I’d been a frail child, sickly with an autoimmune disease and half-functioning organs. Stuck in hospitals for weeks at a time, constantly in and out, only able to live in the outside world by wearing special suits and taking expensive medicines that still made me feel ill. I looked out upon the world like a fragile doll in a glass cage.
I saw everyone else being able to live free, taking their health for granted. Even other children who were missing limbs or blind or deaf, they could experience life more fully than I ever could.
My family was rich, but they were blowing through their fortune keeping me alive. After a while, I actually resented them for it. I didn’t feel like I was their daughter anymore, just an experiment or a means of gaining sympathy. Maybe I was useful to them in some capacity, but at some point they were going to have to let me die, or they’d go bankrupt.
I contemplated suicide. I almost did it a few times, but I was too much a coward to follow through. I resigned myself to starvation. The hunger wasn’t any more painful than the medicine, and it was a way to end my life without having to actually do anything. I just had to not eat, and eventually I would grow too weak, go to sleep, and die.
And then the Doorways appeared. Magical gateways that caused anyone who entered to vanish, but those tiny handful who came back out were blessed with superhuman powers.
I asked my parents to take me to one. They winced at the suggestion, but I saw the logic set in quickly. If they let me go in, one of two things would happen: most likely, I would be gone for good, no longer the burden that was draining their lives. If I did come back, I would come back as a superhuman, and perhaps my powers would come with a cure for my condition. If so, I would repay my parents in any way I could, using my newfound abilities.
I didn’t mean that last part. I no longer cared about their problems. I just wanted my pain to end, and I was willing to take the gamble. Fortunately, my father still had enough money to bribe the guards at the Mali Doorway to let me in. It was allowed under the pretense of “medical research.” The bribe had cost far less than another month of medical expenses.
I walked through the Doorway in my protective suit.
I awoke in the middle of their operation on me. I was in a million pieces, bits of my body strung about here or there, hovering as if suspended by wires or floating in jars, though could not see any such instruments. I watched inhuman shadow things pick and pluck at my bits with devices I couldn’t identify.
At some point they became aware that I was watching. I’m not really sure where I was watching from. It might have been my brain. I didn't see it anywhere in the room among my other organs. I did know I wasn’t seeing through my eyes; those were slowly orbiting each other off to my left. I wasn’t sure how my brain could still be functioning, disconnected as it was from my body, or how I could still see without eyes, but all things considered, that wasn’t even the weirdest thing in the room.
It was difficult to look at the creatures I would come to know as the Masters. Even considering my own discorporate state, I couldn’t wrap my head around their being. They, in turn, weren’t sure how it was I was conscious.
I asked them what was happening. I had no mouth to speak, but I just thought at them, and they thought back. I didn’t really understand their language, if you could call it that. It was all static and screeching sensations cutting through my mind. And yet I had some sense of the intention of their speech. I couldn’t identify a single word, but the meanings became discernable to me, at least up to a point.
I asked what they were doing with my body. Fixing it, they said. Are you giving me the powers, I asked. They said no. Simple exposure to their realm is what gave people the powers, which developed over a couple of days. What they were doing now was disassembling and reassembling the body to encode their programming upon it, and to fix any deficiencies, such as my illness. In my case, the programming wasn’t taking; my powers were interfering as they developed.
I told them they could just let me die, I would be fine with it. But, no they said, we have a use for you. We can cure you of your sickness, and in turn, you will cure us of our sickness. This could be a mutually beneficial agreement. Even if they could not encode their control onto me, I seemed a type who might sympathize with their plight.
There were Worlds, they said, that posed a threat to their existence. These Worlds preyed upon their Realm like a cancer. They, the Masters, were formless beings, their realm composed of fluidic existence, pure chaos. But these Worlds, they imposed order, solid structure, unbreakable laws, upon them. It was killing them, slowly, inexorably.
Where were these Worlds, I asked. I only knew of Earth. Were these worlds elsewhere in the galaxy? In another galaxy entirely? Another dimension?
No, they said. The Worlds were in their own Realm, manifesting from within the chaos and consuming the very fabric of their reality as they did so. Like tumors in a body, they grew and spread, and would continue to do so, until the Realm was completely subsumed by these clusters of structured existence. The Masters in turn would be wiped out, starved of the chaos that sustained them.
It was all the fault of humans, they said. Long ago, someone from Earth opened a gateway to their Realm, and a group of explorers stepped through. Instantly, the thoughts and dreams and superstitions of their sapient minds projected into the chaos and began to force shapes upon it. Fictional realities were made manifest, as human thought unintentionally molded the chaos into Creation.
Worse still, the Worlds themselves gave birth to their own sapient races, which conceptually anchored the new realities, rendering them impervious to the Masters’ efforts to destroy them from the outside.
This is why they needed us, they said. They fashioned Doorways of their own, to draw people to them. They had at least managed to find a way to stop more Worlds from being born when new humans came here. They constructed their own facsimile of a reality to buffer the rest of their Realm from further direct human contact. I remembered it, now that they mentioned it: tunnels of yellow flesh and enormous staring eyes. It agonized the Masters to create such a solid place, but it was absolutely necessary.
Still, just from one moment of first human contact, the cancer of Creation had already spread on a vast scale. Worlds kept being born, realities fissioning off one another as they chewed through the Masters’ Realm. It was all they could do to keep destroying the Worlds as they manifested, and since they could not enter them directly, they had to send us in to do the job. Only by wiping out all sapient life within the Worlds could the Masters then implode those realities from without, restoring that section of their Realm.
It was working, but not fast enough. The propagation of the Worlds was slowing, but only gradually, and collapsing even a single World took a lot of effort. Of course, the sapient lives within fought back as hard as they could, never knowing that their very existence was merely a catastrophic anomaly. Even as we slaughtered millions upon billions upon trillions of them, our own forces fell by the hundreds, necessitating the acquisition of more.
As they told me this, I felt a deep sorrow and sympathy. Life had fucked me over because two people had sex at the wrong time, and the wrong sperm and the wrong egg met and swapped the bad genes. If I got so much as a single cut, I risked a life-threatening infection, and I needed expensive medicine to fight it off.
So it was with the Masters. Their Realm was fragile, easily disrupted. And then some scientist, probably having no idea what he was doing, had poked his head in their reality, and infected it with a horrific disease the natives had no way of curing on their own.
We humans may have caused this disease, but we were also the medicine for it. A medicine that expensive, finite, and hard to acquire.
I told them I would help them. If they would return me to Earth, I would do whatever it took to send as many other humans into the Doorways as I could.
They pondered it over, and after a long while, they agreed. The only stipulation was that the people had to be willing. Whether by courage, curiosity, or desperation, the people I sent through had to want to come through the Doorways. Otherwise they cannot make use of them. The programming wouldn’t take if the human didn’t have a drive that could be redirected to suit their purpose.
I didn’t quite understand how that really made a difference, but if that’s how it had to work, so be it. I was willing, at any rate. I knew then that finally, my useless, broken life had a purpose. I agreed. These were the first beings that ever really understood me. They saw me as an equal fit enough to bargain with. As they put me back together, stringing my atoms into new alignments to give me a healthy, strong body, I knew that this was right.
They tested me first, sending me to help a squadron of other humans to destroy a World. They sent us first to a mystical plane cast in an endless night, where vampires and werewolves ruled a thousand nations, where reanimated corpses filled military and labor forces. And yet, in this dark world, there was also a humanoid species not unlike elves. They lived a blissful existence in forest lit with tiny magical suns. Their every need was tended to until adulthood, when one by one, they gladly sacrificed themselves to feed their monstrous overlords. They willingly gave their blood and flesh as gratitude to their caretakers. It was a symbiotic relationship that had stabilized their lands for centuries.
First, my companions and I killed their innocent food source. Then, as the monsters starved to the point of madness, turning on one another for scraps of sustenance, we picked them off one by one in a grand march across their nations. Thanks to my power, we were the first team sent to a World that hadn’t lost a single member.
I didn't care that my companions were under the Masters’ direct control, that I alone retained my sense of self. We were all just antibodies against the disease of the Material Universe, the universe that birthed me into a broken, useless, miserable form. A universe that had betrayed me at the moment of my creation, molding me into a shape only meant to suffer, just as the Masters suffered from our very existence. As they had ended my suffering, so too would I end theirs.
When the Masters decided I was ready, I told them my plan for how I would draw more humans into the Doorways. They agreed and gave me a team the most monstrous humans they could find. They sent us through one at a time, seeding violence and fear in different parts of the Earth. The plan was simple: to create a world so chaotic and dangerous, that the masses of humanity would flee to the Doorways as their last refuge.
It didn’t matter if Earth itself was destroyed in the process. After all, to complete the Masters’ work, humanity would also eventually have to die, and Earth destroyed to ensure no other sapience evolved after we were gone. We just had to make sure ours was the last world left before it ended.
Five years ago, after my team had already sewn chaos and raised international conflicts around the world, I assembled the Ten Queens and formed New Gondwana. Five more years of terror across two continents drove tens of millions into the Doorways, with hundreds of millions more to go. The plan was working spectacularly. Every day, I felt pride at what I had accomplished and knew the Masters’ were pleased.
In an instant, it was all undone.
One moment, I was walking with Yrba, about to go through our maintenance routine, and the next, a portal was opening in front of us. We knew this was the protocol for an evacuation in the event the Citadel was breached. Malakurai the Traverser was to prioritize the safety of Yrba and myself, then work to assist our most valuable superhuman assets in order of importance, herself included. After all, her power of portal creation was invaluable to allow us instant travel across the continent.
She hadn’t even had time to save herself. There wasn’t even enough time to save Yrba. We had been right next to each other, and I had been one step closer to the portal. I grabbed Yrba by the arm, jumping through the portal and trying to yank her out with me.
Just as I cleared the opening, and her arm started coming through, she seized up, then went limp. I turned in time to see the life leave her eyes, as if her soul had been snuffed out. I recognized the power of Kilika, the Eater of Souls. Then the portal snapped shut, and I was left with her severed arm hanging limply from my hand.
I let it drop. I was hovering a thousand feet in the air, a mile from the Citadel. I watched the severed limb fall, my jaw agape.
Suddenly, the sky shifted from glowing pink to a brilliant blue. I snapped my gaze upwards, and saw the lower section of the Citadel already evaporating into nothing. The power of Ojau the Annihilator obliterated the chambers where Ororo, Duriam, Xentos, Calaxus, and their hundreds of clones had worked to maintain the Great Barrier. Now they, and it, were gone in a flash.
So was Klok the Builder, whose supertech devices kept the utilities of the Queen’s cities running, despite a lack of industry.
So was Tlaloc the Green, whose power over plants ensured the human population only ever managed to grow exactly enough crops to not starve to death, while still keeping them hungry.
Bruticus, Porcine, Lithe, Mysterial, Rain Maker, Corpse Eater, Solarus, and another hundred superhumans whom acted as the Citadel’s defense force, and whom we cloned for extra shock troops when suppressing particularly powerful rebels, were likewise obliterated.
After five years of indomitable rule, I was suddenly alone and my ultimate fortress lost. How had this happened? No previous offensive had ever managed this, not even come close. Our system had been too thorough. Brute force could not penetrate the Shield and no one besides the Queens were even allowed inside.
Moreover, everyone on the continent knew at this point that we were the lynch pins of the system. Anyone who wanted to enjoy the benefits our society knew not to fuck with us. And of course, we ensured that only those that did were allowed to live when they came back through the Doorways. Who could have possibly—
Then I saw them. A quarter mile ahead of me, there were six figures looking up at where the Citadel had been, standing out starkly on the grey-white sands of the desert below.
Immediately, I recognized Kilika and Ojau. The other four I didn’t know, at least not from this distance. Was this some kind of ultimate coup? I had thought Kilika to be one of my most trusted, and Ojau was about as loyal to her as a Queen’s General could be. But there was no mistaking that it was they who had just destroyed us.
I had to think. With no allies, I had no one to empower to help me in battle. I had gotten so used to Yrba supporting me, cloning the two of us to further amplify our abilities, but now she was dead. Had anyone but Kilika done it, I might not have been worried. Normally, when Yrba’s “original” died, if she had an active clone of herself left, her soul just possessed it, and it became the new original. But Kilika’s power destroyed the soul itself, and even the most powerful and esoteric regenerators had never recovered from that.
It was just me now, against two of my deadliest former comrades. My primary power was my ability to greatly amplify the abilities of any superhuman, but that excluded myself. My other abilities were considerably lesser: Rank E strength and durability, and the power to fly only three times as fast as I could run. We were so far away from civilization that it would take me days of straight flying before I encountered another person, much less a superhuman.
But I couldn’t just run away now. If I allowed this group live, who knew when I’d next be able to catch them? Who knows how many other traitors they might bring to their side in the meantime?
I clenched my fist and reached behind me. I had a.44 Magnum revolver holstered along my lower back. It was a weapon I almost never needed to use, but always kept loaded and ready, in case I ever did find myself alone and stranded and facing superhuman enemies.
There was another aspect to my power that I had kept secret from everyone, even Yrba. Those who found out about it died immediately after. My power to enhance the abilities of my fellow superhumans could work in reverse. I could also, temporarily, suppress their powers. Not completely take them away, but I could make a Rank A in durability drop as low as a Rank D. Rank B down to Rank E. Rank C and lower down to a normal human. So it was with all their other powers. Even at Rank D durability, the Magnum was usually strong enough to either blow a hole through the person’s head, or at least inflict fatal blunt force trauma to the skull, before they even realized how weak they’d become.
Six targets. Six bullets. Unfortunately, as an emergency weapon, I didn’t always keep spare ammunition on me. I would have to make every shot count. And just like my enhancement power, I had to be within a hundred feet of the ones I wanted to weaken. I flew forward, and as they arrogantly gazed at the remains of their handiwork, I lowered myself to be almost directly above them, back just enough that none of them would notice me out of the top of their peripheral vision.
Fortunately, they were all clustered together. I wouldn’t have to adjust my shots very far between them. I took aim Kilika first, then sent forth my power-suppressing aura, right as they got in range.
I saw the group flinch as they felt the effect, except for Kilika and Ojau, who just stood there, almost statue-like. It made them, thankfully, the easiest to hit. The bullet exploded Kilika’s wildebeest helmet and her skull beneath it. I adjusted the aim as I cocked the hammer and blew open Ojau’s skull next.
The other four were already moving. The black woman in a black outfit started to run, while the black man and Hispanic woman threw themselves to the side, assuming the bullets were coming at them horizontally instead of vertically. The black woman dressed as a cowgirl stayed in one place for a second before she, too, threw herself to the ground.
I shot the black woman who’d been trying to run. I missed her head, but managed to hit her square in the back, blowing a hole in her chest.
At this point, the Hispanic woman looked up and shouted, “Above!”
She and the black man scrambled, while the cowgirl clumsily got to her feet. I shot the cowgirl first, since she was the easier target. Once again, I missed the headshot, but I managed to blast a hole in her shoulder, practically tearing the arm off. She collapsed the ground and screamed. I hesitated. I recognized that scream. I dropped lower down to better see her face and my eyes widened.
“Atalanta!” Holy shit! She was alive?! Iria, the Mother, had sworn that she’d killed her. She’d either been lying or she’d been tricked. Was this entire thing Atalanta’s doing? Had she been biding her time all these months, gathering her group of assassins in secret and colluding with Kilika?
I aimed at her, but then paused. My power suppression didn’t affect me any more than my enhancement ability, which meant I was still super strong within my own field, even if barely. Atalanta would be as weak as a normal human girl of her build right now. I could easily just beat her to death with my bare hands. No need to waste bullets when there were still two more to kill.
I dropped to the ground, slamming my full weight onto Atalanta’s back. I wasn’t exactly heavy, but pushed by my flight power, my body struck with the force of a linebacker. I heard a satisfying snap as her spine buckled under my feet. She let out a shriek, and I slammed my boot into the gaping wound where her shoulder had been. Her eyes fluttered as she started to pass out.
I aimed my gun at the other two. They were poised to dodge, but now I was only a dozen feet away. I aimed for the black man, since he was closer, and pulled the trigger. With surprisingly fast reflexes, he managed to dodge a fatal hit. I had aimed for his chest, but he managed to move himself enough so the bullet “only” tore a chunk out of his side, sending a slab of meat and a piece of shattered rib flying.
I snapped my gun over to the Hispanic woman. She was poised to dodge as well, and something about her stance convinced me she was more used to this kind of thing that her companions. Her powers probably didn’t include enhanced durability or movement, while her companions were no doubt thrown when such abilities suddenly failed them. A pity for her that all I needed was one good hit, and there was no way I was missing at this range.
I aimed, but just as I was pulling the trigger, something hard struck me in the back of the head. It barely hurt, but it caused me to flinch, and my arm jerked as I pulled the trigger. One of the horns from Kilika’s mask skipped off my skull, rolling into my peripheral vision. The other black woman must still be alive, and had managed to throw it at me. It threw me off just enough that Hispanic woman had been able to dodge my shot, probably timing her movement with the other woman’s throw. The bullet put a hole in the dirt where her right foot had just been.
She wasted no time capitalizing on my distraction, slamming herself bodily into me, trying to knock the gun from my hand. I stumbled back only because I was still standing on Atalanta, and her body rolled under me as the other woman shifted my weight. We hit the ground, but I maintained my hold on the gun. Viciously, I smashed the butt of the revolver against her temple. With my strength, it was a hard enough blow to crack her skull. She let out a pained grunt, then fell over, knocked unconscious. She’d probably die of brain bleeding and swelling in a few minutes.
I shoved her off me and stood. I let out a huff, then holstered the gun. I was out of bullets, but it didn’t matter now. I could throttle or beat them at my leisure. And given all they had cost me, I was going to take my time enjoying this.
It wasn’t a totally hopeless situation. The other Queens were still around. The other countries would still cower before New Gondwana’s power. We still had thousands of superhumans across the continent, while the other nations had heavily restricted their Doorway use. Before we had sent the Shield up, several of those the Masters had picked for my plan had already been causing international conflicts throughout Eurasia. Surely, World War III had happened by now.
Maybe that’s what that assault on the Great Barrier a month ago had been. Maybe Russia or China or Arabia had finally solidified their empire, and had been haughty enough to try and attack us. We’d just obliterated their army in one strike. Surely, no other nation would be foolish enough to try and attack us again, even with the Great Barrier dropped.
Yes, my plan could still succeed. The remaining Queens and I could keep sending humans to the Masters. Hell, with our network disabled, the humans might be thrown into total panic as they were bereft of even the few comforts of food and nominal protection once afforded them. We could even propagandize that the foreign powers were coming to cleanse the continent of all New Gondwanans, no matter how innocent, to ensure that we no longer posed a threat to them. Then the populace would feel even more pressured to risk the Doorways!
Yes, it could all work out just fine. Not could, would. It would work out just fine.
I stepped up to Atalanta and placed my foot on her head. There was no way she wasn’t a lynchpin in this rebellion, if not the head of it. She was definitely going to die first. She whimpered in pain as I slowly crushed her face into the dirt, the precious ground that I denied her connection to. “Thought you had it figured out, huh? Thought you’d—”
Another piece of Kilika’s skull mask thunked against my head. I closed my eyes and sighed, turning back to see the black woman, clutching her chest with a horribly pained grimace. She had indeed managed to drag herself over to Kilika’s body and was already reaching for another piece of the skull.
You know what? Better idea. Atalanta could die last. Then she could suffer longer while I killed her annoying fucking friends right before her eyes. Hopefully, she wouldn’t pass out from pain and blood loss first. I wanted to see her tears.
I stepped towards the other black woman, but stopped as I felt something jab my leg. I looked down to see Atalanta holding some kind of rounded cylinder against my shin. She clicked a button and—
—and I remembered—
—I remembered what I already knew. A rush of visions of the Masters, my time on another World, the gathering of the others for my grand plan.
“What… the hell was… that?” I said, putting a hand to my forehead. I felt disoriented for a moment.
That moment was all it took. My concentration broke, causing my suppression aura to flicker. The last thing I saw before I was fused into solid bedrock was Atalanta’s pained, but victorious grin.