “And even if the numbers proved otherwise, I’m not interested in atonement. Not as you might define it.”
“Still trying to convince me you’re out to better yourself?”
“I’m just accumulating data,” I said. “Everything else is only flotsam on the tide.”
The extractor spit out two buckets of goop. The white stuff was inedible by-product. Snarg slipped off the couch, and undulated excitedly. She waited until I gave her the okay to dive into it.
I opened my helmet dome, dipped a tentacle in the second bucket of multicolored goo, and took a taste.
“I’d offer you some,” I said, “but it’d rot your digestive track.”
“Thanks anyway.” Zala scowled. “Is the machine always that loud?”
A vibration ran through the building. It wasn’t the extractor. The rumble threatened to shake the townhouse off its foundation.
“Hmmm.” I lowered my dome. “I guess Venusian intelligence was onto something after all, Zala.”
The south wall disintegrated and a squad of jetpack assassins flew into the room.
The assassins pointed strange rifles in our direction and fired. Zala ran in one direction. I ran in another, giving the killers more targets to worry about, dividing their attention. My focus pulse failed to disable their weaponry. Supertechnology was a constant arms race. Today’s death ray was tomorrow’s marshmallow toaster.
Several razor-sharp discs sliced through my exo. My left arm locked up, and my left leg malfunctioned, slowing my run. I lost track of Zala and Snarg, but I trusted they could take care of themselves. I wouldn’t do anyone much good without a hardware upgrade.
Half of the assassins pursued me. Their guns whirred as they spit out their barrage of discs. The damaged exo’s evasive maneuvers protocols were functional enough to avoid having one slice through my brain. One did get awfully close, punching through my dome and grazing my cheek. The dome shattered, spilling salt water. I didn’t let it distract me.
I jumped into the lift at the end of the hall. A shot cut my arm off. It fell to the floor with a clatter. The other arm was no good. The leg made dodging all but impossible. Several more rounds cut through the exo. My severed left leg spurted fluid. Dozens more pierced the torso. The exo did its job though. It kept bobbing and weaving to avoid making my vulnerable head an easy target. Its anticipation worked beautifully and, even with all the damage, was able to thwart any killshots.
Snarg skittered up behind the assassin and neatly beheaded him with one snip of her pincers. She screeched, warbled, and made a tremendous distraction of herself, just as she was trained to do. It bought me the time needed for the lift to zip down to the subvault.
Dozens of exoskeletons lined the small room. I didn’t have time to be picky. I managed a few steps on my faulty legs before they gave out. I punched several buttons and remotely activated the Gunslinger unit. It clomped over, bent down, and scooped me up in its hands. The process took longer than I would’ve liked, but it wouldn’t do to be squished by my own exoskeleton.
The exo dropped me into the pilot’s seat. The dome sealed. There wasn’t any water in the storage tank to make the ride more comfortable, but I had other concerns. An explosion destroyed the lift and when the smoke cleared the assassins were moments away from skewering me.
I took cover behind a hulking exo. Its armor was just thick enough to provide some protection.
“Surrender, Mollusk,” said an assassin. “We’ve got you cornered.”
“I was about to say the same thing.”
I activated every exoskeleton in the room. They closed in on the enemy. The commandoes fired wildly, and they disabled a few of them. But not all. And the assassins’ screams of terror ended abruptly as the various models sliced, pummeled, and blasted them.
I grabbed a jetpack attachment off the wall, snapped it into place. Sensor readings indicated that Snarg and Zala were still alive. Three unauthorized life-forms remained. I was more concerned with the attack vehicle hovering outside my home. I flew up the shaft, all the way to the roof, and surveyed the hovercraft.
The crescent profile, the low hum of its engines, and the gleaming silver and gold chassis all marked it as Atlantese in design. I’d never had any conflict with Atlantis, but I’d gotten my hands on schematics of their warcraft, studied their weaknesses. Just as a precaution.
A rumbler mounted on its nose had knocked the hole in my wall, but as an antipersonnel weapon, it wasn’t much of a threat. The pilot tried to discourage me with a few hundred rounds of heavy artillery. I flew upward, and the shells exploded around me. A blast from me took out the main gun. He tried the rumbler. It sent spasms through the building. At a high enough setting it could vibrate the Gunslinger apart and melt my boneless body. It would shake my townhouse and the neighborhood to pieces before that.
I used a trio of well-placed rockets to knock out the craft’s primary and secondary engines, along with the emergency drive. It dropped from the sky. It bounced off the street. Atlantis made a quality product, and though scraped and dented, with smoke coming from its burning engines, it remained intact. An explosion might’ve been more satisfying, but the threat was neutralized.
For just a moment, I thought about drilling a few additional missiles into the cockpit, but that would’ve been a waste of ammunition. And petty, I suppose.
By the time I checked on Zala and Snarg, the situation was well in hand. My living room was sliced to pieces, but neither was harmed. Zala didn’t have a scratch on her. Snarg had a few wounds, but nothing significant. The augmented armor of an ultrapede was made of sterner stuff.
“I kept one alive.” Zala ground her heel into the assassin’s chest. “For questioning.”
Snarg brought a soldier’s head, dropped it at my feet, and clicked sweetly at me.
“That’s a good girl.” I patted her on the thorax, took the head. “You can keep this one.”
I tossed it across the room. She scampered gleefully after it, where she devoured it in loud, crunching bites.
“I didn’t think you Venusians had such delicate sensibilities,” I said.
“The dead deserve more dignity than to be fed to your pet.”
“Hopefully, the dead are past concerns to their dignity.”
She yanked her prisoner to his feet and pulled off his helmet. He had the slight orange skin and deep green eyes of an Atlantese citizen.
“I thought you had tamed these Terrans, Mollusk. How is it that they attacked you?”
“My invasion methods only pacified the Terra Sapiens, the largest portion of their land-dwelling population. Atlantis, the mole people, the sasquatch nations, and other pockets of intelligent Terran life remain unaffected. But I never had any problems with any of them before.”
Zala shoved the soldier against the wall and snarled.
“Who sent you?”
“Time out.” I pulled her away from him. “There’s no need for that.”
She smirked. “I didn’t think you Neptunons had such delicate sensibilities. If you only give me a few minutes, I can get him to talk.”
The Atlantese tried to sneak away while our backs were turned. Snarg let him know it was a bad idea with a hiss.
“I can get him to talk,” I said, “and it’ll be a lot easier than whatever interrogation technique you were about to employ. I haven’t found pain all that conducive to conversation. I’ve managed to make it work to my advantage, but it’s just as often counterproductive. And I don’t do that kind of thing anymore.”
“Still trying to convince me you’ve changed?”
“I haven’t changed,” I replied. “I still don’t get why Venusians respect the dead more than the living. And I still don’t bother wasting my time knocking assassins around for information…when I can just bribe them.”
She gnashed her fangs. “You’re going to pay him? After he just tried to kill you?”
“And I’m sure this notion offends you in some way, but since this is my life we’re talking about, we’ll do it my way. If you have a problem with my methods…”
I left the sentence hanging, knowing full well that I was offering her an illusion of choice. Her sense of honor and duty meant she couldn’t abandon me. It was a very complicated set of rules she lived by, and while I found them ridiculous and unnecessary, I found some ridiculous and unnecessary rules people lived by to be useful.
And I rather enjoyed watching her squirm.
“How do you know he’ll take the money?” she asked smugly.
“Because if he doesn’t I’ll feed him to my ultrapede.” I addressed her, but I was clearly talking to him.
“A loyal soldier accepts death before tarnished honor.”
“That’s up to him now, isn’t it?”
I turned to the prisoner. “So what’s it going to be?”
Snarg snapped her hungry jaws.
“I’ll take the money,” he said.
Excerpted from Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain by Martinez, A. Lee Copyright © 2012 by Martinez, A. Lee. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted June 5, 2013
Posted January 19, 2013
I bought the ebook version if this novel as one of my first Nook purchases and almost couldn't put it down. Martinez has a knack for creating his only fantastical universes (I've since read Monster as well, which I also loved.) You find yourself rooting for his protagonists and wishing you were a part of their world. Emperor Mollusk vs the Sinister Brain was an easy, humorous read and I actuslly found myself contemplating some of the "life lessons" it brought to light - and as someone who rarely connects on a personal level with characters in books, that's saying something.
Thanks to this book, I now have a second favorite author (no one will ever unseat Chuck Palanhuik in my mind.) Great read and I am now working my way through the rest of Martinez's library.
Posted April 29, 2012
Another funny, smart read from Martinez. I love the conversational writing style and characters you wish you could meet in real life. I finished this book too soon, I wish I had dragged it out a little more.....Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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Posted March 16, 2012
Ive read all of his books. I could say this one wasnt as great as the last few books. I felt as if this book was too jumbled with to many things going on. Although it was still good it just felt too much was going on.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 21, 2012
I have read all novels by A Lee Martinez. Emperor Mollusk versus the Sinister Brain is my favorite. This book is a great place to start if you haven’t read Martinez yet, and by the way, where have you been if you haven't read him yet??? In Emperor Mollusk versus the Sinister Brain, there is life on all the planets in our solar system. These aliens pretty much leave us alone except one highly intelligent squid from Neptune who decides to take earth over, and we earth people love him for doing so. Earth may be brainwashed into loving him but someone else wants him dead. Mollusk will go anywhere, spring any trap and more likely bribe everyone in order to find out who or what wants him assasinated. The combination of unique aliens, unusual planetary societies, fierce monsters, advanced weaponry and even political and social satire make this story so entertaining that it was impossible to put down. I can't even imagine what he will come up with next. I highly recommend this book to any science fiction fan. It’s a must read for all of A Lee Martinez nationWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 4, 2012
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