Short Story: “With a Sigh, the Villains Saved the World”

There would be no more saving. The heroes were done. They stripped off their eye masks, trashed their ray guns and capes.

And if the world disapproved, it should have thought about that before it commenced yet a new round of self-annihilating shenanigans.

After its most recent caper involving a cult that worshiped tree ants, the time had finally come. Humanity needed to start solving its own damn problems.

Heroes after all had meek, shockingly vulnerable alter egos to look after. They were getting behind on their rent and were in danger of losing their poorly paid jobs at newspapers and research labs.

When the heroes retreated the villains rejoiced. They had always known that the heroes were just pious poseurs who cared more about flexing their deltoids than saving humankind.

A new age of evil honesty had arisen. The power vacuum would soon become a portal into paradise for the villains and a glorious nightmare for everyone else.

While the heroes were donating their colorful tights to thrift shops, the villains dusted off their old, previously thwarted plans for world domination: the seismo-plungers, the asteroid magnets, and the arboreal de-oxygenators—devious devices with which they could hold the world hostage for vast sums.

Sanguine about their nefarious prospects, the villains rubbed their pale, oily hands together, their eyes gleaming beneath secretive lids.

But when the villains finally promulgated their threats on their new website called “The Very Villainous Venue,” they met a baffling surprise: no one believed them.

Even after they had diligently demonstrated their seismo-plunger by obliterating a remote island in the South Pacific, they could not convince anyone that the earthquakes actually came from them—even after they televised everything. “Deepfake,” shouted the skeptics.

The humans who did believe the threat blamed each other. A subset of humanity argued that the earthquakes represented the impending wrath of God. Some even averred that there should be more of them. What better way to vanquish the heathens? The earthquakes were a warning—a precursor to divinely decreed eternal torture.

The villains were furious that God was getting all the credit for their diabolical schemes. They had put a lot of careful thought into them.

To compound their chagrin, the villains had to shutter their asteroid magnet. Their plan to escape to the moon right before the crash had gone amok.

All of the lunar real estate had already been claimed by a gaggle of multi-billionaires, who had moved there to escape the Earth, which was overheating—due in large part to their own actions.

The villains realized with growing alarm that they had work to do if they wanted their machinations to have any meaning. Threatening the scientifically illiterate masses was not going to work.

Before enacting their plots, they needed to combat disinformation so that they could seize full credit for their misdeeds.

Before the villains unleashed havoc upon the earth or demanded a hefty ransom, school children—and their parents—needed a solid grasp of science. What was the point in introducing an asteroid magnet if no one knew what an asteroid was?

With a collective sigh, the villains sank deplorable sums of their ill-gotten cash into science education. To circumvent cognitive dissonance, they reminded themselves that a true virtuoso of villainy had to play the long game.

But their plight went beyond asteroids. Even when the villains threatened to de-oxygenate the trees, they faced another grave impediment. The trees had, due to many human-induced fires, began to spew more carbon dioxide than they emitted oxygen.

However, no one with any power to act believed that either. They blamed everyone but the true villains. The political parties blamed each other. Ardent members of various religious denominations accused different faiths. They blustered and dissembled and pontificated until no one knew what was true anymore.

The villains had a grave epiphany. Why had it never occurred to them? It was they—and not just the rest of humanity—who faced an existential threat.

Even if they managed to eject the billionaires from the moon and seek refuge there after obliterating the world via asteroid magnet, there would thereafter be no recipients for their cruel schemes.

One thought in particular kept them up at night pacing the floors. What if the villains had to do good things to make destroying Earth worth their while? What if—to properly destroy the world—they first had to behave? What if they temporarily had to save the world?

After all, if the world was self-destructing anyway, who needed villains? Their diabolical clout was evaporating.

With a woeful collective sigh, the villains resolved to teach science to the masses so that they would understand subjects such as asteroids, oxygen deprivation, and seismology.

That way, when the villains threatened mass earthquakes, the world would gasp in horror.

Although the villains hated the idea of doing anything good, they tried to be philosophical about their plight. A true villain was not some hack but an artist of chaos.

To take anything away from humanity, the villains had to first give them something to lose. Like soup kitchens, a living wage, a science education, and equal health care access.

In short, to pull the rug out from under humanity, there had to be a  rug.  “Long game,” the villains reminded themselves when someone treated then to a syrupy thank you for some dubious do-gooding. Life was suffering after all.

So much effort! If only the heroes had never retired! The villains began to wonder if maybe the heroes had been playing them all along. How had confirmed villains ended up running soup kitchens, teaching geology to kids, and erecting shelters for the homeless?

“Long game, long game,” they reminded themselves. And the villains formed a support group to help them recover from the self-inflicted trauma of altruism.

After a decade of grudging labor, everyone in the world finally understood science. Most everyone was well-fed and could go to the doctor if they needed to. There was no more poverty and the most pernicious diseases were in retreat.

The plants were producing oxygen again, and not noxious vapors that smelled like burning hair. Art flourished. Smiles replaced sadness. And everyone finally knew what an asteroid was.

“At last,” the head villain said, “we have given the ordinary humans much to lose. We have fed the indigent. We have vanquished disease. We have saved the reckless world from self-annihilation. We have even become vegans to show our future victims how peaceful we are.

“Now: Our reward will be to watch them writhe and suffer as we snatch their prosperity away. Heh, heh, heh, at last the time has come to destroy the world.”

Of course, the villains had to warm up first. They prepared to unleash long-awaited explosions of diabolical laughter that would ring around the world.

The trouble was that the villains felt kind of unmotivated. After so many years of working to save the world that they were going to destroy, they were too exhausted to laugh very hard, and a giggle was just not going to cut it.

The more appropriate bellowing laughter would have to wait at least until morning came. So would the asteroid-magnets and the seismo-plungers and the oxygen-devouring arboreal vegetation.

For now, all the villains could do was curl into a ball on the cots they had set up for the homeless and rest for the night. In the morning they would awaken to a new dawn of villainy. Really, they would!

“Long game, long game,” they whispered to themselves. Then, with their bellies filled with warm vegan-approved soy milk, they drifted into a dreamless sleep.