He wanted to get as much work as possible, and maybe develop a mutually antagonistic relationship with a hero.
Without steady work, I’d taken to pampering Ursula. We weren’t quite sure of her age when we’d rescued her. Now she was in her early teens, if I had to guess. She wasn’t quite the flapper she used to be, and we had to buy her a special Senior Bat kibble mix, given that she couldn’t digest things like she used to. I needed her alive, though. I didn’t leave the lair much those days, and she was my best and only friend. I was feeding her a raspberry, a messy endeavor, when the call came through.
I nearly told him to fuck off, but I caught myself. I must have sighed, though, because Wallace could sense my distaste.
“I know, James. I know,” Wallace said. “Nobody wants to go from villain to sidekick, but let’s face the facts. You were never the more attractive half of the Vicious Vegans.”
“It’s a little kitschy, don’t you think?” Harriet said.
Our first foray as a villainous duo had been an undeniable success. Harriet and I teamed up to bomb a slaughterhouse that produced and distributed veal for the Midwestern market. It was our introduction to the radical animal rights scene, and we wanted it to be a big splash. We’d just caught our breaths after finally outrunning The Whopper and Beef Boy, the heroes who’d been contracted to thwart us. They’d put up a good fight, but we’d come out on top. Now, back at our apartment (this was before our upgrade to a full-on lair), Harriet read the headlines on her tablet.
Vicious Vegans Vivisect Veal Volume. They were fast. Less than an hour had passed since we’d set off the explosives, and already some staff writer had polished off a corny headline and the crucial details.
New villainous duo, as yet unsigned, make a splash in the Midwest. The two carried out a bombing of a major meat production facility, which by early estimates will increase the cost of veal by as much as 28% over the next six months.
It was 2017 and villainy was a booming industry. And with a newly elected president, himself the former leader of a sprawling, evil organization, who was actively hated by two-thirds of Americans ages 18-35, millennial interest in villainy was up especially. We aimed to capitalize on that, but we would do it our own way. The traditional outlets for evildoing—NEOs, tech corporations, dark web money, etc.—were having a hard time keeping up with the demand, especially for environmental villainy, which is where we found our niche as freelancers. The gig economy extended to our industry just as much as any other.
“But ‘Vicious Vegans,’ we can agree, is bad,” she said. “Right?”
I didn’t know. It seemed like okay branding to me: predictably alliterative, productively aggressive. A little cheesy, but then so was I as a vegetarian. I’d never kicked dairy like Harriet. Never gone full ethical/carbon-neutral. And it was only because of her that I was vegetarian in the first place. It had happened accidentally for me, after years of being married to a vegan and being the one who enjoyed cooking more. I would make dinner, sprinkling my own portion with cheese (dairy cheese, Harriet would say), but all that was too complicated for a catchy villainous moniker. Vicious Vegans had a ring to it. So we went with it.
I took a deep breath. If this was the best my contacts could muster, it would have to do. My laptop on the kitchen table before me, I waited for Brennan, Wallace’s associate, to start the video call. Brennan was his first name. Anecdotally speaking, it seemed to me that people who had first names that could be last names were more likely to end up a villain than if they were just “Ethan” or “Nicole.” Brennan appeared on my screen as I was mid-sip of a cup of coffee nearly too cold to enjoy anymore. I almost spat, which he noticed.
“Catch you at a bad time?” Brennan said.
He had the laugh of someone who worked in villainy. Deep, resonant, foreboding. If you don’t start laughing like that, you end up that way. It’s all about marketability, and a jovial giggle does little to get you contracts. I forced a smile, did my own best evil chortle. I had to put aside my feelings about the position if I really wanted it. A sidekick, above all else, has to play along.
He explained the deal. Basically, he was introducing a drone gimmick to his operation. Industry metrics were showing an uptick in contract retention for villains who incorporated some technological elements into their portfolio. And, in particular, drones were in. It didn’t take an evil genius to figure that part out—the buzzing, swooping shits were everywhere. From toy stores to expansion plans of major delivery corporations, drones were a hot commodity. And they were only getting hotter. So, Brennan, or Derelicte (pronounced “dare-a-leaked,” I learned), was adding a new, mechanized sidekick to his arsenal. And he wanted more personality in its movements than current automation permitted.
“I call him ‘Droney,’” Brennan said.
I forced another smile. I hated the name immediately. It just read too cutesy. There had to be a thousand other names that would read more threateningly. Skyfiend. Doom Drone. Hoverdeath. Okay, that last one sucked, but it could be workshopped. Point being, “Droney” sounded like a four-year-old’s drawing, not proper sidekick branding. But since Brennan was footing the bill, “Droney” it would be. And despite the fact that the most experience I had with drones was reading about them on the news, “Droney” I would become.
We went through the logistics. He made sure I had at least 50mbps internet, which I did. Anything less than that, he said, and we might run into technical difficulties, at which point he may as well be using AI. We settled on some rough figures for my pay. I knew better than to bargain for more, the time for which was long since gone. I was the bargain. You didn’t need X-Ray vision to see that.
But it was something, and it did improve my mood. Later, rubbing Ursula’s fuzzy underbelly, I dreamed about the future instead of dwelling on the past. What could Droney become? What could I?
The night after I accepted the Droney gig, Harriet came home tense and unwilling to talk about her day. She sank into the couch and played with her phone in a way that said conversation was off the table. But I pried.
“Drop it, James,” she said. “It’s just new job stuff. Nothing to worry about.”
Harriet knew better than anyone that I was a chronic worrier, and that even the phrase “nothing to worry about” was, for me, something to worry about. She put on an affectedly stoic look and kept pawing at her phone in order to avoid my anxious gaze. But I kept staring, waiting for her to say something.
“For God’s sake, what?” she finally said. “If you’re going to ask me a question, ask me a question.”
“You just look really stressed. I’m sorry for staring. I know you hate that.”
She sighed. I could tell, as one can after many years together, that this wasn’t a case of her not wanting to talk about it. Rather, it was her trying to protect me from something.
“You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to,” I said.
“No, it’s fine,” she said. “I don’t know. ADC is just kicking my ass.”
The Anti-Dairy Collective was Harriet’s new employer. They’d hired her as the Director of Nefarity. They were also working on shifting the gender composition of their workplace, which was, like a lot of NEOs, still pretty male. And that work was, of course, landing on her shoulders.
“Did something happen?” I asked. “Or is it just kind of a general thing?”
She sighed and launched into it. Her boss undercut her at every opportunity, be it in private or public, but that was nothing revolutionary. Still, he made it painfully clear that they had only hired her because a consultant told them to hire a woman. But even that she could shrug off. The general stuff is easier to ignore. But then at the last staff meeting, one of her coworkers in the Mind Reading division decided to ask a question during Harriet’s presentation on a proposed gender-conscious hiring initiative. He was a young guy, just as new to the company as Harriet, but his tone was immediately one of condescension.
“He was like, ’Now, these new hires—are they gonna wear traditional catsuits with the deep cutouts, or is it gonna be . . . more like you?’” she said. “Then he ran his hands down the front of his shirt, like this. Meaning, I guess, I was too flat-chested to be a proper female villain. The whole room laughed. My boss didn’t say anything, because of course not.”
“God,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, well,” she said. “A few blonde bombshells spoil the whole lot, you know? No, but really, men are pigs. Even at ostensibly vegan NEOs, apparently.”
Bringing up my own situation now seemed petty in comparison. Hey babe, so I know you’re dealing with men talking to your face about your breast size, but I’m kind of sick of sitting around, so—so I just listened. Droney could wait.
True stress, I can safely say, is using your wife’s login credentials to download forms that only just uploaded to a byzantine online paystub system, then emailing those forms to your accountant while simultaneously piloting a drone whose six mechanical arms end in two pincers, three buzz saws, and one miniature laser rifle. The laser rifle, made by the same company that made those expensive electric cars, was barely out of beta. (Beta would’ve made a better name for the drone than Droney.)
“Droney! To arms!” Derelicte yelled.
I was midway through copy and pasting the PDF when he called me into action. I alt-tabbed into the drone control program and got to work. Piloting it felt oddly like an old N64-era flying game, inverted stick controls and everything. You could definitely finesse it, but it wasn’t as subtle as you’d hope. Given the setup, I performed the most convincing parabola I could, jutting out my buzz saws at Beefer as I sailed by. It was good to see him again, even if it was over a video feed.
Beefer was Beef Boy’s new moniker since The Whopper had closed shop after multiple copyright lawsuits. Rather than sticking with his old boss, Beef Boy struck out on his own and upgraded his name in the process. He and Derelicte had been pitted against each other over a new initiative to produce synthetic meat in labs. Beefer was a contracted defender of the beef and dairy industries, and Derelicte had been tapped due to the synthetic meat company’s origins in the startup world. He’d come out of fifteen years in the tech industry with a bad attitude and a lot of coding skills, but also a huge list of VCs to keep the money flowing. Like any villain, he just wanted to carve out his own space, get as much work as possible, and maybe develop a mutually antagonistic relationship with a hero, ensuring a recurring role in future conflicts. He had no horse in the race, so to speak, when it came to veganism, but as happens sometimes in Silicon Valley, we found ourselves on the same side of the ideological divide out of convenience, if not conviction. As I menacingly swung Droney about an abandoned factory floor, however, I found myself wishing it were Harriet and me in the field, beating Beefer into oblivion.
I glanced at the clock. We needed to wrap things up soon. Harriet would be home in thirty minutes, and I hadn’t figured out exactly how I wanted to frame things with her. I didn’t quite know how to start the conversation of, Hey, I have this new job I didn’t tell you about. This was a recurring problem of mine: I kicked conversations down the road until the last possible second. But a stalling tactic never has a good endgame, in a marriage or on the battlefield. Thankfully, things were wrapping up with Beefer. Hovering over Derelicte’s shoulder, I waited for him to give his Narrow Escape Speech. Brennan just needed to close things out and we’d be done by six.
“You haven’t heard the last of us, Beefer!” Derelicte said, falling back on a Standard Outro of Villainous Intent. Hearing him say this, I started to close out my applications, putting Droney in Follow Mode, assuming we were about to beat a hasty retreat. Then Derelicte went off-script.
“Tell him, Droney!”
I froze. For a second, I didn’t even process what he was saying to me. I wasn’t aware Droney had vocal capabilities, much less that I’d needed to develop a persona for him (him?). I scrambled to make sure my laptop mic was activated and to think of something to say.
“Oh, uh,” Droney said in a Daft-Punkian auto-tune. “The next time you mess with us, I’ll, uh—I’ll show you a real meat slicer!”
The idea was that my buzz saws were similar to how a deli meat slicer would produce cuts of lunch meat, but obviously that connection was both poorly conceived and poorly communicated. Plus, it’d been a while since I ate meat, so my ability to produce quality puns in that linguistic realm had atrophied. I felt bad about my output, but also angry that I hadn’t been given a heads up from Derelicte about this little hand-off.
“Wait,” Beefer said. “Jim, is that you?”
Even though he’d said my name, it took me a second to recognize that he was talking to me. Derelicte removed his mask at that point, pinching the bridge of his nose. How could Beefer tell it was me? Even through all the post-processing? I was flattered, honestly. Everyone likes a little recognition. But I had a job to do, and it was unprofessional to abandon the given narrative.
“No,” I said. “You are mistaken. You are addressing the OS known as Droney.”
I was vamping at that point, deciding that Droney wouldn’t use pronouns, but would instead refer to himself in the third person. I guess I thought that would make him sound more techy.
He just wanted to carve out his own space, get as much work as possible, and maybe develop a mutually antagonistic relationship with a hero.
“That’s totally you on the other end, isn’t it?” Beefer said. “Shit, man. It’s so nice to hear your voice. It’s been a while. How’s Harriet? I miss our old tussles.”
I wanted to say several things to Beefer, starting with gratitude, because most heroes don’t acknowledge the work that goes into our side of the operation, but also frustration, because everyone always asks how Harriet is doing and not how I’m doing, and obviously I’m doing much worse. You don’t see Harriet pretending to be an autonomous drone, now do you?
“Droney is afraid you are mistaken,” I said. But before I could launch into a full-blown monologue (which was not in the contract, and would not incur extra pay), Derelicte ran off and Droney, still in Follow Mode, followed.
As we beat our retreat, I faintly heard Beefer yell, “Give Harriet my regards! Ciao!”When we climbed into Derelicte’s midnight-black electric sports car, he powered down Droney and called me on my cell.
“What the fuck was that?” he asked.
“Oh, I don’t know, let’s start with the deli meat quip. Surely someone with as many years in the biz as yourself has something better than that.”
Instead of voicing my complaints about the unexpected speaking role, I remembered myself and capitulated, promising to have a Quip Sheet lined up for the next outing. Whatever resentments I had, I would bury, like any good employee does.
He hung up without any mention of Beefer having recognized my voice. I was still puzzling over how he could’ve picked out that it was me through the auto-tune. Maybe it wasn’t working quite as well on the receiving end as it sounded in my headphones, but either way, I was stuck in Beefer’s craw. As I waited for Harriet to arrive home, I thought about how a hero had remembered me.
“Does Ursula seem a little off to you?”
Harriet had her in her lap. She was sprawled out, wings outstretched, enjoying the belly rubs. She didn’t seem all that different to me. Her eyes looked clear enough. Her appetite fine, if a little less ambitious than her heyday. On our walks, she stopped to sniff various trees. Greeted other animals, both bipedal and airborne, as she saw fit. She was a little slower to get in and out of her harness, but nothing that seemed unrealistic for her advanced age. But Harriet was convinced.
“James, I just need you to be on my side here,” she said. “I swear I’m not making this up.”
Something about the way Ursula shifted her weight suggested to Harriet that she was in pain. And when Harriet believed Ursula was in pain, we went straight to the vet. Earlier in our marriage, I would argue over these precautionary visits, which took one hundred to three hundred dollars out of our pockets and left us with some nutritional paste to be administered with a syringe that Ursula ultimately wouldn’t eat and which would then languish in the fridge, next to the seltzer, for months before we finally threw it out. But now I didn’t argue. Harriet would always be this way, and these days our budget wasn’t going to break over a single vet visit.
We went right away. I still hadn’t told Harriet about my job. It had gotten to the point where no matter how I went about it, it would be awkward. Still, riding shotgun with our ailing senior bat didn’t seem the time either. I rubbed Ursula’s chin and assured Harriet it would be okay.
“You don’t know that,” she said, and I didn’t reply.
The vet looked concerned as she took her vitals and traced her ribs with a gloved finger. Harriet’s left hand grasped the table as tightly as her right hand gripped my forearm. Ursula crawled about a red rag they’d pulled out of a drawer, vaguely annoyed at the whole procedure. The vet finally spoke: Harriet had been right. There was a growth under one of her ribs that was potentially of concern. She recommended two options: waiting it out, given her age, or a biopsy. We went with the biopsy. Telling Harriet that surgery on an aging bat wasn’t the best investment was like telling the sun it oughtn’t set. And I wanted to see the old girl pull through, too. We set up an appointment and got in the car. This time, I drove.
“God, it’s just one more thing, isn’t it?” Harriet said. “I don’t even want to go to work tomorrow. I just want to be home with her.”
“It’ll be alright, Hare,” I said.
“You need to stop saying that.”
I shut up for the remainder of the car ride as Harriet alternated between stroking Ursula and muttering to herself about how she was somehow to blame for this. Back at home, we took turns giving her as many raspberries as her little stomach could handle. We reminisced about our favorite Ursula memories, starting from the day we brought her home, to her first trip to the bat park, right up to now. Harriet got emotional, saying she wished she were home more often with her. She wanted as much time as possible. Told me I was lucky. Hearing that, I felt a deep sense of guilt that, if she noticed, she said nothing about. Once again, I said nothing of my job.
Where the hell are you?
The text jutted out of the top right corner of my computer screen, where all notifications obtrusively announce themselves. It should’ve demanded my immediate attention, but I didn’t have much to give. Derelicte and I were once again embroiled with Beefer. Our previous contractor, a lobbying firm trying to bring the costs of synthetic meats in line with traditional meats, had reupped the job, and clearly so too had Beefer’s. He even had a new sidekick in tow: Chicken Little, who, despite her name, was nothing to fuck with. Mean little thing. She’d already succeeded in removing one of Droney’s buzz saw arms with a well-placed roundhouse.
I knew what the text was about. I was supposed to be at home right now, gathering up Ursula with Harriet and taking her to the vet for her appointment. I wanted to alt-tab out of Droney’s control interface and respond to my wife, but we were mid-battle. Worse, I was fighting not only the good guys, but the public WiFi offerings at Starbucks. In what I viewed as either an act of God or a minor revenge from a former adversary in the telecommunications sector, our internet at home was down. So there I was, sipping a Flat White and struggling it out.
Truthfully, I was surprised with how well I was doing considering how poor the internet was. That alone should’ve earned me a raise. So far, I’d piloted Droney adequately, swooping when swooping was called for, hovering when things were still, jutting out weaponized arms when things got dicey. The whole battle wasn’t even supposed to happen, mind you. It was supposed to be a Routine Encounter (So as to Keep Things in the Mind of the Public). Standard issue villainous/heroic contract. An active truce in the guise of a conflict. We hadn’t expected it to break into physical altercation, but these things happen when both contracts include Voluntary Usage(s) of Aggression subclauses, which I should have paid more attention to, given that I was now fifteen minutes late and counting to when I was supposed to meet Harriet at home. She’d taken a half day to be there in person for whatever news would come about Ursula. Who knows what she thought when she arrived home to an empty lair.
James, seriously. Answer my calls, please. I’m starting to worry, another text read.
In additions to the texts, she’d called me two times before, and a third right after that last message came in. I wanted to pick up and just lay everything out on the line, because I was far past the point of any subtle reconciliation. I had never intended to keep this from her for so long But I was busy keeping Droney airborne, and it took all of my diminishing hand-eye coordination to maintain that. Every single one of his arms were presently engaged, minus the one Chicken Little had lopped off with a well-placed kick, and each one required the dexterity of a preteen FPS player to operate with any subtlety. I’d given up on any offensive use of Droney, as it was barely possible to keep him in the air. Brennan had clearly noticed, but as Derelicte, he wasn’t going to cede any ground to his adversaries by saying anything. Half the business was the visuals, especially on the villain side of things. Heroes defended things. Villains upended them, and upending could look a lot of different ways. What it didn’t look like, however, was a glitching drone jerking through the sky like a drunken bumblebee.
I’d backed myself into a corner. And from that position, there’s only one play left: surrender.
I really have to go, I typed to Derelicte. I’m terribly sorry. I told my wife I’d be home right now, and I’m not. Our bat is sick. Or maybe sick. She has a vet appointment, for a biopsy. Again, I’m really sorry. Sorry.
I waited for him to type something back, which he could do with some mental wavelength reader that I didn’t fully understand. I expected him to excoriate me, to maybe even fire me on the spot. Which he ended up doing, in a sense.
“Enough!” Derelicte shouted.
According to the International Guidelines Pertaining to Encounters Between Heroes and Villains:
When either Hero(es) or Villain(s) announce(s) ‘Enough,’ either as a singular utterance or as part of a larger Monologue/Quip, both parties are to enact and respect a ceasefire until the resultant dialogue is completed and a logical Resumption of Conflict is reached, either by verbal or physical initiation.
Violations of this statute resulted in a hefty governmental fine, not to mention isolation from the union. And so, Beefer, Chicken Little, and Droney all came to a halt.
“We’ve gone on quite enough, Beefer, don’t you think?” Derelicte said. “And it’s time we put away childish things. Just you and me, now. Mano-a-mano.”
Derelicte leveled his Hand Cannon in the direction of Beefer and Chicken Little, only to grin malevolently and turn his crossfires on me. My video feed promptly cut out, which I realized, after briefly assuming the WiFi had finally given up on me, meant Brennan had blown Droney to smithereens.
I called an Uber while packing up my things and hoped my wife would forgive me. I had nothing to show her for my lateness, except, perhaps, that her father had been right about me.
Harriet, to her everlasting credit, listened attentively and waited for me to finish before saying anything. When I was done, she took a deep breath and began, calmly but tersely.
“James, I’m going to say this as nicely as I can.”
Here she took another pause.
“I cannot begin to guess what you were thinking with this,” she said. “Why didn’t you tell me before? And why did you even take it? We’re not struggling financially.”
“It wasn’t about the money,” I said.
“Well then, what was it about? Enlighten me.”
In villainy, when engaging with the hero, this is where you would deliver your most devastating line. The one where you unleash the most succinct and unkind words you can conjure. And in an argument, it’s tempting to do the same. The wrong words sit there, right under the surface, so spiny and mean they beg to be released, to wreak havoc on someone other than yourself. But this isn’t villainy. It’s matrimony. So you stop and dig for what’s below all that: the truth.
“I—,” I began. “I was struggling with being at home, okay?”
“What do you mean?”
I looked at her in disbelief.
“You’re going to make me say it?” I asked.
“I’m being sincere, James. I honestly don’t understand. I need to know what it was that made you think, Gee, you know what would be better than working a little here and there and keeping up with the lair? A part-time gig as a sidekick in a quadrant of the industry I don’t even have any experience in! Boy, that sounds—”
“Thanks, Harriet,” I said. “Yeah, real nice. Real nice way to engage with this.”
She stood up from the couch at this point, hands outstretched in frustration.
“Then tell me!” she yelled.
“Fine!” I yelled back. “It’s because you were working, and I wasn’t. And I can’t handle the fact that all I do is take Ursula for walks, read the goddamned news, and apply for a few jobs every day. I don’t contribute anymore, Hare. I don’t pull my weight. You can’t see why I’d rather be working?”
“Of course I can see that! What I don’t get is why you were so eager to start working that you’d take a job you didn’t even feel comfortable telling me about. Something would’ve come along eventually, James. But you clearly weren’t looking for eventually, you were looking for now. And for what?”
I couldn’t look at her, I was so angry. Instead, I fixed my gaze on our blank TV screen, seeing my darkened reflection staring back at me, like something out of an Origin Story.
“You’d do the same thing if you were in my position,” I said.
“Would I? Would I, James? Well, since we’re playing pretend right now, let me join in. If you were in my position, you wouldn’t do the same thing. You wouldn’t keep going back to work at a place that makes you feel crazy and stressed 24/7. I hate it at ADC, but I do it for us, so we can keep a roof over our head and a cave over Ursula’s. So, no, James, I don’t think you would do the same thing as me, which is to suck it up and go to work each day. You know, with all your thinking and scheming, you’d think you would come up with the obvious conclusion that maybe, just maybe, I don’t love my job any more than you love sitting around the house and occasionally walking our bat.”
It seemed as though she was finished, but then she added:
“Which, for the record, I would love to have the time to do.”
I waited and listened penitently, at some point shifting my gaze from the TV to her.
“I’m sorry, Hare,” I said. “I know it was selfish. And I know how bad ADC has been for you. I’m sorry for discounting that.”
“It’s okay,” she finally whispered.
“I mean it,” I said.
“And for what it’s worth,” I said. “I definitely don’t have that job anymore.”
She glared at me, with no hint of a smile beneath, as sometimes there is.
“Wrong time for a joke,” I said. “Sorry.”
“I’m being serious, James. Some days, I wish I could swap places with you.”
“No, you really don’t,” she said. “And you know what else you don’t know?”
I knew better than to respond.
“How to hold down a job as a drone,” she said.
And we both laughed, and the laughter, like a serum, dissolved the argument into conversation. And that conversation led us to an idea. A plan. Or should I say, as always, it led Harriet to an idea.
I was out walking Ursula, still ten minutes from home, when I got a text from Harriet.
Where are you? Requesting backup.
I texted her my location and a bat emoji. She texted me back a thumbs up and a laptop. Seeing that, I hurried through the rest of Ursula’s walk, which she clearly took umbrage with.
Six months had passed since Derelicte fired me. Ursula’s biopsy had come back negative for anything cancerous. She was just an old bony thing, it turned out. Nothing had changed for her except for a somewhat slimmer perimeter for our walks. Things for Harriet and I had changed significantly, however. She’d quit her job at ADC, which ruffled their feathers in no small way. But that wasn’t our problem now.
The two of us had founded Veggie Ventures, LLC. Our operations were modest, but with a decent loan from one of Wallace’s connections (“Really? Again?” he’d said on the phone), we were able to get into a corner of the market nobody else had tackled quite yet: an NEO that also doubled as an incubator. In addition to our heists and various wrongdoings, we provided consultancy to would-be villains in the environmental/animal rights quadrant, duos or otherwise, as they entered a saturated market. A few of our earliest clients had some immediate and marketable successes, particularly a group of five animal rights villains who dressed up like Power Rangers and called themselves The Slaughterhouse Five. It was our idea for them to leave behind a calling card that read Life is no way to treat an animal. Needless to say, it helped them make a name for themselves, which in turn helped us make a name for ourselves.
Harriet had taken up the moniker “V.” It didn’t stand for anything in particular. It just seemed vaguely threatening and matched the vegan villainy Veggie Ventures undertook. She had a whole new getup for the persona (a dark green bordering on black kevlar-reinforced suit, with an appropriately leafy headpiece), and we’d carved our way back into antagonizing the Midwest’s meat industry. It helped that the Beefer was eager to take on contracts against us again. Post-Whopper, he’d been really successful, and while our contracts forbid us from any kind of direct coordination or collusion with heroes, I’d like to think our rivalry had real chemistry, which would account for how many times we’ve been pitted against him already.
Well, I say we, but I’m no longer in the field. Not exactly. I work from home these days, assisting V as “Veg-E.” Yes, I’m still doing the drone shtick. Apparently my main issue with Droney wasn’t that he was a drone, but that his counterpart was someone I didn’t give a rat’s genetically-modified ass about. Now, swooping in behind Harriet, I really enjoyed the remote work. What a difference a change in boss makes. It didn’t hurt that Veg-E was fully solar-powered, which I took pride in.
Hanging up Ursula’s harness and setting out a few raspberries out for her, I rushed to the Control Center to log into Veg-E’s interface. Harriet, in the field, launched me from her backpack, and as I took to the sky, my visuals came up on the screen. I saw Beefer and Chicken Little going 2v1 against my wife. As I cut at the air with my hedge clippers, careening about the sky with more abandon than I’d ever attempted with Droney, everyone paused for some quips.
“Let’s even the playing field,” V said, announcing my arrival.
“You’ll never win!” Chicken Little cried.
I was about to have Veg-E say something like Filthy carbon consumers or Veg-E is read-E, when I saw Harriet mouth something to me. You got this, she said inaudibly, and it took everything in me to keep Veg-E from welling up.
Grayson Morley is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a winner of the 2018 PEN/Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. His work has appeared in the Brooklyn Review, the Iowa Review, the Masters Review, and elsewhere. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and teaches creative writing and composition at Rowan University.