A Hench Helps Her Villain, No Matter What
By Izzy Wasserstein
The Lair’s intercom buzzes. “Hench, report to the interrogation room at once. Bring the restraints,” Night Mistress demands. For a moment I allow myself to hope, but when I get down to the deepest level, she’s got Patriotess drugged at her feet, and I know I’m a fool.
Hope isn’t the place of a henchperson. Hope will get you killed. Or, worse, out of a job.
I help Night Mistress restrain Patriotess in the center of the lead-walled room. I secure the heroine’s arms above her head. She’s still out of it, her body limp and her head hanging low, completely in Night Mistress’s power. My knees feel unsteady just thinking about it.
I check Patriotess for weapons. She has that whole thin-with-curves thing that only heroines seem to manage, but even that body can’t save her spandex blue-and-red onesie from looking ridiculous. Heroes will wear almost anything. They’ve got no real flair or sense of grandeur. I guess that’s why they’re not villains. Night Mistress practically radiates power in her black tux with silver trim, complete with a tight waistcoat and a daringly low-cut top. An operatic mask completes the perfectly-tailored look.
I feel stuffed into a glittering sequined gown. It’s a look designed for stage assistants with long legs and slim lines. My ex liked to call me “thick,” but I’m actually fat. This isn’t the costume I’d have chosen, but it’s the look Mistress wants in her henchwoman, which is good enough for me. I still remember her tone when she first ordered me to put it on. That memory keeps me warm at night.
Mistress is breathing quickly, which tells me she isn’t ready for her conflict with Patriotess to end. I could have guessed, since she went out to defeat the heroine without me. It terrifies me to think of her taking that risk unsupported, but I dare not say so.
More conflict it is: I leave the electro-bonds a little loose. Patriotess is now nearly fully alert, but so far has failed to notice the slack in the cuffs. Mistress deserves a better nemesis.
I’m about to secure the gag when Mistress orders me to stop. “Patriotess and I are going to have a conversation. Leave us.” She snaps her crop against a silk-gloved hand. I gasp. But in Patriotess’ eyes, I don’t see anticipation or even fear. Just … indifference.
“Mistress,” I say, the words spilling out before I can stop them, “I don’t think–”
She spins me around to face her, her firm grip and soft glove against my bare shoulder. She’s a few inches shorter than I am in height, about four feet taller in actual presence.
“You are my henchwoman,” she says, and puts the crop under my chin, lifting it so I have no choice but to meet her gaze. I don’t dare breathe. “I do not require you to think.”
I stammer an apology. She turns away, and I slip from the interrogation room. My heart beats staccato. Mistress would never punish me the way she does heroes. Her breath never even quickens when she rebukes me. She’s not the type to kill me, either, though that is an occupational hazard. No, it would be worse than that: she’d exile me from the only job I’ve ever been good at, the only one I’ve ever loved.
Mistress is tough, but so is Patriotess. I can’t leave things unattended. I head up to the control room to keep an eye on the interrogation. Mistress has turned off the sound, but the video is clear (it had better be: I installed it myself). Mistress circles Patriotess, occasionally touching her gently or cracking the crop across her thigh, her midriff. The idea, Mistress once told me, is to keep the subject off-balance.
As if I didn’t know it.
I can tell from Mistress’s thin lips and the tension in her wrists that she isn’t getting what she wants. Patriotess might actually end up dead if she doesn’t show more interest. Like any other career, there are unspoken rules of being a Super. The big one is that we do damage to each other, not Normies. Oh, we might fight over who rules a city, but taking out a subway car at rush hour is seen as extremely gauche. The other main rule is that the fight is more fun than The End. Not as many of us end up dead as you’d think. The joy of the gig is the conflict. Well, for most of us. Some, like me, have more specific interests.
So Patriotess is probably safe. Mistress prefers the game to its conclusion, but won’t tolerate being bored. But if Patriotess isn’t going to even bother to play, she’ll bore Mistress. And then things could go badly for the heroine. Fortunately, Patriotess is working subtly at her bonds. The magno-lock is slowly coming loose. Things will be settled through violence. Which is to say, everything will be fine.
I double-check my net-gun, tranq darts, and assortment of knives. Once the battle is joined I can interfere without breaking etiquette. Then maybe I’ll scour the forums again for a hero more worthy of the great Night Mistress’ attention. A villain picks her own nemesis, of course, but a good hench nudges her towards promising candidates.
Mistress raises the crop above her head, aiming for a particularly harsh blow, when Patriotess pulls her arms free and twists away. The strike whistles through the air, missing her by inches. She lashes out with her restrained feet, catching Mistress in the stomach. I rush down the stairs, nearly falling in my eagerness to intervene. I right myself and push so hard it’s almost a controlled fall. People tend to be shocked I can move fast, as though they’ve never seen a hefty running back slide past a defender. No matter: let them keep underestimating me. It’s saved Night Mistress’s life more than once.
I burst into the interrogation room. Patriotess is free of her remaining restraints and the two are throwing punches at one another. She has super-strength and speed, but Mistress is unmatched at turning foes’ strengths against them. I’ve seen her stand unconcerned before the charge of a 300-pound thug, shift her hips at the last minute, and roll him over her back and into an arm-bar like it’s nothing. She’s thrilling to watch, and for a moment I hesitate.
Maybe it’s that hesitation that does it. Maybe it’s the door clattering behind me. Mistress turns her head slightly, is a half-second late to dodge. Patriotess’ blow catches her across the chin, and sends her spilling to the ground. Patriotess strikes a pose, hands on hips, head tilted proudly skyward, as if she’s expecting to be illuminated by the sun. We’re seven stories underground.
I shoot a tranq dart into her neck.
She turns around like she’s seeing me for the first time, blinks, weaves unsteadily. I’m already planning Mistress’s after-fight care when Patriotess steadies herself and advances on me, distressingly sure-footed. I guess maybe the tranq formulation wasn’t as well-adapted to her physiology as I’d hoped. Behind her, Mistress fumbles in her pocket for one of the smoke bombs I insist she carry everywhere.
My brain starts trying to work out where I screwed up, which isn’t conducive to reacting faster than someone with a superhuman physique. I fumble with the net-tosser; the heroine ducks it easily. Before I can fire another dart she’s closed the distance.
“Oh shi–” I start, and then her fist connects with my face.
If the universe has a consciousness, it’s a bastard. If it has a sense of humor, it’s a cruel one. If it listens to my prayers, then it sure picks a hell of a way to answer them. I wake tied to a chair, my hands bound behind me, the stickiness of tape against my mouth. Overhead a single bulb on a wire illuminates what appears to be a cluttered stockroom. Night Mistress would be disgusted by the cliché of such a place. So who…?
Patriotess steps into the room, and I grunt with annoyance. Of fucking course. Taken down like an amateur. And what happened to Night Mistress? She can escape from jail, but she’ll never forgive me if I let Patriotess drag her up to the courthouse steps like some wet-behind-the-ears crook.
“You’re awake,” Patriotess says and leans down to look me in the eye. “We’re going to have a conversation, you and I, so I expect you to be civil when I take this gag off. Can you do that for me?”
I nod my head, doing my best wide-eyed impression. I’m not sure what she wants, but I know heroes are more inclined to make a mistake with dopey henchpeople than brilliant first-in-command types. I can play dopey, if that’s what’s needed. She pulls the tape from my lips, slow enough that it hurts.
“Ow,” I say.
“What’s your name?” she says. She has a charming smile with perfect teeth, but something in her eyes unsettles me.
“I know you’re a hench,” she says. “I want to know your real name.”
“Henchwoman,” I say. She tries and fails to disguise her disgust. I wiggle my fingers, testing the bonds, and do a mental inventory of my knives. Were there any she missed?
“She’s brainwashed you,” Patriotess says, with the absolute confidence of someone who can’t imagine that I’ve chosen this life.
“Where is Night Mistress? Why am I tied up?”
“Because I have to try to save you,” she says. “It’s part of my code. Night Mistress is beyond saving. But maybe you can still be rescued.”
“Rescued?” I blink, playing dumb. I’m loosening the bonds. She missed one of the blades, on my inner thigh. Naturally she wouldn’t think to look there.
“You don’t have to do this,” she says. “I can get you help. Get you out of this life.” There’s no warmth in her words. This is an obligation, not something she feels. Which makes me wonder. What does she mean “beyond saving”? And what will she do to me if she decides I can’t be “rescued”?
“I…don’t know what you mean,” I say, blinking repeatedly. “Night Mistress says I…joined her voluntarily.” I did, of course: my audition was defeating Sterling Silver and Gold Standard.
Her mouth twists slightly. This is a narrative she understands. She leans a bit closer. I’ve almost, but not quite, got one hand loose. Not that it will do me much good: no way I’m beating Patriotess in a fair fight.
“I need you to remember,” she says. “Think back to when you wanted more. When you had hopes and dreams.” I think back to my time as an office drone, my boss rambling on about derivatives packages while I stared blank-eyed into a monitor and imagined what it would feel like to kneel at the feet of a deserving femme, a leash–.
“What should I do?” I ask in my most helpless voice. That one I have lots of experience with, in certain contexts.
She blinks, and for a moment I’m worried that I’ve over-played it.
“Renounce Night Mistress,” she says. “Give up being a hench. We’ll get you help, a real name. You’re clever with gadgets. Maybe we can even find a place for you at Paragon Place. You could make a real difference, once you’re deprogrammed.”
All my life people have been trying to fix me. Fix my fatness, my queerness, my kink. I have enough experience zoning out through that bullshit that I could probably have ignored it. But renouncing Night Mistress? The villain I’ve chosen, whose style and poise are unmatched? Who holds herself and others to the most exacting standards, who understands what it means to take command? Who I’ve risked my life for a hundred times, even if she’ll never look at me the way she does Patriotess? A hench does what’s right for her villain, no matter what.
I pull my hands free. “That’s…I don’t know. My head hurts…Can I…think about it?”
She looks disgusted. In her world, lack of certainty is a sign of weakness, of moral failing.
“Be quick about it,” she says, then, almost an afterthought: “and no tricks. I’m out of patience with villians.”
Something about the way she says it tells me she’d see killing me as nothing more than a mild disappointment. She wouldn’t get to check the “redeemed from evil” box on her paperwork or whatever it is heroes do. It wouldn’t be a big deal, much less important than killing an actual villain, which might hurt her social standing among the other heroes.
She closes the door behind her. I wait a ten count then pull my arms free, grab my blade, and cut away the leg bindings. She’s claimed my other weapons, and there are no windows, just shelves with cleaning supplies and the lightbulb swinging in small circles, taunting me.
I wasn’t lucky enough to be endowed with super powers at birth or enrolled in some kind of Gifted Super Soldier School. But I’m quick on my feet, and tenacious. I strip the wire above the bulb, working quickly and hoping I don’t electrocute myself; what an ignominious end to a career that would be. I’ve just poured some cleaning supplies on the floor when the door opens. I yank the cord free. Decades-old paint gives way as it detaches from the ceiling. I hurl it towards the ground as Patriotess steps into the room.
The light show is very impressive for the few heartbeats it lasts. She slumps to the floor. No way she’s dead, but hopefully she’ll be slow getting back to her feet. I jump over her body and race through darkened hallways, afterimages burning around me, until at last I see the sick yellow glow of the city radiating through a window.
She hadn’t taken me far, just dragged me into a warehouse not far from the Lair’s main entrance. I guess she wanted to handle things on her own, in case she couldn’t convert me. One more dead hench. Who would notice?
Night Mistress, I hope. But I don’t kid myself: she’s always meant much more to me than I to her.
I use one of the back entrances into the Lair, since Patriotess knows about the front one, and I arm the security system behind me. It won’t stop her, but I’m just buying time.
A good villain has vision. A good hench has contingency plans.
I head to the Tech Locker and set to work. Like I said, there’s generally not much cause for killing in this line of work. But, let’s be honest, when you have advanced tech, suped-up genes (no pun intended), and outsized egos, things do happen. And from the hammering I can hear on our reinforced front door, those things are going to happen in the form of Patriotess’ fist to my poor skull if I don’t do something about it.
I’m tinkering with deployment on the Nullifix Ray when there is a light cough from the doorway. I whirl around and stand at attention.
“Where have you been?” Night Mistress demands. “Patriotess threw me in my own restraints”–her voice seethes with the indignity of it–”and said she would ‘be back for me later,’” Mistress does a passable Patriotess impression, capturing the stuffy, holier-than-thou tone quite effectively.
“Patriotess captured me, Night Mistress. She tied me to a chair, threatened me, and demanded I betray you. But I temporarily disabled her and escaped.” Perhaps a bit of pride slips into my tone.
“And you were stupid enough to bring her back here,” Mistress says coldly. I recoil as if struck.
“I’ll…I’ll… take care of her, Night Mistress.”
“See that you do, or I’ll find a competent hench.” She turns away, oblivious to the fact that I feel as if I’ve just taken a punch from Max Apollo. So that’s it then. She’ll never notice, and sooner or later she’ll decide she can do better and kick me out. I’ve never been able to compete with the likes of Patriotess. Not in high school and not today.
I rush to finish modifying the Nullifix Ray. There’s a crash above me, and I leap up the stairs to find Patriotess backlit by dawn, framed in the wreckage of what had until recently been the Lair’s main entrance. Her usually-perfect hair is standing on end, and she is furious.
“You,” she says. “You upstart, shit-eating, doesn’t-know-her-own-place… Hench!” She rushes at me, murder in her eyes. The ray is strapped to my wrist. I clench my fist to fire, and it buzzes harshly to tell me it’s charging. I guess the last-minute modifications didn’t fix its issues. Uh-oh.
She reaches me and bats me across the room with a backhand. I go sprawling and end up against the far wall.
She advances, her fists flexing. I’ve never seen her this angry. The humiliation at getting played by a hench, I suppose. “You’re pathetic. Won’t even take a proper name, and you think you can beat me?”
I’m trying to catch my breath when she kicks me in the stomach. I’m pretty sure I feel a rib give way. Today has not been my day.
“I thought you wanted out,” she says, and grabs me by my hair, lifting me into the air. She’s slightly shorter than me, and much lighter, but I’m no match for her strength. “But now I see that you just want to be a hench. That you get off on it.” She shakes me as she says those words. Pain jolts through me.
I’m not getting off on any of this. I’m not into pain, at least in this context. “Please,” I manage. I can feel my mouth thick with blood. “Don’t hurt me.”
She scoffs. “You’re even worse than Night Mistress, following her around like a kicked puppy, hoping she’ll notice you.”
I groan, unable to find words.
“I’m a heroine, and you’re just some pervert,” she says, and pulls back a casual fist. “Here’s a lesson in the proper order of things.”
I spit blood into Patriotess’s face.
She screams in rage and throws me across the room. I slide across the floor. She wipes at her eyes, advancing on me. Goodnight, Archvillain of My Heart. So long, world.
“It works like this,” she roars. “People like me win. People like you get what’s coming–” The Nullifix Ray beeps twice; I clench my fist. There’s a rainbow-colored flash, and a very gratifying look of surprise on Patriotess’s face as the ray reacts with the super-enhancements to her DNA.
Five seconds later her unoccupied costume falls to the floor.
Eventually I’m able to breathe again. I’m alive, against all odds. Alive and victorious over Patriotess.
Maybe this is it. I’ll finally impress Night Mistress. She’ll offer me any reward I can think of, and, hey, the restraints are still in the interrogation room. She hasn’t had an excuse to use the cat o’ nine tails since that confrontation with Lady Light–
But I know better. She only has eyes for Heroes, and she deserves a real nemesis, who understands the Game. Who understands her. I limp over to gooey lumps that once were Patriotess.
A hench does what’s right for her villain, no matter what. And who better than her hench to know what she needs?
I’ll have to modify the suit significantly for my size, and add pockets for gadgets (seriously, who doesn’t have pockets in this day and age?), but I know an excellent tailor. I pick up Patriotess’s mask. It’s not a perfect fit, but I’ll make it work.
After all, hope is a trap for a hench, but it’s the ideal accessory for a heroine.
By Tina Connolly
I really enjoyed this funny, twisty tale of a hench determined to help her villain. I found it a very visually engaging story – all the great descriptions of the fight scenes and choreography and costumes were very clear to me. Perhaps because I’ve been watching Glow, I couldn’t help but imagine Patriotess in her “ridiculous” “spandex blue-and-red onesie” as Betty Gilpin’s character on that show, Liberty Belle. I mean, it’s true, heroes so seldom have “real flair or a sense of grandeur.” And yet somehow I think Patriotess might shortly end up with a greater sense of flair than she previously had.
One of the things I particularly enjoy is when the final solution to the puzzle of a story seems so inevitable once you find it – a satisfying click where multiple problems are solved at once. Our henchwoman wants most to help Night Mistress. But it wouldn’t be a terribly satisfying story if our henchwoman didn’t also get what she wanted, and needed, at heart. So there are delightful multiple layers here as our hench works on multiple levels to make sure everyone in the story gets what they really need. Well, everyone except poor, inferior Patriotess.
Well, it’s that time of year again! So if you are nominating for awards this year, such as the Nebulas or Hugos, remember that Escape Pod is eligible in the Hugo Awards for Best Semiprozine. Our esteemed editors, Mur Lafferty and SB Divya are also jointly eligible for the Best Editor (short form) Hugo award. We also published 18 original SF stories this year, along with all of our reprints and flashback stories. You can find a full list of our award eligible stories on our website.
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Our opening and closing music is by daikaiju at daikaiju.org.
And our closing quotation this week is from a certain small sidekick in Noelle Stevenson’s NIMONA, who says: “Aw yeah, let’s make some evil plans!”
Thanks for listening! And have fun.
About the Author
Izzy Wasserstein is a queer, trans woman. She teaches writing and literature, writes poetry and fiction, and shares a home with a variety of animal companions and the writer Nora E. Derrington. Her fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, Fantasy, and elsewhere. Her most recent poetry collection is When Creation Falls (Meadowlark Books, 2018).
About the Narrator
Sandra Espinoza is a New York born and raised voice actress. Bilingual with a background in English literature and writing, she’s always been fascinated with what people were saying and the broad palette of ways to say it. After a childhood where video games were banned from the house, she’s 180’d so hard that she’s finally in them and never leaving. Some games Sandra’s voiced for include Brawl Stars, Heroes of Newerth, Marvel’s Avengers Academy and the critically acclaimed Wadjet Eye Games point-and-click adventure game Unavowed. Get to know her at dustyoldroses.com and follow on Twitter and Facebook @dustyoldroses.