M.A.T.E.R Knows Best
Things are not as they seem when a secret agent’s mission goes rogue…
Artwork by Katie Barrett
The thing about artificially created volcano lairs, Brunt decided, as he snapped the guard’s neck and let him tumble toward the frigid waters of the access pool, was that they simply weren’t that difficult to break into.
It was always the way. The bigger the terrorist stronghold, the easier it was to discover a weak spot – in this case, cooling pipes letting onto the ocean, covered by bars that had taken no time at all to cut through. And the grander the scheme for world conquest, the more riddled with flaws it became, until there were days when he suspected that if he were to retire tomorrow, the developed world’s multifarious enemies would collapse by themselves, victims of their own inefficiency.
Of course, Brunt had no intention of retiring. You didn’t retire from M I Zero, and he couldn’t imagine wanting to, for no-one loved their job as Maxwell Brunt, pride of the British super-secret service, did.
Brunt paused to confirm that the weight of the submachinegun strapped around the guard’s neck would suffice to draw his body into the inky depths of the pool, then ducked behind a stack of packing crates. Each was imprinted with five letters in a blocky font: M.A.T.E.R. It stood for Multinational Arms, Technology, and Experimental Research; an innocuous enough acronym, unless you happened to know that “experimental research” stretched to such dubious side projects as satellite-borne lasers, suicide drones, and in one particularly extreme example, weaponized, genetically modified piranhas.
Brunt stripped off his wetsuit to expose the tuxedo beneath, made especially by the finest tailors on Savile Row to conceal the variety of weapons and gadgets he kept about his person. There were those who’d argue that a tuxedo wasn’t the most practical garment in which to infiltrate a volcano lair, but to Brunt’s mind, those were the sorts of people who didn’t shop at Savile Row tailors, and thus their opinions were worthless. In his experience, there was no better way to confuse the average underpaid henchman than to burst in dressed for dinner at the Ritz.
Brunt considered checking the packing crates. No doubt they contained something illegal, immoral, or dangerous, but he wasn’t here to distract himself with trivialities. If the plans he’d recovered in Gibraltar were to be believed, the existence of this outré construction in international waters wasn’t an end in itself but one step toward their abominable ultimate goal: to lower a fifty-megaton nuclear device into a fissure in the Earth’s crust at a point where, if said device should be detonated, it would remodel a quarter of the planet’s surface to a landscape more resembling the moon.
He drew his gun from the pocket within his jacket and ducked into the corridor. In these sublevels, the passages were a weird combination of nature and human contrivance, bare stone fashioned and propped in place by odd-angled beams of metal and strung with bundled wires and lurid yellow pipes. How long would he have before the guard’s absence was noted? Minutes, perhaps, no more. The intelligence he’d gained suggested the control centre was toward the core, and it would be high up, because megalomaniacs needed something to look down on.
Brunt had expected the corridors to be labyrinthine, as befitted the designs of a crazed mind, but in fact, as he stalked through them gun in hand, his route was surprisingly linear. The few doors he encountered were secured with mechanical locks, and there was little purpose in trying to open them, since he’d passed a number of signs indicating that he was travelling in the direction of the elevators and even one marked “Control Room.”
A trap? Probably. If it was, it would hardly be the first he’d outwitted – and he smiled at the memory of Zephyr Melina, head of the Andalusian secret police, tumbling with screams of horror into the acid pit he’d so carefully prepared for Brunt himself.
The next corner presented another, broader door at the end of a long passage. Brunt almost approached it and wasn’t sure what made him hesitate. Then he understood. The wires and pipes he’d noticed elsewhere were absent here. On a hunch, Brunt put in his monocle and flicked its control to infrared. As he’d anticipated, spaced along the walls and ceiling were tiny glimmers of embedded machinery. To be certain, he removed a bullet from a spare clip and flicked it at the midpoint of the corridor. It didn’t make a fifth of the distance before a dozen flickers of scarlet light dissolved it to shimmering dust.
Lasers … how passé! Relying on the monocle, Brunt hunted for what must be hidden somewhere nearby. Sure enough, when he rapped on a dimly glowing oblong, a panel fell open, divulging a keypad set into the stone.
Thankfully, he had acquired a set of codes from a girl aboard the supply ship he’d smuggled himself onto, who’d stolen them from the PDA of one of the senior technicians. Brunt hadn’t even had to torture her; there were times when boundless charm, a perfect physique, and the best facial reconstruction surgery money could buy served better than tearing out fingernails. A shame, really, that she’d had to die, but he had needed a shield when they’d found him out and she’d been the closest item to hand. Brunt remembered the sight of her bullet-ridden, naked corpse in the sallow moonlight and felt a curious thrill that, for the barest moment, troubled him.
Pushing the thought aside, he inspected the list of codes, picked out the one designated “laser corridor”, and tapped it in. The red dots revealed by the monocle dimmed immediately.
The door at the end of the passage was that of an elevator, as Brunt had hoped it to be. There were many floors listed on the panel within, most with functional-sounding names such as “Stores” and “Generator”, but not one labelled “Command Centre” or anything similar. Possibly it had been disguised under some innocuous designation, though given the level of imagination on display so far, Brunt reckoned that unlikely. Following his earlier logic, he opted for the topmost button, marked “Technical Services.”
The level the doors opened on was distinctly different. The walls were still of rock, but here an effort had been made to carve them at regular angles and disguise their basic nature. Proper striplights were suspended from the ceiling in lieu of the dazzling but irregular work lights hung below, and Brunt was amused to note that the floor had been laid with carpet.
Beyond the next door, “Technical Services” proved to be a large, low-ceilinged room. The breadth and lack of height combined to make the space claustrophobic, and the impression was aggravated by the clustered banks of computers topped by huge monitors. There were about twenty of them, each with four men and women tapping away diligently. Past the workstations, on the opposite side of the room, was yet another door, and by it stood six men, all armed with stubby machineguns. Their informal gathering implied that they should have been somewhere else and that he’d stumbled on them during a break or shift change, which seemed peculiarly bad luck – for them.
“I say,” Brunt called loudly, “might someone be a good chap and point me toward the control centre?”
He gave the six long enough to register his presence, and that he was exactly the kind of intruder they were supposed to be defending against, before he shot at them. He chose the man who’d been quickest on the uptake and was already clutching the grip of his weapon. Brunt loosed two more shots, sent two more guards spinning, and, by the time one of the surviving three managed to return fire, he’d rolled into the cover of a bank of desks, so that the raking line of their bullets rattled harmlessly above his head – though he heard an unfortunate technician give a gurgling cry.
Brunt dared a glimpse around the corner, ducked back as bullets chewed the carpet inches from his face. Reaching a decision, he plucked off a cufflink and tossed the tiny black disk, visualising the precise angle that would carry it to the far side of the room. A scream, this one brief and strangled, confirmed that the disk had found its mark and that the short-lived nerve toxin it contained had done its work.
An explosion of gunfire spat shrapnel of paint and chipboard, coming from practically behind him. The surviving pair had encircled Brunt and now were near the door by which he’d entered, their guns trained on him. They were close enough that, despite the dismal aim they’d displayed, they couldn’t miss.
“Put your hands up,” the first said. The man was shaking perceptibly, which made the barrel of his gun weave.
Brunt did as he’d been told; but his outstretched fingers were barely as high as his shoulders before he clasped one hand around the wrist of the other. By well-honed practice, he pinched a particular combination of buttons on his watch, and a shimmer of movement hazed the air between them. The first guard’s final expression was of astonishment as the dart turned his left eye into a dripping mess.
While the second guard was determining whether to shoot or scream, Brunt sprang at him. He was master of numerous martial arts, including one he’d devised himself, and right then the guard was scarcely a master of his own bladder. Brunt had the gun off him in a flash, and in the same deft movement, had spun him round and mashed his jaw into the nearest monitor. The man convulsed as a flickering halo of sparks danced above his hair.
“That must have come as quite the shock,” Brunt quipped to the room at large, but received only a choking death rattle in reply.
Feeling dimly dissatisfied, as he invariably did after these interludes of violence, Brunt picked his way across the room, ignoring the stares of the technicians at their workstations. Objectively, they were every bit as guilty as the guards had been and more so: desk jockeys were generally better informed of what their jobs entailed than hired guns. However, he preferred not to squander bullets, and they’d get theirs soon enough. Another thing about exaggeratedly grand terrorist headquarters was that they generally ended up exploding, at least when he was around.
As he was readying to leave, something caught Brunt’s eye. He assumed initially that it was the corpses of the three guards he’d shot, but in their one-piece jumpsuits, each pierced by a single neat hole at the points their hearts would be, they looked much like any other deceased henchmen. No, it wasn’t the holes in the men, it was the holes in the wall that had drawn his attention, for the bullets hadn’t embedded in the rock as he’d have expected but had pierced it, exposing a dark cavity beyond. When he probed the ragged edge of one puncture, the texture was more reminiscent of plastic than stone.
Irresistibly, he remembered the time in El Salvador when he’d been thrown against a wall that had promptly collapsed, turning out to be mere painted plywood. He remembered the missile base in Yugoslavia, when he’d tried an unmarked door and found the room behind empty, then had spent ten minutes opening further doors to reveal further empty rooms. He remembered, in his early days, the oil billionaire with delusions of world domination who’d started babbling in the last moments of his life about wanting to change his contract terms.
These were unsettling thoughts. Brunt put them from his mind. The billionaire had been a madman, there was nothing strange about empty rooms, and so what if the occasional volcano lair happened to be made of fibreglass?
Past the door was another elevator. In this one there was a single crimson button, with no indication of what floor it represented. Again, Brunt’s instincts warned him that this might be and likely was a trap. Shrugging, he pressed the button. No man had yet contrived the trap that could constrain Max Brunt.
The elevator rose slowly. After a few seconds, the wall in front sheered away, and he could see through the glass facade to the interior of the volcano’s cone, a chasm of jagged, blackened rock. From its depths, red light glimmered, and there were other, manmade lights strung upon gantries that descended irregularly.
The elevator’s progress was sufficiently lethargic that Brunt was growing tired of the extraordinary view by the time the transport arrived, with a half-hearted ping, at its destination. The doors slid aside and, gun in hand, muscles rigid with anticipation, Brunt stepped out into flat artificial illumination.
The chamber he’d come to was of a considerable size, larger than Technical Services had been. At his back, the elevator shaft was set into a vast, curved window that looked over the lip of the volcano. Before him, a stretch of blank stone floor terminated in a short series of steps, beyond which was a sparsely furnished area that combined crude living quarters with an office. There was no decoration, and the furnishings didn’t appear to be expensive; there was none of the opulence that typified the average supervillain hideout. Indeed, the word that sprang to mind was perfunctory. The only features that could be termed extravagant were the gigantic screen mounted on the far wall – currently it displayed the number 127, but even as he glanced at it, it ticked down to 126 – and the bowed wall of glass or Perspex that separated the upper tier from the lower.
These details Brunt absorbed almost without noticing. His focus was the room’s solitary occupant. She was standing behind the transparent barrier, watching him steadily. She wore a grey jacket over a pale blouse and a skirt that reached to her knees, clothing in keeping with her smart but functional surroundings. On the lapel of the jacket was a pin with the M.A.T.E.R logo, a single hand cradling a globe. The woman’s dark hair was knotted in a bun, and though she must have been in late middle age, she possessed that bland, incorruptible attractiveness that only a lifetime of wealth could imbue.
Brunt couldn’t take his eyes off her. He felt as if the entire room was tilting on its axis. “You,” he gasped, “you…”
“Hello, son,” the woman said.
Brunt wished he could sit down. He very much needed to, but there was no furniture on his side of the partition. With great effort, he gathered himself. Hadn’t he foreseen a trap? He tried to recall his training, the conditioning memes he’d memorised to deflect precisely this kind of attack. With calm he didn’t feel, he said, “My mother died saving me from the fire that killed my father, set by a murderous lunatic who called himself Professor Karma. I spent three years tracking him down, and I made sure he paid an appropriate price.” The countdown on the monitor, he observed, was now at 115. He crossed to the barrier with rapid paces. “But whoever you are,” he concluded, “you already know all that.”
The woman’s expression remained a mask of studied blankness. She didn’t seem in any way intimidated by him or the gun he held.
“Where’s the tectonic bomb?” Brunt spat. “How do I stop it?”
“Given how expensive your education was, Max,” the woman said patiently, “I should think you’d appreciate that manufacturing a volcano, then extinguishing it and using it to drop a nuclear device into a crack in the Earth’s crust is, well … implausible is rather small a word.”
It wasn’t the answer he’d have predicted. Never had he come across an opponent who sought to persuade him that their own megalomaniacal scheme was untenable. Whoever this person really was, they were a master of psychological warfare. He ought to be marshalling his mental defences, yet Brunt found that all he was doing was staring. The count was down to 90.
“I believe this is the part,” the woman said, “where I explain my master plan to you.”
Brunt urgently desired to say something witty and scathing, but his turbulent thoughts offered nothing. He put a hand to the barrier and pressed against it. As he’d expected, it was plastic, not glass, and while it was almost perfectly clear, he could see that it was at least an inch thick.
The woman was unconcerned by his investigation. She was quite near to him, and the counter behind her read 76. “You’d always been … troubled, Max,” she said. “After you tortured the fourth family cat to death, it could only be a matter of time before your tastes escalated. And then what happened to those older boys at your school … we had no proof, but the instant we saw the pictures, we knew.”
Momentarily her glacial blue eyes clouded, as if gazing past him, through him, to regard some sight he never could. “But Max, though you can’t possibly understand this, nothing destroys a mother’s love. Even when I knew you were a monster, I wanted you to be happy. It was your father who put you on M I Zero’s radar. We hoped they’d provide you with a healthier outlet for your … proclivities. And sure enough, you were just the sort of person they’d been combing the public-school system for.”
“I don’t have time for this,” Brunt said. The counter was down to 63. He should be endeavouring to stop it. He patted distractedly at his various hidden pockets, seeking a tool that might penetrate the barrier.
“We were optimistic. At first you seemed happier, calmer. But we soon realised it was a temporary solution at best. Even M I Zero had their rules. They tried to keep you busy, to keep you diverted, but your energy was boundless. They told us you did good work. They didn’t want to lose you. But when you were on missions, you left such a mess, and when you weren’t, it was worse.” She shuddered. “The women … they found that hardest to cover up.”
Brunt longed to insist that he didn’t know what she was talking about. Yes, in those early days there’d been a degree of tension with his employers. He’d been drinking a lot; they all did. And sometimes he’d wake up and not remember exactly the details of the previous night. Sometimes the scenes he’d woken to had been less than salutary, and he had put that down to the actions of enemy agents, who he’d been certain were close, ready to take from him his newfound happiness.
Instead of replying, he turned his attention to the barrier. The corrosive vials in his jacket buttons, perhaps? The cutting laser in the toe of his shoe? Finally, he unclipped a portion of his belt buckle. Peeling the adhesive strip from its rear, he stuck it at head height upon the plastic screen.
“You may wish to stand back,” he addressed the woman, and followed his own advice.
The explosion was staggeringly loud; it was extraordinary that such a small thing could make so much noise. Nevertheless, Brunt saw that the charge, which could easily have brought down a concrete wall, hadn’t chipped the transparent screen. All it had left was a dirty smudge the size of a beachball.
“Therefore,” the woman said, as though nothing had happened, “we came to an agreement. When M I Zero had no official business to occupy you, we would do so. We’d provide enough drama and distraction to keep you amused, at our own expense. And we would tailor our efforts to suit your distinctive perceptions. Colourful villains, outlandish plots, improbable superweapons. Whatever it took to divert you.”
The countdown now read 44. Brunt touched the plastic surface where the charge had detonated, flinched, and resisted the urge to suck his scorched fingers. He’d never encountered the like of this substance; he doubted lasers or acids would serve better than the microbomb had done.
“Let’s pretend I believed this story you’ve cooked up,” he proposed. “What about all the enemy agents I’ve eliminated in the course of duty? The henchmen and hired thugs? Are you claiming you made them up too?”
“We used death row criminals where possible,” the woman said. “They’re not so difficult to buy if you’ve access to the right people. When that failed, we had to rely on actors. Do you know how hard it is to find suicidal actors? Not very hard at all, as it turned out.” The woman rubbed tiredly at the bridge of her nose, and some of the surety in her voice faltered as she finished, “That didn’t mean we felt good about it.”
The countdown clicked to 26. There was almost no time left. And Brunt was numbed, worn out. He had fought so often to avert the end of the world, but now that he considered, he’d no idea why. What attachment had he ever had to it? Seeing it burn, to him, would have been akin to watching fire lick through an ant farm.
And he had been that flame. Surrounded by insects, he had burned bright. Life had been a game prepared for his amusement, and so he’d amused himself, as well as he could. Yet there was more to do–there would always be more.
“Max, I have some sad news for you,” the woman said. “Your father died last month. I mean, really died. Ultimately, I think it was the guilt that killed him … though probably the aneurysm didn’t help. And son, I can’t do this on my own. I’m sorry. I know how important it is to you, but I can’t. And I can’t leave you in the world alone. Too many other people have paid for the crime I committed, the crime of not strangling you in your crib the moment I recognised what you were.”
Behind her head, 15 ticked to 14.
“Stop the countdown,” Brunt said. “You can’t escape. You’ll kill us both and everyone here.”
“There is no ‘everyone’. They’ve already evacuated. I won’t have any more blood on my hands, Max. Only my own. And yours.” She placed a palm flat on the barrier, and there was yearning in the gesture. “You truly don’t understand, do you? In real life, there are no last-minute escapes. In real life, people don’t get to walk away from their mistakes.”
The number eight hung gigantic, its Möbius loop a portent of infinity. “Mother,” Brunt said, “I don’t want to die.”
Something broke in her face then. 5 was replaced by 4, 4 by 3. “My poor little boy.”
Her eyes hardened. There was love there, without doubt, but it was a harsh sort of love, the sort that might be forged in an inferno. 2 became 1–and the smile she turned upon him was beatific, glorious in its sadness.
1 dissolved to 0, an ovoid that seemed to him a void cut in his reality.
Yet she was still smiling, still speaking, even as the room began to vibrate. “Haven’t you heard, Max? Mater always knows best.”
David Tallerman is the author of numerous books: the historical science-fiction drama To End All Wars, thrillers A Savage Generation and The Bad Neighbour, fantasy series The Black River Chronicles and The Tales of Easie Damasco, and the science-fiction novella Patchwerk. His comics work includes the absurdist steampunk graphic novel Endangered Weapon B: Mechanimal Science, with Bob Molesworth, and his short fiction has appeared in around a hundred markets, among them Clarkesworld, Nightmare, Lightspeed, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. A number of his best dark fantasy stories were gathered together in his debut collection The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories.
He can be found online at davidtallerman.co.uk.