Week 80

Putin rode north, stopping only to fill the Yunker with petrol. Gradually, he stilled his mind until the ride became meditation.

The fields of Ukrainian winter wheat stretched endlessly on either side of the highway, glowing golden in the setting sun.

“Nice place, the Ukraine,” thought Putin. “It would be a shame if anything were to happen to it.” Again he stilled his mind, and rode on.

The lone figure on a motorcycle was the only one on the highway for hundreds of miles, but traffic picked up as he approached the Kara Sea.

He was pleased to see Gazprom company trucks coming and going as if the faux drilling platform—the entrance to his fortress— were real.

He parked the Yunker amid a rank of fake workers’ vehicles, climbed into the submersible, and began the descent.

When he emerged from the airlock below, he found Pulpo Paul waiting for him. Of course the psychic octopus had anticipated his arrival.

Paul saluted as smartly as his exoskeleton “walking suit” would allow. “Greetings, Sir,” he thought.

“War Bear Snowy is waiting in sick bay, and is prepared to tend to your wounds.”

Putin looked down at the gash on his arm where the old babushka had hit him with her scythe. The cut was still seeping a little green blood.

Other than that, the five old women had not done much damage. Putin looked about the receiving bay, and nearly smiled.

The Fortress of Opulence was finally complete, and it was perfect, in the way that things can be perfect. The Putin Pals, however …

The Pals had been disobedient—almost mutinous—but they were still his team, his agents, his troops for the Great Battle to come.

Perhaps perfection was too much to ask of them. Perhaps it was only he, Putin, who could achieve that high standard.

They would have to be punished—discipline was essential in any fighting force—but perhaps … suddenly he realized the octopus was listening.

“Thank you, Pulpo Paul,” Putin thought, addressing the psychic cephalopod formally, careful to keep his thoughts neutral.

“The wound is minor; it can wait. There are important things we must discuss. Assemble the team in the briefing room at once.”

“Aye, Sir!” the octopus thought, saluting again before moving off down the hallway to gather the Pals, creeping along in his walking suit.

Putin watched the cephalopod’s progress, and estimated he had an hour before the briefing: time to wash up and change his clothes.

As he walked to his quarters, thinking of the battle to come, he felt a calm assurance settle over him: The Putin Pals were ready.

Week 81

Fifty-nine minutes later, all the Pals were assembled in the briefing room. One minute after that, Putin entered and took his seat.

The air was tense. The last time they sat here, many had feared Putin would disband the team. Everyone waited for the leader to speak.

For agonizingly long minutes he simply looked over a stack of papers in his hands. He carefully read and reread a number of them.

Snowy nervously picked fuzz from her fur, Black Ops stared at Pulpo Paul with his weird goat eyes, and C-4 gnawed on a tiny rubber clown.

Finally Putin looked up. He scanned the room, making eye contact with each Pal, and then began his briefing. “The end is near.”

“As you know, I formed this team without knowing the specifics of the threat we faced. The situation is clearer now.

“We face not one enemy but three: a secret cabal of the world’s elite, an alien empire both vast and ancient, and, finally, …” *THUD*

Everyone turned to the source of the interruption: C-4 had been so excitedly chewing her clown toy, she’d rolled off her chair!

The little pup yapped happily when she saw all the Pals looking at her. Murder Cat gently plucked her up and set her back in her place.

Putin stifled a smile. For a moment, C-4’s playful antics had provided a respite from the terrible gravity of the Putin Pals’ situation.

“As I was saying,” Putin continued, “Our first threat is the Order, an organization thousands of years old and unimaginably powerful.

“Its members are some of the most powerful people on earth—titans of industry, finance, and media—wealthy, ruthless masters of dark arts.”

As he spoke, Putin clicked through slides in a PowerPoint presentation projected behind him. Each one showed a known member of the Order.

A photo of Dick Cheney, then a star wipe transition, then a photo of robot scorpion Walt Disney, then a glitter transition, then Kanye West.

Finally, a giant question mark appeared on the screen. “Their leader’s identity is unknown. I’ve only seen references to ‘The Fetid Lord.’”

Putin paused, and Black Ops raised a hoof to ask a question. “What is the goal of the Order? What do they want?” Putin nodded.

“They want the same thing all powerful men want: more power. They long to see the Earth burned black, and all its creatures in chains.”

His words hung in the air like the sweet aroma of toilet bowl cleaner; the Order was both revolting and enticing to Putin’s brave warriors.

“I’ll pick my teeth with their bones!” Murder Cat growled. “I’ll eat them like tin cans!” retorted Black Ops. “Yap! Yap!” yapped C-4 gaily.

“So you will,” said Putin, proud of his fearless team. “But they were not always evil. In the beginning, the Order were liberators.

“I will tell you of their origin, and also the nature of the other threats we face.” He turned off the projector and began his story.

Week 82

“Millennia ago, Earth was a colony in an empire of alien Insekts, the Hive. Humanity was enslaved, toiling from birth until death.

“The Hive devoured the planet as a swarm of locusts does a field of maize, while humans cleared forests, hunted animals, mined metals.

“One day, a group of men laboring in a cave uncovered a strange idol. Touching it, they inadvertently summoned an ancient god.

“The Old One was a being from a universe far greater than ours, and its arousal caused a psychic explosion of terrible power.

“Most of the men died instantly, liquified brains oozing from their ears and noses as they slumped to the dirt. Only the strongest survived.

“From this awful being, the miners learned of magic—an irrational technology with transdimensional science beyond their comprehension.

“These men became a band of powerful sorcerers, and worked secretly and tirelessly to organize a resistance to their alien overlords.

“When the uprising finally came, humanity suffered devastating casualties. But eventually they triumphed over the Hive.

“By the time the final Insekt ships withdrew, only three sorcerers still survived. They debated how to use their great capabilities.

“Rather than rule from above, they chose to guide mankind from below, subtly using their wisdom and magic. They called themselves the Order.

“Centuries passed, the original members indoctrinating a successive generation, and those teaching others still.

“In time, however, the secret society changed. Members, increasingly drawn from the ruling class, grew to disdain humankind.

“The Order forsook its original mission to guide, and instead began quietly to rule. Members discussed re-enslaving the world.

“Meanwhile, the Hive did not forget its defeat. It sent spies to Earth, and soldiers to probe the Order’s weaknesses.

“The Order remained vigilant, fighting Insekts in small skirmishes, both on Earth and on other worlds. Queen Mantis observed, and planned.

“And in another time and space, parallel to our own, a third power began to salivate over the potential taste of this blue-green world.

“A Great Old One, rival to that which had enlightened the first members of the Order, slowly roused from slumber, compelled by vast hunger.

“This creature longed to feast on suffering, devouring not just planets, but galaxies. It was a threat to both the Order and the Hive.

“When the two foes learned of its existence, they formed a truce, and combined ancient magic with alien technology to build a super weapon.

“But their project was not completed. Before the weapon’s gestation period concluded, it escaped the Hive’s Brood Ship. The weapon …”

Just then, Putin’s story was interrupted by a deafening groan and the shrieks of bursting steam pipes and ripping steel.

Week 83

“Battle stations!” Putin bellowed, his face glowing in the warning lights’ red strobe like the war god Mars. The Pals did not hesitate.

The team leapt from their chairs and sprinted out along the main passageway. Paul closed his eyes and began probing the sea with his mind.

“View screens up!” Putin shouted, and dozens of monitors with live video feeds from around the fortress appeared, surrounding him.

As another blow reverberated through the Fortress, Snowy grasped the bulkhead to steady herself then rushed to seal the leaking hull.

Down the passageway, Black Ops’ hooves clattered and slid on the metal floor as he raced to man his torpedo turret. C-4 chased her tail!

“Stalin help us!” Putin muttered as he stared at a view screen that showed an enormous kaiju peacock mantis shrimp battering the hull.

The rainbow-hued beast retracted its raptorial claws, preparing to strike the hull again. Just then, Putin saw two white blurs streak by.

Peaches and Herb, encased in their new battle armor, tusks glinting in the searchlights, were charging straight for the shrimp’s eye stalks!

Peaches landed a direct hit, her tusk obliterating one of the shrimp’s eyes with its 16 color-receptive cones. Herb was not so lucky.

Before he could strike, the kaiju swung and snapped a massive claw, accelerating it to 23 m/s and causing the water to supercavitate.

The sonoluminescent flash blinded Herb, and the shockwave of boiling water knocked him unconscious. “Wheeeee-oop eh-eh-eh!” cried Peaches.

She rushed over and began to give him blowhole-to-blowhole resuscitation. The kaiju, its eyestalk leaking blue blood, swam toward them.

Just then, Murder Cat appeared in his seahorse-shaped battle mech and fired a barrage of small torpedoes from the craft’s swollen belly.

The kaiju snapped its claws again and a shockwave ripped through the water, detonating the torpedoes harmlessly. “Damn it!” Putin cried.

He spoke to the Pals through the Fortress’s central com system. “He’s too fast to attack one at a time! You’ll have to swarm him!”

Herb began to regain consciousness, and Peaches left him to return to the fight. She and Murder Cat circled the mighty multicolored kaiju.

The massive shrimp shrieked in rage, spinning slowly to keep its lone remaining eye on the Pals. Sensing an opening, Peaches attacked.

The Kaiju prepared to fire a shockwave, but before it could unleash, Murder Cat rushed in and wrapped his mech’s tail around the huge claw.

Enraged, the mantis shrimp reared up and waved its claw, trying to shake off the tiger. The mech stayed attached, but collided with Peaches.

“Bleeee-eeep!” cried Herb, as Peaches tumbled through the water. Inside his seahorse suit, Murder Cat struck his head and fell unconscious.

Week 84

When the mech crashed to the seafloor, the colossal shrimp attacked. One powerful blow from its claw shattered Murder Cat’s suit.

Suddenly, the kaiju staggered back as if it had been struck, then staggered again. Watching his monitors, Putin was baffled.

Then he looked across the room and saw that Paul was missing. He was outside, charging the monster and carrying a scuba tank for MC!

As Paul swam, he battered the mantis shrimp with psychic blows, confounding its primitive nervous system. The creature shuddered and bucked.

The octopus reached Murder Cat and plugged the regulator into his mouth, then pulled his mind away from the shrimp to focus on his comrade.

Still unconscious, Murder Cat was barely breathing. Paul dove into the depths of the tiger’s mind to pull him back to the light.

Though still reeling from Paul’s assault, the giant shrimp began to recover. Its claws moved slowly, but a counterattack seemed immanent.

Still, Murder Cat did not revive, and Paul dove deeper still into his mind. Herb was busy attending to Peaches. All were vulnerable.

The kaiju screamed and charged at the sleeping tiger and the octopus struggling to save him. Raptorial claws readied to unleash doom.

But before the beast could strike, Snowy appeared. Powerful, graceful strokes propelled her through the dark, frigid water.

Snowy darted into the shrimp’s path, diving in front of its massive claw, absorbing the blow before it reached a lethal velocity.

The massive forelimb smashed into Snowy’s torso, shattering her ribs, but the great War Bear merely gritted her teeth and kept her focus.

She clamped her huge paws onto one of the kaiju’s claws, braced her legs against the massive limb, and heaved with all her might.

The creature tried to shake her, but Snowy held on tight. She felt the tough exoskeleton flex, then crack, and then shatter.

When the limb broke, Snowy tumbled backwards, still clutching a piece of the claw. Gushing blue blood clouded the water around her.

Snowy moved to finish the fight. Kicking off the seafloor, she lunged up, holding the monster’s long claw tip like a spear.

On the seafloor, Murder Cat opened his eyes and took his first deep breath. Paul turned his mind to the future, and saw Snowy. “Oh, no!”

Brave Snowy was almost touching the creature’s mandibles before she slammed her spear deep into its mouth and felt it break into the thorax.

The beast reared up, thrashing in agony. One of its legs spasmed and its barbed tip collided with Snowy’s face. She fell, clutching her eye.

“Noooo!” Putin yelled as he watched his monitor. In his mind, he heard Paul say, “She’ll survive. We all will, because of her.”

“You’ll pay for this, Mantis!” Putin thought, as he ran to the airlock to bring in his valiant team.