Monday, May 23, 2016

Valhallopolis: 5/16/16 - 5/22/16

"I'll hum the song the soldiers sing / As they march outside our window"

(Thor and undead allies)

(Art by the Lemonade Project)

* * *
19
* * *

Monday: 5/16/16

At first all he can see is the trees, swaying. 

Large pines, off somewhere. Waving this way and that, like they're caught in some kind of storm. 

He can't hear the storm, oddly enough. He feels cold and wet, but he isn't sure if it's rain or not. 

He can't move his head to look up at the sky. He can't turn his body to face the direction. 

He just lays there, on the ground -- cold and wet and so very weak -- and watches the trees sway, now illuminated by crackles of what might be lightning, or maybe explosions of some kind. 

Maybe both. 

If he thinks hard enough, he can remember why he knows it's both. He can remember the battle that's raging around him.

He can remember why he's lying here, on the ground -- wet and cold and unable to move. 

Someone stumbles into his field of vision. A Russian soldier, torn and frayed, walking like each step might be his last before he just drops his hands, lets his guts fall out of his chest, and follows them down to the ground. 

There, that did it. He trips over something and goes face-first into the dirt. Twitches once, then twice.

He doesn't do it a third time. He's gone. 

Wait, maybe not. He's moving again. 

He gets to his hands and knees. Looks up, then around. 

His eyes. They're white as milk. Skin grey as canned mushroom soup. 

("...all we can afford, dear," his mother is saying. Brother laughs when he cries...)

Black crud drips from between rotting teeth. Fingers tipped with long, sharp nails. 

The corpse raises itself up and shouts to the sky. He still can't hear anything. 

He can just see that it must be a loud shout -- the soldier's spraying black, chunky mist from his mouth from the effort. 

Then the corpse walks back over him, like he's not even there. Strides back into battle, guts out and all. 

Only now, he'll be on the other side. 

Now he'll be fighting his allies, his friends. The heroes who came here, this day.

The people fighting the Aesir, their deranged human allies, and their hordes of undead.

("...must share this power with your brother," his dying father says, but one look at Joey and he knows that's a mistake...)

Then the world goes as bright as the sun, then as dark as night. He feels his body jerked one way and the other. 

He lands, he thinks. He's facing a different direction. 

Still cold, still wet. Still unable to move. 

The battle. He can see it now. And it's horrible. 

("... we'll just have you pretend to die, is all," SPYGOD explains to the group: "What do you !@#$ing know about short-lived replicants...?")

Zombies rush and rage, brandishing swords and clubs and spears. The Aesir move among them, striking key blows and sliding back into the hordes of living and dead. 

And his own people? He sees very few of them. 

American Steel, flying above it all. Firing, screaming, wondering why they won't stay dead. 

Hanami, beside him. Dropping down to tangle with Aesir when she can. Not doing too well, but giving as well as she can. 

Dragonfly, there in the middle of the fray. Hands and feet moving faster than he can see.

Beside her, Red Wrecker takes the ones that get through. Punching low where her ally kicks high.

Beside her, Dr. Uncertainty, firing some strange weapon at the dead. It looks like tin cans attached to a large Geiger counter -- it very well may be. 

And there, not far away -- the source of the winds, the lightning, and the rain. 

It's Mr. USA and Thor. They're still going at it, however long later. 

Trading hammer blows and fist strikes so strong the world shakes, and yet neither deign to drop. 

He watches this, now. Unable to move or close his eyes. Cold and wet and all too still.

Oh.

The wet is red and thick. The cold inside and out. 

The stillness nearly complete, as each breath comes slower than the last...

("... the helmet is your power. Always wear it. Never lose it. And never ever hit something you don't intend to...")

Pieces. It's in pieces. The weird rock it was made of crackles and shines.

He must have finally hit an immovable object with his unstoppable force. 

The hammer. Of course. He would have rushed at it, wouldn't he?

He would have tried to save his friend from having to kill another friend, here and now...

The helmet is in pieces. His skull is shattered like an egg. No wonder he can't move, or hear.

It's a wonder he's not dead, yet. 

("... right down your throat you goddamn son of a-" he says, just before the hammer hits him-)

Oh, now he can hear something. Buzzing. A cloud of something, buzzing. 

Lights, ahead of him. The world is going red-grey and still, but still there are lights. 

Dragonflies. Hundreds of them. Thousands. 

Inside the cloud, wrapped in her purple cloak -- there she is. The one they don't like to talk about, but is glad to have on their side. 

The Living Dead Girl.

"You know I hate that name," Tombo says, pulling her cloak back as she comes closer. Red, luscious hair -- curly and long, spilling every which way in the breeze her insects make. 

"No, please," he says, somehow able to talk again: "My body. They'll use it. They'll use me against them..."

"Yes, they will," she says, walking right up to where he sits -- still and wet: "And I'm sorry. But if it's any consolation, your powers are gone. You'll be just another shambling biter, and they're doing a good job dealing with them...

"Yes, you are," she whispers, looking over her shoulder at one knot of colored motion in particular, as if proud of her handiwork. 

"Please," he begs, crying worse than he did the day he learned that his brother had turned to crime: "Just one more chance. Just let me do this. Let me save them."

"I can't do that," Tombo says: "But you're the only one of the team who dies today. Take some comfort from that."

There's a loud explosion, and something not unlike a scream is heard over the entire battlefield. 

"What the hell was that?"

"That's... not something you have to worry about, now," she says grimly, shaking her head sadly.

"Is it what's going to happen?"

"Who says it hasn't already?" she sighs: "Time's all muddled up, here. Past and future, present and possibility. We look to the world of the living to say goodbye, or watch, but all we can see is a jumble. A stack of photographs knocked over onto the floor. 

"They call you a ghost, but from our perspective it's the world that's gone all funny and rotten."

He doesn't know what to say to that. He looks around, wondering if he can still see pieces of the helmet from here. 

But he can't. He can't really see anything, now. Just a red-lit road with a couple thousand flashes of light on it. 

And the lights are growing fewer all the time...

"Did I..." he tries to ask, the words not coming easily: "Please tell me I made a difference. Please tell me it wasn't all just stupid costumes and fighting. I lost my family, my brother... friends. I've lost so much, and now I'm !@#$ing dead and I don't know if it was worth it."

"I can't tell you if it was worth it," Tombo says, looking around: "That's a decision you have to make for yourself. Maybe not today, maybe not in a hundred thousand years. But the worth of your life is in the eye of the beholder, and when history is dust and hearsay, and you alone can tell the tale of your life, you'll be the only judge.

"What I can tell you is that everyone makes a difference," she continues, looking down at him: "Everyone. Kings and queens. Heroes and villains. The great and the good and lowly and the bad. People everyone knows, and the ones no one can remember. 

"All of us have our part to play, great or small. 

"And this was yours."

Does that cheer him up? No, not really. What really could at a time like this?

But it does make him think. It makes him consider.

It makes him understand that maybe this isn't so bad, after all. 

And when Tombo reaches out her hand, and says "Kevin, come with me to ((GREAT MYSTERY))," while might take him a second or two to comply, Blastman does -- deciding that, for good or ill, he died here, today, and maybe that's the way it was always going to go.

That and when your time truly comes, there's no arguing with death...

And then they're moving along with the glowing cloud of dragonflies, far and away from here.

And then they're gone.

Tuesday: 5/17/16

"Yeah, an evac would be !@#$ing nice, right about now," SPYGOD mutters, looking out the very small, very thick window at a city that's been turned into an atrocity exhibition by its new masters.

The Syrian Army communicator he's found is useless. Something tore it apart like it was made of paper, rather than heavy steel and durable plastic -- tossed it into the far corner of the room like trash, along with the pieces of the Al-Hidhah soldiers they hadn't wanted to use for decorative elements.

The headquarters is a shambles, but at least it's still holding, still strong. The small, underground warren of concrete rooms wrapped around steel -- with more steel and concrete on the outside -- is a good model, made to withstand a lot of exterior punishment before cracking.

So it sound have still been intact by the time he and the Mahdi arrived, if only the morons running it hadn't !@#$ing opened the door during the night.

(At least, that's what he thinks must have happened, based on the mess he found when he got in here.)

There's evidence of a firefight in the entrance area. Bullets all over the damn place, along with blood, and the marks of long claws that could rip through steel like flesh.

An explosion, a little further back. Someone must have decided to blow themselves up for the cause. If it worked, there's no sign, but it wasn't a good holding tactic.

If anything, their attackers just swarmed their sorry asses after that.

Every room tells a different story. The skinny armory the forward-thinking locked themselves into, only to see the heavy, steel door get ripped to pieces, then torn from its hinges. The bunks where still-sleeping men died horribly in their beds. The office where the base commander shot himself instead of face what turned his men into meat and bone.

(The only whole body left in the whole place, oddly enough.)

And finally the command and control room, where the bravest of the brave made their last stand -- not knowing that their true leader, and his plus one, would come here in a couple days and actually !@#$ing need all the stuff they used to make a rude barricade.

Not that they needed to bother giving a roll-out for the Mahdi. He's long gone by now...

SPYGOD thinks he hears one of those things, out in the distance. A howl that chills his bones and makes him almost lose control of his bladder.

But no. It's just the wind. Or maybe a Russian plane, overhead, looking for more targets in the graveyard that Aleppo's turned out to be.

It's the day. They aren't active now.

They can't be active when the sun is in the sky, banishing them below the ground.

Or can they...?

* * *

As far as magical mystery tours went, this one turned bad almost too quickly to comprehend, much less survive. 

The two of them had been right to hunker down and wait for morning, rather than head into Aleppo with half the day gone, and no idea what they'd find when they got there. Not with the Wendigo in control of the night, there. 

Not with the few weapons they still had in their hands, either. They'd expended half their stolen stash on raiders, zombie viking attacks, and the occasional patrol of one !@#$ing faction or another of this crazy-ass civil war.

(No undead attacks, lately, though. He wonders what happened to make that change...)

So they dug out an existing hole to make it longer and deeper, threw some cover over themselves, and sat down to wait until morning. They kept quiet, as they had nothing they really wanted to say to one another. 

And they tried to ignore the everpresent, otherworldly howling that came from the city -- a terrible reminder of what they'd be walking into, the next day. 

It was a reasonable plan. It should have worked, too. 

Except that they weren't the only ones trying to get into town...

The first sign that the !@#$ was about to go straight down the toilet was when SPYGOD -- on watch, of course -- saw red lights coming straight for their position. Old-style military flashlights with the night lenses on, to cut down on visibility. 

Too bad they were in the hands of a bunch of Syrian loyalist yahoos who didn't know what the !@#$ they were doing. They were making enough noise to alert any decent sniper, much less a city full of carnivorous monsters. 

He'd almost thought to wake the Mahdi, except that he wouldn't have been waking him. He knew the guy never slept -- he just pretended to, perhaps out of politeness, but more likely to try and lull his unwilling ally into a false sense of security. 

(And SPYGOD saw no reason to let the Mahdi know that he knew what the creep was up to.)

But then there was a louder, closer howling. The desert exploded in storms of sand, antler, and claw. 

And all around their rude little shelter were the Wendigo -- bursting from where they'd been hiding, all around them, and preparing to destroy and devour the interlopers...

* * *

"... dumb !@#$er tried to talk them out of it," SPYGOD says, talking to the cracked, unseeing face of Free Fire -- the only remnant of the orange android he could readily identify: "That was a damn sight, let me tell you. 'I am the Mahdi and you will obey me!' Who the !@#$ did he think he was, that guy off Doctor Who?"

The superspy shrugs, looking around the room: "Well, it didn't go too well for him. Lucky for me, I ran the !@#$ away. Just that there was nowhere to run to but the city. And somehow I !@#$ing escaped them all, two nights in a damn row. 

"And the less I !@#$ing talk about how I did that, the better..."

He sighs, grabs the remnants of a rolling chair, and plops his fine, gay ass down into it -- still holding Free Fire's face as though he were Hamlet, delivering a soliloquy to Poor Yorrick.  

"Of course, they might have !@#$ing wanted me to escape. Maybe they wanted to see where I was going. 

"And now that I'm here, well, maybe I'm tonight's !@#$ing entertainment..."

He looks around the room, then down the blood-soaked hall.

He wonders how much work he'll have to do between now and sunset to make this place Wendigo-proof. 

He thinks of how the Mahdi insisted they get here, because there was not only phones for him to call and fix his !@#$ -- all the booby-trapped people, out there in the world -- but some great thing he needed to have secured for the next phase of his big damn plan. 

And he wonders if he can find it, and make it work for him...

Wednesday: 5/18/16

"You have to be kidding me," Dragonfly says, looking out the window of the Russian Army bivouac she woke up in, a few hours ago, and looking at what's going on down the road.

Hearing it, even from here. 

"I wish I was, Gayle," a heavily-bandaged Mr. USA says, not wanting to look anymore: "After everything. After all that. They just never learn."

"No," Hanami says from the chair she's been put into -- shattered legs twitching as her systems try to heal her: "They never do."

And, as if to underscore that point, another cohort of all-too-familiar androids fly overhead, heading for the ring of steel and fire they've made around Moscow. 

* * *

Battle, as anyone will tell you, is intensely confusing.

No one can really say what happened to them with a full degree of certainty, once the bullets and fists start flying. Reality goes sideways, action is all there is, and details get lost in the adrenaline-fueled rush to survive. 

And just as it's incredibly hard to be sure of what happened to you, alone, it's even more difficult to say what happens to others. Even those with electronic brains or total recall are still dealing with their own filters and perceptions, so that what happens around you might as well be postcards from a foreign country you've never visited.

So, even among the Freedom Force -- veterans of scores of combats, large and small -- trying to put a finger on what happened when is next to impossible to do, even after a few days of rest and recovery. 

One thing they can agree on, though: control of the battle really did go out of their hands the moment they realized that Blastman wasn't coming back from the serious blow Thor delivered with that hammer of his.

Of course he would have tried something like that. He always joked about being the human battering ram -- pyramid, in his case.

And when he saw that not even Mr. USA could get the better of the son of Odin in a one-on-one fight, of course he would have tried to swoop in and take the Aesir's head off, or at least knock that damn hammer out of his hand.

Of course he would.

But Thor saw him coming, as he doubtlessly would -- even in the heat of battle. And he stayed his hammer until the right moment, just so he could swing it right at the tip of Blastman's rocky helmet...

The explosion flattened everyone in a fifty foot radius. The living and the dead went flying. Mr. USA tumbled back onto his ass and skidded twice that distance in seconds, actually falling unconscious for a crucial, scary second. 

And when he got back to his feet, and saw the mess the collision had made, he was grimly aware of two things. The first was that Blastman was lying in a bloody heap, some distance away -- not moving, and with his helmet broken into pieces between here and there.

The second was that Thor was still standing, holding his hammer in the exact same position. Not a scratch on him, not a scorch-mark. 

And the smile on his face was as black and evil as anything Mr. USA had ever seen in his nightmares.

That's when the Aesir redoubled, their Odal shocktroops leaping ahead of them into battle. That's when even more zombies came running up, a rotten army squirming between the cracks of the living and the divine.

That's when the dead allies around them came to unlife and joined the other side...

What could they do but fight? It was all left to them, now that strategy and containment had failed. All they could do was simply pound at their foes -- incapacitate the living, obliterate the dead, somehow beat back the gods -- and hope for some sort of miracle. 

But as the waves increased, and the dead multiplied, and the lightning bolts tore through all they held in reserve, they all soon realized that today might be the last stand of many a hero, and many a team. 

Until they heard a noise that they thought they'd never hear again, and looked up to see a nightmare rushing into save them...

* * *

The official story was that nothing had survived the cataclysm at Buryat.

The Metal Plague had been defeated, thanks to Mister Freedom's plan. And the defeated robots had all been inside the complex when it mysteriously self-destructed, denying all its secrets to the Russian government.

Officially, at any rate -- but the truth was much more complex.

The truth was that some traces had yet survived. 

Pieces the Freedom Force had left all over the landscape while defeating earlier, less sophisticated iterations of the self-improving robots. Parts found elsewhere in the world while mopping up. Chunks available for sale on the black market, stolen from private auctions, prized away from governmental lockups and the lairs of would-be world conquerors.

Over the last few months, in secret, the Russians had been reverse-engineering the menace they had unwittingly played host to, for all that time. And while they had not quite understood the transcendent genius behind the machines' workings -- much less fathomed their ultra-sophisticated programing -- they had produced a few working prototypes.

And once they exposed those prototypes to the same rigors of combat they might encounter in a battle with a large, mechanized army, or a few strategic talents, their metal beasts began to learn, to grow, to improve.

And, most importantly of all, to multiply. 

Thus was created the Russian Legion -- reborn from the ash and scrap of the Metal Plague.

And on that day, at what might have been the nation's darkest hour, its leaders decided to unleash the storm of as-yet-untested white, blue, and red androids upon the invaders, and hope for the best.

* * *

That was three or so days ago. Since then, there's been ample time to consider the consequences of that one, single action. 

There hasn't been much else to do, given everyone's condition.

Mr. USA is broken, but healing. Strong bones knit back together, superior muscles lash back to the bone. Even the telling, hammer-head shaped dent in his sternum -- almost enough to crush his heart -- is starting to push out, however painfully. 

Red Wrecker is still unconscious from blood loss and shock. Dragonfly was in the same boat, though her problem seemed to be more to do with over-exertion -- she hardly had a scratch on her whole body. 

No one's sure what's up with American Steel and Dr. Uncertainty. At some point he fell under the weight of the undead, and she swooped in to get her. After that, they've been mysteriously absent from view.

(Had they been forming some kind of relationship? Mr. USA thought he detected some level of familiarity there, between them, but noted they went to great lengths to keep it under wraps.)

Hanami is the worst off. One of the Aesir decided he'd had enough of her swooping in and out of their ranks and took an axe to her pelvis -- several times. She can still fly just fine, but everything below the waist is a mess of cracked skin, exposed wires, and broken gears. 

And then there's Blastman -- though no one wants to talk about him, given what the Russian Legion did to all the undead fighters they encountered. 

There's also all the other heroes -- Russian or otherwise -- who are here with them, recuperating, though keeping track of who's alive, maimed, or dead is not a concern they care to deal with, right now.

They're a little more concerned about the legion of self-repairing, ever-adapting androids that swooped in firing, three or so days ago, and have never stopped shooting since. 

They made short work of the viking zombies -- using flame-throwers and high explosive rounds to turn them into black, sloppy smears and charred parts on the ground. 

Then they turned their attention to the living thugs, who were just crazy enough to run at them. They used short-range, high-energy lasers in a slashing pattern to cut them to pieces -- ensuring their worth as resuscitated casualties would be next to nil. 

As for the Aesir, they suffered heavy losses at first. After all, these were gods of war they fought, and they were merely beasts of plastic and steel. 

But as the initial wave of androids was smashed down, inch by inch, it was replaced by another. And this wave was that much tougher, that much less easily damaged. 

As was the wave after that. And the one after that. And the one that followed that one.  

On and on, wave after wave, until at last the Aesir found they could no longer destroy them with magical weapons, or words of power. Could no longer fry them with lightning bolts, or bursts of heat or cold. 

Could no longer even best them in rude hand to hand combat. 

And them came the horrible moment -- ominous on both sides -- when the gods of battle and Ragnarok heard a horn calling for their retreat, and gladly obeyed...

The respite gave the Russians time to get their wounded from the field, and the heroes time to pull one another out of the fray. And they decamped to an area some distance away, there to sit and wait as the city of Moscow was surrounded by wave after wave of the Russian Legion. 

And each wave linked with the other, to form a wall of machine creatures with one order -- CONTAIN AT ALL COSTS. 

That was three or so days ago. Now the outskirts of the city lie in flaming ruins. Now the dead lie in burning, broken heaps on the streets and bridges. 

Now no one is getting out -- alive or dead. 

* * *

The Russian hero National Man has been by a few times, mostly to check up on Mr. USA, but also to act as a liaison between the teams, the Russian Army, FAUST, and everyone else who'd got a finger in this pie. 

(He doesn't look too bad for having had a magical spear go right through his guts. He's been told the colostomy bag is only temporary, and laughs it off with what might be black humor, or maybe a lot of vodka.)

The last time he stopped by, he said that the Russian Legion was only a stop-gap measure (much like the bag he still needs help putting on). He has been assured that there is no way they are going to allow a massive phalanx of god-killing, self-willed androids to remain operational after this matter has been put to rest.

He says that, and something in his eyes betrays the fact that he doesn't know if it's true.

He says that, and somehow he knows it's a lie. Either because they have no intention of deactivating such a weapon, or they have no ability to do so. 

And every time he leaves them, the Freedom Force members look to one another, remember Buryat, and wonder if the cure for this divine disease isn't going to kill them all.

Thursday: 5/19/16

"Sir, we can mourn later," Josie says, doing her best to appear professional in front of the image of the Interim President, broadcast over the screen in her office on the Flier: "Blastman wouldn't want us to dwell on his death. He'd want us to fight on."

"I know that, Director," Dan Quayle says, looking rather displeased: "He'd also probably remind you that I've been cooped up in your Heptagon basement for far too long."

"Just until we can guarantee your safety, sir. And I know they're taking good care of you."

"Oh, excellent service," the Interim President says: "Your sister Katy's in here all the time, making sure I'm okay. Offering me extra blankets and a pillow. A mint on my pillow."

"Well, sir, after what's been going on back home-"

"Yes, let's talk about that," the President says, tapping his fingers on the bare, metal desk he's been leading the country from for the last couple weeks: "Because to be frank? Right now I could really care less about one dead American hero. Not with a damn space war going on over our heads and this mess in Moscow. That's just the headlines."

"Sir-"

"No Director. You and me? We know what's going on behind the headlines. And that's that my Secret Service has been having a damn field day chasing assassins, and a lot of them are coming from the Secret Service. They're targeting me, my cabinet, the candidates of every major party, and some of the damn minors."

"I saw that, sir," Josie says: "I'm shocked anyone would go after the New Green Party. I didn't even there was a New Green Party until they killed-"

"And do you know what those mother!@#$ers say when we catch them alive?" the man interrupts her, clearly not caring about how the NGP's candidate was blown off her bicycle on the way to a rally anymore than he cared about poor Blastman: "Do you?"

"I did read the reports, sir-"

"They say they're doing it for Allah, Director," the man says, scowling: "They're doing it because the man on the phone stopped calling them, telling them not to do it."

"Which means the Mahdi is dead, or otherwise incapacitated," Josie says, nodding: "Which means SPYGOD's team succeeded in its mission."

"Which means we're going to have the mother of all blowbacks if we can't find out everyone he had on his call list!" Quayle shouts: "It's not just me, Director. It's not just us. It's the whole damn world. I'm getting calls from every major head of state. Their own people are trying to kill them. Their own ministers are sabotaging things."

"I saw that, sir," she says: "Now that we're actually talking with FAUST, thanks to this thing in Moscow, we're more in the loop with Europe. It's a mess."

"Well, hadn't you better do something about it?" the Interim President rages: "Before we all wind up getting nuked by someone that bastard isn't going to be calling in the next couple of days?"

"Yes, sir," she says, nodding: "I've got top people working on it, right now."

"They've got 24 hours to get me an action plan and execute it," he says, pointing a finger: "Or I call for your resignation. And I will not be replacing you with one of your sisters, Director. I'll be bringing in someone who knows what they're doing."

He turns off the phone. She absentmindedly thinks about turning off the oxygen supply to his quarantine cell, but sighs, and disregards that idea.

"You heard all that, gentlemen," she says, turning SPYGOD's team's viewer back on: "That's what we're dealing with."

"That's... pretty bad," Myron says, flanked by Gosheven and Shining Guardsman: "And I don't know what to tell you. Last we heard from SPYGOD, he went in with Free Fire to deal with the guy, and told us to vamoose so we didn't get hit. Then we heard nothing, so we came to the base in Turkey to rendezvous with him."

"And we don't have the slightest idea-" Gosheven starts to say, but then Josie puts her fist down on her desk -- hard enough that something cracks.

"Shut. Up." She hisses, looking very upset: "I've played dumb up until now, but I'm through. I know, gentlemen. I know."

"You know... what?" Shining Guardsman says, hoping having his suit on will make his poker face somewhat convincing.

"She knows," Myron says, shrugging and looking at the two of them, and then back to her: "And as leader of the group, now, I have to take full responsibility. It was one thing while SPYGOD was calling the shots. Now..."

"Now, I'm going to give you one chance," Josie says, pointing the finger of the she didn't just break on her desk: "The President wants a !@#$ing action plan? Well guess what, boys. You. Are. It.

"You got 72 hours to go find me a list. Find me anything I can use. I don't care if it's partial or full. I don't care who's on it. You get that list and you get it to me, and we stop this !@#$ before it gets any worse.

"Or I swear to mother!@#$ing god, the last thing I do as Director of the COMPANY before they toss my big, tattooed ass out of this office is stick you all in a hole in the Heptagon so damn deep down that they might not even remember to !@#$ing feed you!"

She turns the viewer off. Looks at her hand.

"!@#$ goddammit mother!@#$#ing !@#$," she mutters, shaking it and wincing at the pain: "Let's not do that again."

Friday: 5/20/16

"Well, it was not a complete loss," Tyr opines, looking down at the remnants of his latest plan to overcome the angry, mechanical wall that the humans threw up around the city: "At least we now know one thing we did not know before with complete certainty."

"And what is that, brother Tyr?" Heimdall asks, his gold eyes perceiving much -- including how badly beaten their living servants are, even when clad in armor forged from dragons' flame.

"That our thralls are weak-willed and feeble-minded," the God of War says, stepping to the side just as one of the android snipers takes a shot at him -- the blast going wide and hitting some glass and steel tower, somewhere.

"I saw that from the beginning."

"Yes, well, we do not all share your perspective," Tyr chuckles, running a hand through his blood-red hair: "And sight is merely the seeing of things. Seeing is not always knowing."

"And knowing is not always seeing," a dark-complected woman says, striding up behind them. She wears a long cloak of green and black, and holds a leather bag between her two spindly hands.

"You would know of such things, Vor," Heimdall says: "But tell me, seer. What do you make of this? What do the runes say of this?"

"Nothing good," the woman says, holding her bag up: "I have thrown many times, since the day we were bested by this foe."

"We were not bested!" Tyr insists, not deigning to turn and meet her gaze: "And you had best not say as such around Thor, else he shall best your face with his hammer."

"Even the son of Odin knows not to try the hand that throws the runes, good Tyr," Vor says, chuckling as she shakes the bag: "He has learned too well from the words of his father, All-Seeing and All-Knowing."

"Yet for all his sight and knowledge, he lies dead upon the floor in Valhalla," Heimdall says, casting his sight back to that sorry tableau -- far, far from here: "Else we would not be here, under the rule of Vili and Ve."

"There is that, yes," the woman says, turning somewhat pale at the thought of it, and putting a hand to her throat: "A strangeness that was unforeseen. A fate unknown, even to us."

"Feh!" Tyr snorts, finally turning to see her: "Words upon the ground. I need no foresight to guide my sword, woman. Not this day nor any other. And I will find my fate as it comes."

"Then hear the words I have cast upon that ground, Tyr," Vor insists, shaking the bag at the red-haired god of war: "Every cast, every time, the same story unfolds. Evil and temptation. Chaos and unrest."

"Is it to come, then?" Ve asks, appearing from seemingly nowhere -- his eyes turned to blazing balls of fire, his pale hands smoking.

"No, my lord," the woman says, turning and bowing to their leader: "It is here, now. We have entered a time of doom, simply by being here."

"That is known to me," Ve says, gesturing to the wall of metal warriors that surrounds their taken city: "As it is known to us all, surely. This is the fire that precedes the blazing forest. The cough that portends the plague.

"The darkening skies and broken shields that tell the coming of Ragnarok," he hisses, raising his axe high, as if to some point in the sky -- far, far away: "Here and now, in this time."

"My lord, no," Vor says, disregarding the hand of warning that Heimdall holds up before her: "I beg you to listen. You have misunderstood my words. This is not the wolf-time. This is not even a tenth of that black day, when we shall all fall before Fenris, as foretold. 

"This is merely a shadow of that doom. An echo of the war to come. This is not our time.

"But by being here, now? We bring something far worse to this world than the Wolf-Time. We bring-"

Vor doesn't even see his hand as it drops the axe upon her head. And she bursts into flame and becomes ash before she can utter a single scream.

"We bring fire to the world," Ve says, shaking her black god-dust from the edge of his weapon and looking back to their current concern: "Much as untold others before us, only this time the fire shall not merely enlighten. 

"This time it shall cleanse..."

With that, Ve turns and walks away, leaving two gods and a pile of what was once a goddess -- her bag of runes mysteriously untouched.

"You spoke of the difference between seeing and knowing, Heimdall," Tyr says, clearly unmoved by all of this: "Here then is a further lesson, for those who would be wise. The difference between knowing and saying, or merely keeping one's mouth shut."

With that the god of war laughs, and walks away, leaving Heimdall to contemplate things.

And make a decision he's avoided, up until now.

Saturday: 5/21/16

"If you do not do this now, it only gets worse," Mister Freedom says, for what is clearly the seventh time in almost as many days: "I do not know else to say it, my King and Brother. Not in words, not in deeds."

And Lordly Seranu looks to the Olympian -- banished, then recalled -- and turns his head to avoid this weighty decision, once more. He stares at the empty, black throne that their dark brother sat upon, here in the chamber of the Gods, and wonders.

"He has the power to end me," he speaks, at last, turning back with what may be actual fear in his eyes: "The power to end us all."

"Not all of us," elder Synchro says, stroking his long, white beard: "'And with strange aeons, even death may die,' they say."

"He cannot take the dark into itself," shadowy Soubre counsels, though he seems a little dubious at that claim.

"And I'm not letting him turn my night into a travesty," Noyx insists, his round head of hair glowing with the power of the approaching full moon: "Not any more than he already has."

"And if all else fails, you can say I will come to speak with him," Mister Freedom says: "And he knows how that will turn out, should I have to consider his puzzle too complex to solve."

Seranu looks to them all, and then to his sister-wife Kanaan -- still sitting on her throne, her needles jammed into her eyes, her prophecies stilled.

"But I... am unsure," Seranu says, looking away from his sticken queen: "What if he does not listen? What if I am slain-

"You rule because you lead," Noyx finally says, clearly good and disgusted with this sorry display: "If you will not lead, then rule is no longer yours. Is it?"

"I can think of no more direct a thing to say," Mister Freedom says.

"Or more impertinent!" Seranu shouts, clearly unhappy to have his right to be king questioned: "You would do well to watch your rocky tongue-"

"We must be as one!" Synchro says, stepping between them: "Horror comes from the stars! Terror stalks the skin of the world! If we do not do all we can to stand by our pledge to these, our children, then what sort of parents have we become?"

"Bad ones," Seranu sighs, nodding and taking Synchro's hand, and then reaching another out to Noyx: "Forgive me, brother. Forgive me, all of you. I have been afraid, and in my fear I have been foolish."

"Also in your pride and presumption," Mister Freedom says: "But these are matters we can address later, once we have dealt with this matter before us."

"Yes," the King of Olympos says, clearly not looking forward to that conversation: "Then it is decided? I shall go into the black pyramid of Satanoth, there to speak sense to our wayward brother."

"And we shall await outside, should you need us," Synchro says: "All of us on the leeward side of eternity's arc. He shall not dare strike you when we are all close."

Seranu nods at that, but the fear in his eyes is still there. Still clear.

* * *

"What the goddamn hell happened here?" Gosheven says, dancing around the ruined floor of the tent like it was filled with big, evil spiders: "Poor Free Fire!"

"Poor everyone," Myron says, getting some equipment out of the back of the drill tank: "It looks like they got ambushed by the walking dead."

"The Viking Dead, more like," Shining Guardsman says, picking up a helmet and a sword from the moldering corpse on the ground: "Look at this mess. You think they made it out alive?"

"I'd say they did," Myron says, waving one of the equipment pieces around, and then finally stopping in one direction: "Heat sensors are damn near useless out here, but I got the kind that works below ground."

"What's that got to do with anything?" Gosheven asks.

"Well, the further down you go, the hotter it gets," Shining Guardsman says: "Jesus, man. Didn't they teach you any geology in school?"

"I didn't need to go to school to know that," the metamorph says, laughing as he mimes giving a blowjob to an invisible !@#$: "Saturday night at the back of the bar, ladies!"

"Does gaydar work like radar?" Myron says: "Because if you can find SPYGOD's direction that'll be half the damn battle, right there."

"No, it does not work like radar," Gosheven grumbles: "Good Jesus !@#$ing Christ in a pink Easter basket. You guys are so rude."

Shining Guardsman snorts at that, shrugs, and goes back to looking for some semblance of a working computer system. Myron moves about to get triangulation.

And Gosheven -- angry and fuming as he stomps around the outside of the tent -- makes the most important discovery of the whole damn day. 

* * *

The ghost whimpers as it crawls along the ground -- its legs chewed-through stumps at mid-thigh. It looks up at Seranu with a silent pleading in its eyes, as its jaw has suffered a similar fate.

"I told you I would kill you if you came back," Satanoth says, looking down from his ebon seat, dead center in the inverted, black pyramid of his throne room. The lights are all out, and he sits in shadow -- deep and cold.

"I know, brother," Seranu says, holding his hands before him: "I spoke to you rashly, before. I was frightened and worried, for I did not understand. And I did not handle your... your sickness very well.

"And so I come to apologize, and plead with you once more."

"You should not have come, fucker," Satanoth mutters, leaning forward so that his King-Brother can see the full horror of what has happened here.

He has become bloated, the lord of Death -- grotesquely fat, with pendulous belly and breasts. His jowls are pronounced, and wet with the dead blood of corpses and the cold ichor of ghosts.

And the look in his eyes is that of a madman -- just gone insane after seeing the true face of the gods.

"Yes," Seranu says, stepping forward: "I should have. And I should have come before you did this to yourself. Before you fell further into this madness.

"Forgive me, brother. I was afraid."

"And you should still be!" Satanoth screams, leaping from his throne -- his weight seeming to be no impediment -- and landing before his brother and king: "How dare you come before me!"

"I dare!" Seranu says, stepping close enough to allow his brother to do more than return the blow he struck when last they stood before one another, should he care to: "I dare everything, brother, because I am afraid!"

"What?"

"I look to the other side of the world, and I see what they are doing, these newly-returned Aesir, and I am afraid! I see the ruin left of my sister-wife Kanaan's eyes and I am afraid! I see this world slipping from our hands, and into theirs, and I am afraid!

"And I see the doom our exiled brother created, so long ago, as it comes towards this world in pieces, and though we have given these mortals the tools to save themselves I am seeing what these Aesir can do, and wonder what they might do to those tools, and I am afraid!

"And you sit here, in your dark world, and abuse ghosts and their corpses?" Seranu says, gesturing to the throne behind Satanoth: "You, one of our mightiest? You, the one not even I can command?

"Well, brother, I know not what has taken place inside your heart and mind. I know not what malady afflicts you. But I do know that something has poisoned your spirit. You speak not as yourself. You act not as yourself.

"You are being commanded, brother. Even now, some alien spirit squats within your mind, soul, and heart, voiding selfishness and uncaring into the spaces between, and wiping that filth across your virtues when it finishes.

"Are you going to tell me that the Lord of the Dead, who not even I may command, is content to be commanded by the likes of a ghost?"

Satanoth turns purple, then. He howls. He rages and raised his fists, as if to strike.

And then... he raises an eyebrow.

Then furrows both of them, looking one way, and then the other.

"My... oh..." he says, shaking his head as if in disbelief: "I... I am..."

"You are, yes," Seranu says, reaching forward to put his hand upon his brother's swollen belly: "Indeed, if you put your hands upon mine? Perhaps you can feel what I have sensed. The cancer within you. The rot."

"Indigestion," Satanoth rumbles, and then, doing as his brother and king bids, closes his eyes as if in deep concentration.

And then, with a turn of his head, vomits something vaguely humanlike out of his gloriously distended mouth.

"Fuck you..." the ghost of Loreli says, squirming on the floor in a pool of blood, ichor, and half-digested flesh: "You fucking piece of shit faggot..."

"I... remember you," Seranu says, uncertain: "And yet I do not. How can this be?"

"The creature my creature found, killing our children," Satanoth says, remembering the actions of the White City's guardian, once he'd removed her from her god-body: "Somehow, we can now see her. Perhaps because of her time within me."

"I'll kill you..." Loreli goes on, fingers scrabbling for purchase upon the floor.

"I think not," Mister Freedom says, appearing nearby along with the other dark brothers of the Olympians: "Senchro? I think you may have the key to this puzzle."

"That I do," the bearded god of time says, waving his hand. Suddenly the woman on the floor contorts and screams as she is made into a mortal, once more.

And then screams as a hole opens in the floor beneath her, slamming shut not long after she passes through it.

"My realm will give her no further chance of perfidy, or revenge," Mister Freedom says: "Perhaps in time I will learn the true question of her existence. Perhaps I will cure her of the disease, much as you, my brother, have been cured of hers."

"I thank you for that, Brother Restriit," Satanoth says, clearly humbled: "I thank you all."

"Once more, we see that killing does not always solve a problem," Mister Freedom says, somewhat happy to be referred to by his rightful name: "At times it merely makes it worse."

"A lesson we should take some time to digest," Soubre says, becoming immediately crestfallen when no one gets his joke -- or at least cares to acknowledge it.

"There may be no time," Seranu says, looking off in a certain direction: "The world is invaded, my brothers. Laid low by another pantheon, their motives not their own, their actions cruel."

"And usurping of my domain," Satanoth hisses, the skull of his eyes becoming very cross indeed.

"Then we are agreed?" Noyx asks: "We must go show our returned brothers the error of their ways?"

"Oh yes," Seranu says, thinking of Kanaan's blindness, and what most likely caused it: "At the very least." 

Sunday: 5/22/16

"It happens, my lord Ve," Heimdall says, looking around to the southwest. All the other gods atop the roof of the Mayor's former home turn and do the same.

"As we thought it might," Thor spits, patting the handle of Mjolnir: "Let them come. I am eager to taste their blood."

"As are we all," Tyr says, laughing: "Should we stride forth to meet them, or let them endure the wall of fire and steel first?"

The Aesir laugh at that, and Karl -- who lurks nearby, waiting for Ve to command him -- finds himself hoping to every god he can't see that the Olympians kick these people's asses something fierce and hard.

It's about damn time something went right around here...

* * *

... on the main floor of the Heptagon, it's pure bedlam.

AGENTs run every which way but up the damn walls. Pads ring, pages are omnipresent, and everyone needs to talk to everyone else right the !@#$ now. 

Because SPYGOD's team came through, and in a big way.

"They didn't just a list of names the Mahdi got his hooks into, Katy," the recently-awakened real Peg is telling her sister, over her pad: "They found several, all more or less lying all over the floor."

"What do you mean?" the large clone with the green bob cut asks, heading for the secure elevator.

"Well, apparently he had a bunch of pre-programmed phones he was using. He'd use them to call up so many people that day, and then they'd smash them. Only they got caught in mid-call, and all the phones on his desk weren't destroyed."

"Awesome!" Katy says, showing her official pass to the guard and getting in: "So how long before we know everyone?"

"Maybe not everyone, maybe not ever, but they're going through the ones that were destroyed right now, to try and salvage numbers. Who knows what they'll find..."

* * *

"... after a good night's sleep," SPYGOD grumbles, getting up from his makeshift bed, in the most secure room he could make, and heading to the door to be sure he's still alone down here.

No noise. Nothing. He decides to risk it.

He unwinds the claymores, and the other boobytraps. Then he opens the door, just a crack, and looks outside.

"Awesome," he says,  and goes about his morning. Which means taking a long slash and !@#$ in the office with the dead guy (can't smell any worse), making coffee and breakfast using that man's stash of rations, and then going about searching the compound one more damn time to find whatever the hell the Mahdi thought was so !@#$ing important he just had to get his damn self killed getting back to Aleppo.

Unless he was just suicidal...

* * *

"... they have to be," Mr. USA says, looking up at the gold and marble chariot of the Olympians as it flies overhead, and goes towards Moscow.

"I wouldn't be so sure," Hanami says, hobbling along beside him -- her legs are getting better, however slowly: "These are gods, (REDACTED). I am sure they can hold their own in a fight."

"They're not perfect, though," Dragonfly says, knowing their flaws all too well.

"You do not have to be perfect to win the battle, my friends," National Man says: "Merely one step ahead of your opponent..."

* * *

"... Karl Josephson," Heimdall says, waving his hand before the face of the burned young man: "Nor am I your ally. But in this time, at this place, I think I must be your salvation."

"What do you mean?" Karl asks, watching as the others go along the main road -- flanked by their human subjects, and the dead -- to greet the chariot that's just arrived.

"I mean that it is not your doom to die here, commanded by a man who would be a god," the gold-eyed Aesir says, following the black-haired kid's eyes to what's about to happen: "Your true fate lies far afield, and at a more fitting time.

"But should our commander, my king, ask me to say what I see of you? I cannot lie. And you will be dead."

"I don't know what you mean," Karl says.

"Mayhap you do not," Heimdall says, smiling -- his teeth as gold as his eyes: "But I see your hands behind many things unseen, young man. In those moments you are not bidden to act? You take action. You arrange things from afar. You hide objects, and people. You make the truth known to others, as always you did."

Karl nods. Then gulps. He's got him, alright -- dead to rights.

"So go," the god says, waving his hand before him again: "When you see your moment, take it. And be elsewhere, then, and in good and strong company. For the desire to come back and serve shall strike you as it does all others, and you can only free yourself by not being here."

And Karl...

* * *

... exits the elevator, and walks down the long, curving hall towards the quarantine berths.

"Let the President know I'm on my way, as usual." she radios ahead to the guard: "I've got some good news for him..."

* * *

"... where the !@#$ing !@#$ would I !@#$ing hide something secret?" SPYGOD shouts, not caring who hears him. 

The Wendigo know he's here. He's heard them creeping around outside, and howling on the roof of the thing. They haven't figured out how to tunnel in or he'd be dead ten times over, he's sure. 

Still...

"It'd help if I knew what the !@#$# I was looking for," he grumbles, tossing the armor one more damn time: "Bigger than an elephant? Smaller than a dildo? About the size of an elephant dildo?"

He thinks, once more. He considers the ruined door, and what's across from it. 

"If it's too big, how can you turn it in here?"

He goes over to the wall across the door. Taps around. 

Feels something that shouldn't be there...

* * *

"... should you?" Lord Seranu says, looking down at the Aesir from the prow of his chariot: "You said you would not return until your Ragnarok befell this world. But that event is billions of years from now. You know this."

"And you know that all prophecy is in the hands of those it foretells the doom of!" Ve says, pointing a pale, smoldering finger at the lord of the Olympians: "So if we say the Wolf-Time is now, then it is now! And you have no say in the matter."

"Oh, I think we do," Satanoth says, stepping forward, and then leaping down to stand before the Aesir -- most of whom take at least one step back: "Especially when one of you decides to tamper with my domain."

"What would that be, Olympian," Thor chuckles: "Stuffing your face ere your belly splits?"

The skull-faced lord of death steps forward: "Speak that to my face, little thunder god. You will find my reply most interesting."

"Here is mine!" Thor shouts, pulling his hammer out and...

* * *

... smacking her hand on the ID Panel by the door. 

"Well, about time," the Interim President says, sitting at his desk and munching his bowl of oatmeal: "I think we've talked about this, Katy. I need to have a proper breakfast. This Quaker State stuff isn't cutting it."

"I know, sir," she says, clearly out of breath. And when he turns to see what's up, he sees why. 

She's clearly been in a fight. She's bleeding from her nose and her ear, and has stains all over her uniform. 

Other people's blood at a guess.

"What happened?" he asks, dropping the bowl of oatmeal: "Is... did someone just try to kill me? One of your people?"

"Not yet," Katy says, holding up the gun she stole from the guard outside and saying...

* * *

"!@#$ goddamn son of a !@#$," SPYGOD says, gasping at what the armory was holding inside of it -- and who exactly is in the stolen COMPANY cryo-tube: "How the hell? How the !@#$ing goddamned hell are you still !@#$ing alive..."

* * *

... after the beating Thor gives him is unknown. But before the badly-broken Olympian can get to his feet to try and return the favor, Hel steps up behind him and -- with one smooth motion -- shoves her fist through his chest to take out his beating heart.  

And Seranu screams...

* * *

... as she watches her clone sister, Katy, execute the Interim President on COMPANY telecom with six well-placed shots to the face and forehead.

Then she turns, looks at the camera -- perhaps directly at Josie -- and says the words Josie's been afraid she's going to hear since she learned that Katy's number was on the broken phone they just decrypted.

"In the name of Allah, most merciful, most beneficent."

Then she puts the gun to her mouth, and pulls the trigger one last time.

And then...

* * *

... every single necromancer, all over the world, feels their heart seize up for just a second.

... blinded Kanaan begins to weep, knowing full well what is about to happen even if she couldn't see it a moment before.

... Straffer is woken from his sleep to be told that another 8-Ball attack is on the way.

* * *

... and the trees around Moscow sway in the wind, as another storm, even more terrible than the last, begins to brew...

(SPYGOD is listening to Hunger of the Pines (Alt-J) and having a Shorts Bloody Beer

Monday, May 16, 2016

Valhallopolis: 5/9/16 - 5/15/16

"Breezy Shoots with Semi-Famous Freaks / You Say You're Only Taking 5"

(The Mahdi, SPYGOD, and "friends")

(Art by the Lemonade Project)


* * *
20
* * *

"Are you sure you can't stay?" Mr. USA says, following his oddly-dressed ally through the war-torn streets of Berlin. From where they are they can hear the Russian Army celebrating as they destroy the last vestiges of the Third Reich's command.

"I fear that I cannot, my friend," Thor says, turning to regard the destruction, and then the hero who's come to bid him goodbye: "The war is over, now. My time on Midgard is done. From here on out, the race of men must protect themselves." 

"Well, I don't pretend to understand your reasons, but I respect them," the hero says, extending a hand: "And I thank you for fighting alongside us. If it hadn't been for you, I don't know if we'd have gotten off the beach at Omaha, much less made it through parts of France."

"I think that you would, in time," the bearded god says, taking the hand to shake -- his grip is hard and sparkling: "But I am glad to have helped you through this dark time. And should a similar darkness cross the skin of your world? Know that I will return, my ally. On that promise you may depend."

"Thank you," Mr. USA says, taking a respectful step back as the hero indicates he should, and then shielding his eyes as a bolt of lightning takes Thor away from the War -- and the world.

And then there's nothing but the smell of ozone, a burned circle on the ground, and the sense that something amazing and magical has left the world. 

Maybe never to return... 

Monday: 5/9/16

On the edge of the Syrian desert, in the smoking, corpse-strewn ruins of a once-palatial tent, two men stand three feet apart -- each aiming a handgun at the head of the other.

One is tall and scraggly -- black hair swept up and to the side, eyes covered by silvery, small, round sunglasses. He wears a long, black coat stuffed with guns, ammunition, grenades, knives, and dozens of strange gadgets no one can identify except for himself.

(Also a Frankie Goes to Hollywood RELAX t-shirt, tight desert camouflage pants, and black combat boots heavy enough to kick holes in a brick wall.)

The other is a thin, middle-aged man wearing an immaculate black business suit, with a crisp white shirt and black tie underneath. His skin is sallow, as though he'd lost half his blood, the left side of his face is covered with old, rather substantial burn scars.

And his eyes are filled with a terrible understanding. 

"At this range, neither of us can miss," the Mahdi says.

"It'll be !@#$ing worth it to be rid of your sorry ass, you mother!@#$ering bastard," SPYGOD hisses: "How many lives have you ruined?"

"Perhaps as many as you?"

"How many people have you !@#$ed up?"

"Enough to ensure that, when I am dead, even more harm shall befall the world," the leader of Al-Hadhih chuckles: "Even now, my powerful, high-placed servants find themselves wondering why I have not given them fresh instructions."

"You mean like Quayle? We've got him taken care of, you pale !@#$-"

"No, not that fool," the man laughs: "He was merely a means to an end, my friend. Useful, but only up to a point."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean the doer of things," the Mahdi goes on, stepping a foot closer: "Not Presidents, Prime Ministers, or other heads of state, but their many doers of things and makers of policy. The ones who handle the machineries of nations, the armed forces, the weapons too dangerous to be left unattended.

"They are the ones who know where the bodies are buried, and how to add to the pile. They are the ones who know which keys turn which locks, and what lies behind them. They are the ones who know who to call to make the trains run on time, or else crash into embankments and crowded stations. 

"And should too much time go by without my checking in with them? Well... shaytan finds work for idle hands..."

SPYGOD looks at the man he came to this desert to kill. The man who somehow commanded his android ally to self-destruct. The man he then fought wave after wave of god-sent undead viking hordes side-by-side with for a day and a night, until there were no more of them to kill.

And the man who, the second SPYGOD pulled the gun off one of his dead underlings, produced a hidden revolver of his own -- the better to have a proper stand-off in the sand.

And as he looks at him -- and realizes the Mahdi is not !@#$ing lying about this -- he slowly lowers his stolen pistol, and drops it into the sand.

"That is much better," the Mahdi says, lowering his own gun, and then throwing it away: "We need each other, my friend. I need you to watch my back as we cross this desert, to my other hideaway. And you need me alive so I can keep this world from coming apart in my absence."

"When this is over?" SPYGOD promises, pointing a finger: "You are so !@#$ing dead."

"When this is over, we will all be dead, my friend," the Mahdi says, smiling, and turns to point to the west: "In the meantime, I have a supply cache just over that dune. It should have enough food, water, and weapons to get us to where we need to go."

"Which is where?"

"That would be telling," the Mahdi grins, clearly aware of the reference he's making -- and that SPYGOD knows it too well.

"Great," the superspy sighs as he turns away to scrounge what he can from the dead: "He's stealing my damn lines, too..."

As he takes a mostly-unfired AK-74 from one of the Mahdi's men -- cleaved in twain by the sword of an armored zombie -- he looks down at the twitching, orange face of Free Fire.

And...

* * *

"... this is how it !@#$ing goes, you pale !@#$," SPYGOD says, stepping out from behind one of the tent's many, voluminous curtains with a long sword extended towards his prey: "You put that damn phone down. You put your !@#$ing hands up. And you don't move or speak until I tell you to."

"Or what?" the Mahdi says, putting the satellite phone down. He seems to have a lot of them, all spread across the ornate, antique desk of heavy wood he's sitting at. Cell phones, satellite phones, landlines. 

(Even a Mickey Mouse phone for some weird damn reason...)

SPYGOD whips the sword up and down, cutting the desk into two even halves which shudder, and then fall down into one another. 

"Or I do that to your damn head, you mother!@#$ing impostor," the superspy says: "And before you get !@#$ing smart with me? Your people are !@#$ing dead. Your guards are bleeding into the damn sand. There's just Free Fire and me, and you."

"I wondered what all the non-noises were," the Mahdi says, regarding the ruin about him: "I suppose they sold their lives as dearly as possible to protect the hand of Allah on Earth?"

"They did, yes," the orange android says, aiming his guns at the man, there in the shadows: "It did them no good. And it will profit you nothing."

"Perhaps," the Mahdi says: "But I must say-"

"Nothing else," SPYGOD says: "I've come to do what I should have done all those damn years ago, before we tried to turn you into a !@#$ing weapon."

"Yes," the sallow-skinned man says, steeling his thin, grimy fingers before his strangely-nondescript face: "I remember, my friend. They sent you to the camp. You recruited me. Spoke of higher ideals and the need to work for my country, rather than what the people who'd raised me had believed in."

"Yeah," SPYGOD says: "And !@#$ me for doing what they told me. And !@#$ them for turning you into a weapon."

"As if you would not have done the same, (REDACTED)" the Mahdi says, smirking at the knowledge of SPYGOD's true name. 

"And !@#$ you for going so far off the damn reservation you can't even see the !@#$ing horses, anymore," the superspy goes on.

"And you keep hesitating to kill me," the Mahdi says: "Why is that, I wonder?"

"What?"

"You could have just destroyed me from afar, using your friend."

"You know damn well why that won't work, you little !@#$," SPYGOD says, generating another sword from his off hand: "But now that you mention it? Free Fire? I cut, you burn."

"Yes," the android says: "I think it best if we wrap this up-"

"Free Fire," the Mahdi says, getting up from the ruins of his desk as though he has all the time in the world: "My good and faithful servant. It is time to do as we discussed before, in the name of God, most beneficent, most merciful..."

"What the !@#$ are you talking about...?" SPYGOD starts to say, but turns just in time to see his android companion give him the saddest, sorriest look -- and then push him so hard that he almost flies out of the tent. 

And then explode with enough force to blow the roof off the sucker....

* * *

"... punch, as you put it?" the Mahdi says, tapping the side of his head: "Remember. The more time we spend here, out of communication, the more likely the people I have given instructions to will do something rather unfortunate."

"Yeah, you !@#$ing said that, already," SPYGOD says, grabbing his bag of rations and fashioning some rude headgear so he doesn't burn to a damn crisp: "And here's what I !@#$ing say to that. Stop !@#$ing talking, start !@#$ing leading."

"As you wish," the Mahdi grins, strapping his scimitars to his waist for the journey: "I appreciate that you appreciate the situation."

"Got that damn right," the superspy goes on, looking around: "Because whoever !@#$ing sent those zombies that interrupted our dance, yesterday? They'll be sending more."

"How do you know?"

"We're still alive, dumbass," SPYGOD spits: "And if they found you, how long before they find you again?"

"I assumed they found you," the Mahdi says, and then shrugs his shoulders: "But, I accept your hypothesis."

"Well, thank you," the superspy mutters, looking around once more: "Let's get this damn show on the road, Star-Son. Standing still's gonna get us !@#$ing killed."

"As Allah wills it, so shall it be," the sallow-skinned man says, not giving any sign of annoyance at the use of his old name.

Tuesday: 5/10/16

"Excuse me?" Hoosk says, looking up from his work at Straffer, who's too woozy to really notice -- at least not right away.

"I'm sorry," the cyborg says, drinking his water and looking away: "I sort of forgot that's over and done with."

"As well you should be," the short Olympian mutters, going back to the boxy helmet he's repairing -- the one that caught fire on someone's head, causing fatal fourth-degree burns in seconds: "That was not me. That was the diminished role someone created for me, after what happened."

"Yeah," Straffer says: "Again, I'm sorry-"

"That's like reminding you that you used to !@#$ your pants and needed to be fed from a teat," Hoosk goes on, his shock of white hair seeming to become as angry as he is: "Needlessly embarrassing. Also very impolite."

"Yes," the Campaign Director says, looking across the room at the six Specialists who still have working helmets. Three of them are on, the other three are resting -- watching to see if the others flag, or if their helmets start doing something strange.

And praying that nothing comes anywhere near the planet anytime soon.

* * *

The problem, as Hoosk was only too happy to explain once the rain of Eight Balls finally ended, late Sunday night, was that he'd never intended the grid to be run for that long.

He imagined they'd be doing it in shifts of five, or so. And for only a few hours at a time. They shouldn't be operated more than four hours at a go, really.

Not if the operator wanted to remain healthy, anyway.

But no. We stupid, foolish mortal children and our love of cool, god-made toys had once again messed up everything. 

So of course the helmet-platform connection would malfunction after being used for 12 hours at a time. Of course they would shut down the helmet rather than risk the platform, itself.

Of course the helmet would collapse down to its much smaller, resting state when it shut down, even if someone was wearing it at the time...

Didn't Straffer read the manual Hoosk left? Oh, of course he didn't. Not the whole thing, anyway. Just the bits about what the platforms could do and how to operate them.

Not the safety chapters. Not the maintenance. No one reads that, do they?

No, they don't. And no one made it available to Straffer to read, either.

And that's why there's three dead Specialists with their heads baked or crushed. That's why there's a room full of scared, young folks who would rather play leapfrog with a rabid tiger than put the helmet back on again.

That's why Straffer is so damn glad the bombardment ended when it did, and that it looks like they've caught a breather while whatever monstrous intelligence is running Mars, these days, decides what to do next.

And why Hoosk hasn't stopped !@#$ing complaining since he got here, took one look at the mess that was left for him, and began to fix it -- one helmet at a time.

And why it's doubly bad that Straffer just had to bring up the fact that the pint-sized Olympian was once known as the Maker...

* * *

"Thank you for this," Straffer says at some point: "It's very appreciated."

"It would be more genuine a thank you if you actually took care of it," Hoosk mutters: "Really."

"Again, I apologize," the Campaign Director says, doing his best to swallow the anger he's feeling right now.

"Apologies are meaningless," the Olympian says, looking over his handiwork: "The real thing is to do better."

"Well, that's what we're going to do-"

"Good," Hoosk says, putting the helmet down with a smug look on his face: "Because I'm going to tell you this once, mortal man. You screw these up this badly, again? You get to fix them."

And Straffer's about to say something to that when the Director of the Space Service stomps into the room, and stares daggers at Hoosk.

"You!" he shouts at the Olympian: "Mon Dieu! What have you done?"

"I beg your pardon?" Hoosk says, rising up as high as his short stature will allow him to do so: "Is it not obvious what I have done?"

"Director, please," Straffer says, holding up a hand and trying to intercede: "This isn't the time-"

"Like hell it is not!" the skinny, imperious-looking man shouts: "Three deaths on your watch, sir! And a scared crew! You're lucky I don't have you clapped back in irons!"

"Whatever for?" Hoosk snickers: "Failing to read the manual?"

"The world is safe, Director," Straffer goes on, undaunted: "We repelled an invasion that lasted almost an entire week. You didn't even have to use your attack ships. Billions are alive tonight because of what we did."

"Yes, but what of the next time?" Broussard asks, waving to the nearly-empty room: "What of the time after that?"

"We do the same damn thing we've always done, sir," Straffer says, looking his superior right in the eyes: "We pick ourselves back up, go on, and win again and again. It's what we do."

"Save your speech for your subordinates, Campaign Director. I think they need it more than I do," the man says, and then looks down at Hoosk -- who's been calmly putting his tools away: "And as for you, sir! The fault may be his, but I expected better from a so-called God! How can you make such a dangerous thing? How can we protect the world with-"

"What did you say...?" Hoosk asks, looking around at the Director -- very, very slowly.

(And Straffer says "oh, no," very quietly, and takes a full step back and away.)

"I said, how can you protect the world with such shoddy equipment," Broussard continues, not getting the point: "For God's sakes, man. The entire world is depending on you."

"So. Called. God." the tiny Olympian says, looking right up at the tall human haranguing him: "Is that what you think we are, mortal man?"

"Well... frankly..."

"Well then," Hoosk says, smiling and slamming his toolbox shut: "If our help is not wanted...?"

"It is!" Straffer says, stepping back up: "Please, give me a moment to explain things to the Director-"

"You forget your place, sir!" Broussard says, pointing his finger in Straffer's face: "You explain nothing to me. I explain it to you!"

"Well, explain this to him, then," the short god says, smiling: "We so-called Gods are bound by certain rules. We can only make so much for you mortals at one time, lest you become indolent and lazy, and cease to be worthy of the reason and industry we granted you at the dawn of your race."

"I... you...." Broussard says, shocked by Hoosk's claims.

"Now, under normal circumstances, should the things we make for you break, we may deign to fix them," the Olympian goes on: "We may also not. This too teaches an important lesson. Responsibility."

"I think we know how to be responsible, sir," the Director says, crossing his arms.

"I can tell," Hoosk snorts, waving to the room: "So, if you will not take the steps needed to not break your tools? And you will show no gratitude towards us when we fix them? Then consider this my one and only maintenance call, and this gift your one and only boon from me."

"Sir, please," Straffer says, wondering if he should kneel or not: "Please. The fate of the planet is at stake-"

"Then for the sake of the planet, the judgment of my King Brother Seranu, and my dark Brother Soubre, regarding you had best be correct," Hoosk says.

And then, with a last nod, he's gone -- vanished from space and time.

"Well, then," Director Broussard says, adjusting his lapels and looking askance: "That is that, I suppose..."

"Sir," Straffer says, barely containing his rage: "Do you have any idea what you've just done?"

"I told them exactly what they needed to hear, Campaign Director Straffer," the man says: "That their help does not entitle them to come in here and berate us. And that their pride will not be used to insult us." 

"Is that what you think you just did?" Straffer says: "Really? Because I just need you to know, with all due respect, that your fat mouth may have just doomed the entire human race."

"Then we die proudly and on our feet, sir," he says, heading for the door without looking back around: "And not on our knees to creatures who see us as children who wrecked a gift bicycle."

Straffer looks at the man as he leaves. He looks at the door that goes empty and dark.

He looks around the room at 20 repaired helmets, and a second chance that will not be repeated.

And he takes a deep breath, nods, and goes out to give the mother of all halftime locker room speeches to the men and women he's hoping he can still command. 

Wednesday: 5/11/16

The residence of the Mayor of Moscow shakes and rattles with the cheer that goes up in front of it, keeping time with the descent of the limp, butchered body of its former occupant.

"Do you see, my warriors?" the pale Man-God who killed him says, holding up his hands as he addresses them from the rude balcony he's made of the second story window overlooking the front door -- flames pouring from them as he shouts: "No one can stand against us! No one can hope to overcome us!

"This city...is ours!"

The street toughs and warriors of Odal howl their assent, making the salute so hard and long that it's a wonder their right arms don't leap from their sockets -- animated by their hate, fury, and love for the man who's brought them this far.

Helvete, they called him once. Now he is Ve, brother to Odin and Vili.

Now he is their leader, calling them unto war and conquest.

As their mortal allies scream their allegiance, and beg to be sent forth to make war and kill again, the other Aesir lurk nearby. Some stand among their servants -- raising their weapons and voices in obedient fury. Others lurk within the building, planning and scheming, or else just enjoying the many pleasures Midgard has to offer them.

One alone does not choose to join in the revels, though. Instead he stands upon the roof of the tall, wide building -- looking down at the masses as they shout and stomp their feet.

And smirking wide, as...

* * *

... Godspace comes in at the edges of his vision. 

FAUST Agent 78 closes his eyes, scared as hell. He didn't sign up for this kind of !@#$. 

He imagined a life spent doing undercover cop stuff when he enlisted with FAUST.  A career no more outrageous than all the American cop shows he grew up watching, and yet nothing less glamorous: girls, guns, and cars; drug busts, criminal intrigue, and the occasional shoot-out.

He couldn't have conceived of something like this...

The fading of one reality and its usurpation by another, more real one. A cold, frosty landscape where mountains the size of worlds towered over them. A land dotted with mighty castles built from bright ice, blackened iron, and the cleaved bones of giants. 

A place where -- in the space of mere moments -- their group could travel entire leagues, crossing the dangerous, frosty landscape from their point of origin to the highest, tallest freehold to be seen anywhere. 

A realm where, with one more step, they are all within the mighty hall of the old gods, and standing before their massive, roaring fire in the hall of warriors -- awaiting Valhalla and the fall of the world. 

He looks up at these hoary, muscular beings, unable to truly comprehend their magnificence. Tall they are, and sleek with the sweat of fire and mead. Long of hair and beard, sharp of eye and wit.

And they, for their part, gaze upon their many interlopers as one might do to a stranger upon the doorstep, selling something no one would think to buy. They look to one another with what may be annoyance or disdain, perhaps even amusement.

But not surprise...

"Mighty beings of the Aesir!" their pale, pyrokinetic leader says -- going down on bended knee before the august gods they have just disturbed: "We humbly beg you forgive this intrusion into your stronghold. We have endured much to be here. Done and dared many mighty things to kneel before you. We plead that you listen to what we have to say."

"We know what you would say, and why you have come," one of their number says, rising from his portion of a tall, exquisitely carved throne of bone, hewn from a single, massive breastbone: "You seek to bound with us, so that we may enter the world within your skin. You desire to become one with us, so as to share in our power."

"Mighty Odin," Helvete says, looking up bravely upon the one-eyed father of the Gods -- seated aside his brothers Ve and Vill, on the throne of bone: "All seeing, all knowing. You know much of what I would say, as I well thought you would. May I say the rest of what I desired to speak to you, so as to make my desires... our desires more plain?"

"You may not," Odin replies, putting a hand to his sword: "We shall not join you in this sorry folly. For you mistake our noble cause for that of your own, thanks to the hideous perversion your fellows have filled your heads and minds with. The filth of hatred and fear. The stink of needless bloodshed and honorless death."

The room goes cold, just then. The fire seems to no longer warm. The stone floor of the hold becomes as ice. 

And 78 realizes he'd better get up off his damn knees and run like hell the way he came, except that he can't even move. 

Hold fast, mortal, a voice whispers in his ear: Not to run, or lose your nerve. They would slaughter you ere you reached halfway to the door. 

"What do I do?" he whispers back, hoping no one hears him.

Suffer yet to let this story play out a while, it challenges him: And when I give you words to say? If you would live, say them straight and true, and as loudly as you can... 

"My lord, please," Helvete says, raising his hands up: "Perhaps you are right-"

"Perhaps?" Odin laughs, somewhat ruefully: "Am I not Odin -- all seeing, all knowing?"

"This isn't working," the bearded Klansman says, looking to their pale leader: "Get us out of here..."

"Aye, better that you had never come," a rumbling voice announces from the other side of the room, its owner treading upon the stone with a massive stride and mighty gait: "These are the ones I spoke of, Father Odin. The murderers and madmen, soaked through with the blood of their own kind, and misdeeds too perfidious to fathom."

That is my brother, Thor, 78 hears in his head: He desires to rule, in his father's stead. But he never will, for his father shall be eternal. Until the Wolftime, that is. Until the ending of us all...

"Would that we could return to Midgard and tear such lies asunder," Odin says, drawing his sword: "But it is not yet our time. The shields are not yet cloven. The wolf is not yet yet awake. There is only the slow, steady walk towards the end of things. And Man has long outgrown his need for the likes of us."

"No we have not!" 78 suddenly shouts, getting to his feet and pointing to the All-Father -- as the voice in his ear bids him to do: "Man is weak and leaderless. Broken and afraid. Its race has become diluted with alien seeds and inferior ideas, poisoning the true way of things. We seek only to return the race of men to the glory it once held! The glory it shared in when it walked in your footsteps! Sang its sagas to you! Held your name above all!"

"Be silent!" Odin roars, pulling his sword from his scabbard. All other warriors there do the same. 

All save for the one who wields the hammer, who suddenly gets the strangest look upon his face.

"Father, a moment," Thor says, holding up his hand and looking to Agent 78: "This one speaks as though not himself. And yet, I find his words to be telling. For he does not speak entirely without truth."

"Even a drunken fool can sometimes see the future, my son," Odin snorts: "This does not mean we prop him up by our fire and expect him to throw the runes."

There's laughter at that, but Thor shakes his head: "My father, my brothers, sisters. Friends and allies of old. Hear me, for I too say that what this man says is the truth. When last I tread the grounds of Midgard, I fought alongside many who would have been worthy to stand amongst us. And together we fought those who, like these sorry beings, were weak creatures, too easily led by evil.

"We fought those creatures in human shape, and the monsters they made of their own kind. And at the end of the War I swore to one day return, should I be needed. And now, as I see things such as these stealing enough power to come here, of all places. To appear in our mighty hall. To beg us to lend them our power?

"Then I cannot help but wonder if that time has come around at last."

"What, then, do you suggest?" Odin asks, looking to his son with what may be curiosity, or else kingly impatience: "Should we go back and slaughter the lot of them? Is Man so weak that he cannot fend off such beasts for himself? I was against your going forth into battle then, my son. I am not convinced it is such a great idea, now."

"Odinson speaks truth," another God says, rising towards the All-Father -- his eyes and teeth of gold: "I see much, perhaps too many things. I see the horror they are. The terror they create. I see the disaster they may bring."

"War shall decide the right, as it does always," another says, grinning: "And I know of war."

"Heimdal. Tyr. This remains between my son and I," Odin gently scolds them. But before he can say another word the hall erupts in discussion, then debate, and then shouting. 

And then, with the clash of sword on hammer, in godly violence...

* * *

"... shall be done this day!" Ve goes on, holding his axe aloft: "The honored dead stand alongside us! Their ranks grow with each skirmish! They flood with each battle! Soon we shall be mightier than our enemy can ever imagine!"

More cheering. More screams. More calls for blood and war. 

And Ve goes on, promising glory and fighting and death.

And up above, Agent 78 best considers how he might turn this magnificent, doomed venture to suit his needs.

"Father...?" he hears a voice upon the wind: "I would speak... with you..."

"My darling Hel," he says, making her sign so that the image of the half-rotten death goddess might appear to him: "How are things in your cold and still realm, this day? Perhaps not so still now?"

"No..." she says, smiling through half a face: "But I would have more... my father... more lovely boys and girls... to play with... more swordsmen and shield maidens... more horses and beasts..."

"Insatiable as ever, my darling, my love," Agent 78 says, reaching to caress her deliquescent features: "You know I can deny you nothing. And soon, if my uncle has his way, I feel you will have all the toys your cold heart can hope for."

"Mmmm... thank you..." she murmurs, bile slopping from her pouting lips as she closes her eyes: "And what of... the dead girl...her allies...?"

"Oh, they shall be no further bother," he grins, waving his other hand: "In fact, I have, in my own quiet way, ensured their end within the turning of a few days.

"What have... you done... my father...?"

"Oh-ho!" he says, blowing her a kiss before sending her away: "That would be telling, my darling poppet. And there is no better telling than seeing, or so the sagas have said.."

And he goes back to looking down at the throngs, below, wondering how they'll look when they enter his daughter's clutches.

And wondering how many other they'll bring along with them, once his puppets have done their work. 

Thursday: 5/12/16

"Man, that's... just !@#$ing insane," Blastman says, looking at the holographic satellite imagery from over Moscow.

"That is being one way to put it," the somewhat-pudgy Russian Ambassador says, clearly not impressed by the heroes he's hosting in the DC Embassy: "Not only do these so-called gods have our own National Guard seriously outmatched, but the creatures they are calling up from the ground? These dead men from wars of our past? They have become an unstoppable force."

"And you're worried that, if they start moving out from Moscow..." Mr. USA says, putting his hands on the table where the images are being projected.

"There would be no stopping them," the Ambassador's assistant says, holding his hands before his crotch as if afraid of being kicked.

"Well, that's no good," Red Wrecker says, looking to Hanami, and then Dr. Uncertainty.

"What kind of access have they gotten?" Dr. Uncertainty asks in his mechanical voice, seeming rather concerned: "Dangerous weapons, state secrets, things like that?"

"Not a lot, thankfully," the Ambassador says, after looking at his assistant for a second too long: "Most of the controls are not located in Moscow, anymore. They have been scattered and hidden, so that such a thing will not cause an even greater disaster."

"Well, there's that at least," Mr. USA says, visibly relieved. 

"If you're asking for help, we have to go through proper channels," Hanami says: "Josie will have to ask the Interim President, who'll have to ask the UN if they mind us helping. It's rather complicated, as I understand it."

"But it would not be the first time you have... how do they say. Gone cowboy?" the Ambassador asks, looking hopeful.

"No," the Japanese android smiles, looking around the room: "But when I've done it, in the past, there's been some kind of diplomatic repercussions. If we're to operate within your borders, we need to do it properly. Especially after Buryat."

Everyone nods at that.

"Well, I'm in," American Steel says over her intercom, from outside the Russian Embassy's front door -- her armor's too large to let her inside: "I always wanted to go shoot things in Moscow. I just never figured I'd be helping the Russians when I did."

"You'll have to pardon her," Dr. Uncertainty says, holding up his hands: "She watched Top Gun and Red Dawn too many times as a young lady."

"How does she feel about working alongside Russians?" the Ambassador asks, not entirely without humor: "We shall have our own strategic talents there, as well. Also some from FAUST, I am hearing."

"FAUST?" Hanami asks, raising an eyebrow: "That's... interesting."

"That's logical," Dr. Uncertainty offers: "If these Aesir are telling the truth, then it's today Moscow, tomorrow Russia, and then Europe. If they don't stop them now..."

"What sort of sanction are you allowing us?" Mr. USA asks, looking at the Ambassador: "If we're going to fight these Odal people, and the Aesir, and all these resuscitated corpses they're using as shock troops... well, it's going to get messy."

"You will have total freedom to do what is necessary," the Ambassador says: "We would hope you would leave some alive for questioning, of course. But when it comes to the thugs who have taken our proud city..."

They go back and forth on that for a time. As they do, Dragonfly sits in the corner -- seemingly far from their conversation -- and weighs certain things in her mind.

Remembering...

* * *

.. the way Satanoth's soul chamber glows, sending the other ghosts and spirits scurrying away from what's oncoming.

Gail holds up her hands -- a weak defense against the end that might be approaching. Maybe her former patron has decided today is the day to come and eat her soul. Or maybe he'll just tease her with oblivion, some more...

But no. It's not him. It's the large, redheaded woman in the purple cloak she's seen before. The one who warned her of accepting his deal, for reasons that are now very apparently. 

Tombo, there sitting in her cloud of glowing dragonflies -- her tall staff resting across the tops of her thighs. 

"Hey, you," she says, sadly: "I came as soon as I could. Sorry it wasn't sooner. Time's a little muddled up, here."

Gail tries to talk, but fails. It's like her voice is gone, here. 

(Odd she never noticed, before. Maybe she was too busy screaming.)

"Here, let me help you with that," Tombo says, floating closer and gently putting her hand on the Red Queen's neck. It glows for a moment, and then Gail feels like she can speak again -- almost like the large woman flipped a switch in her, or something.

"How...?" she asks.

"Soulweaving," the redhead says, smiling and holding up her glowing hand -- the shine going from her palm to her fingers in a soft, flowing motion: "I can change what you're made of into anything I need it to be. I can heal you or harm you with a flick of my finger.

"And if you really piss me off?" she goes on, her voice deep and evil: "I'll turn you into a scarf."

"Really?" the former Red Queen asks, somewhat unsure at whether she's kidding her or not -- the look on her face seems more silly than threatening.

"Hey, I always was kind of crafty. You should have seen me do origami."

"Do you still?"

"Hard to find paper over here," she sighs, shrugging her shoulders: "So I have to make do. But it's not as much fun making the paper and doing the pattern, somehow. Plus, given the materials I work with it's a little weird showing off the pieces."

Gail looks at her, and decides she doesn't really want to know.

"Anyway," Tombo says, tapping both palms on her staff: "That's nothing to do with your problem, hon. You're dead. He killed you. And it's probably only a matter of time before he comes down here and eats your dead ass for second breakfast, or something."

"I know," Red Queen says, looking down and then up: "You tried to warn me. I didn't listen."

"I know," Tombo says, frowning: "It's like I'm inaudible or something. I warn people, I tell them what's going to happen. And then they don't listen."

"You don't have to make me feel any worse."

"No," Tombo says, raising an eyebrow: "I don't have to do anything. I could really just leave and leave you to it, Gail. Maybe the lesson this time is that you don't get a second chance."

"Oh God," Gail sighs: "If you're going to !@#$ me over at least don't quote Sandman at me. That's just cruel."

The redhead looks at her, lowers her eyebrow, and snorts: "Okay, then. I thought you were too cool to die. That just confirms it."

"You'll help me?"

"I will."

"Can you? I mean, the last time you came to me... well, Sat-"

"Shhhhhh!" Tombo says, holding up a hand and looking around: "Don't say his name. It'll be a like a dinner bell to a dog in here."

"Skull face, then?" Gail asks, and goes on when her guest nods: "Skull face threw you out of here like a nosy salesman. I didn't think there was any way you could have helped me, after that, even if I'd wanted you to."

"Well, he had me at a disadvantage," the large redhead says, looking down, and then back up again with a toothy grin: "You weren't fully dead, yet."

"And that makes a difference?"

"Absolutely!" Tombo says, patting her staff again: "See, that totally changes the rules of the game. You were pledged to him before, so I couldn't help too much. And, since you're dead now, he technically still has power over you because he's a god of death.

"But I'm with death itself. And that means I get to do whatever the !@#$ I want."

"I don't understand."

"Well... let's try this on for size," Tombo says, tapping her chin to think: "You ever work fast food?"

"Yeah."

"Well, he just runs the local Taco Hell franchise," she goes on: "Me? I report directly to the one the District Managers call at night, and pray they find in a good and loving mood..."

"The C.O." Gail says, putting it into a language she can understand: "Gotcha."

"So here's my proposition, Gail," Tombo says: "I can get you out of here. I can make you a new body, just like your old one. I can bring you back to life.

"But there's a catch. And I'm not going to lie, hon. For you? This is going to be a tough one..."

* * *

"... but we need to contain these bastards before they go any further," Josie is saying over Hanami's communicator: "Give me a day, Mr. Ambassador. It will happen. I will make it happen."

"That would be wonderful," he says: "Thank you, Director."

With that, her glowing face disappears, and Hanami nods -- extending a hand: "Hopefully this means we have a deal, sir."

"Hopefully we will have our forces ready before they move again," the Ambassador's assistant says, still holding his hands over his crotch: "This Thor is rather proactive. Just yesterday we lost-"

"Wait," Mr. USA says, holding up a hand: "Did you say Thor?"

"Yes," the Ambassador says before his assistant can: "One of them is claiming to be him. And from what we have seen it may be no idle boast. He is certainly powerful enough to be him, and that hammer..."

The pudgy man shudders at the thought of it.

"That might be good," Blastman says, clapping the older hero on the back: "You knew him, right? Back in the War? Maybe you can talk some !@#$ing sense into him."

"Maybe he's not the same person," Dr. Uncertainty offers: "Maybe it's a different entity with the same name. It's not like that's never happened before."

"I don't know," Mr. USA says, shaking his head: "If it is him, I don't think he'll want to listen to me. He never was the one who listened.

"He was the one who talked."

Friday: 5/13/16

"Man, he did not know when to shut up," the Candidate says, getting into his limousine outside the Capitol building, fresh from a meeting with the Speaker of the House: "Blah blah blah. On and on and on."

"Did you come to any decisions?" his new aide -- fresh from the DC Campaign office -- asks, facing him from the seat on the other side of the driver: "Any agreements?"

"No, not really," the beefy fellow says: "It was all talk, you know? He wants to know what I'll do for him, and the party. And I want to know what they'll do for me. And I guess he's waiting for me to offer something, and I'm waiting for him to offer something. And back and forth and back and forth..."

The Candidate sighs, shaking his large head: "When we get closer? He'll fold. He'll have to. He'll have no voice."

"That's true, I suppose," the aide says, turning over a page: "Now, I have to tell you. I spoke with the Campaign Manager while you were in the meeting. And she's very concerned about this Wheeler matter."

"I'm not," the Candidate lies, waving his hand as though he were brushing aside a pesky fly.

"Well, maybe you should be, sir. It's gaining traction. People are asking questions. And I'm not sure we have good answers."

"Kid, let me tell you something," the big man says, leaning in to his aide and punctuating each sentence with a jab of a finger: "The more they talk about it, and we don't? The sillier they look. The worse they look."

"What if they find out something while we're not talking?"

"What would they find?" the Candidate laughs, leaning back: "There's nothing to find, kid. I didn't make any deals with him. I certainly didn't tell him to kill those Toons. Sure, I wanted him in my Cabinet, again. He was a good man. A great Defense Secretary. But all this stuff... well..."

He looks around, puts his knuckles to the side of his mouth, and snorts back a laugh: "You just gotta laugh, kid. It's campaign stuff. Poison words. They can't beat us at the polls so they claim we got into bed with murderers and terrorists."

"Well, be that as it may," he says, but then the car slows down unexpectedly.

And then the aide's head explodes as a well-placed sniper round blows his skull apart.

The Candidate yelps and ducks. Another bullet comes through his window a quick second later, missing him by inches.

The Limo starts up again, and rushes forward as quickly as possible -- trying to get out of the kill zone the street has suddenly turned into.

A lost dog stumbles down the street, unsure of what's going on. The limo must have stopped to avoid hitting it.

A dog, the fat-faced man thinks. He owes his life to a dog.

* * *

"Man, someone want to feed that damn mutt?" some soldier says, on his way into the Incirlik Base officer's club: "If he's the camp mascot, we need to be looking after him."

A few of his fellows laugh and tell him to drop his pants. Everyone laughs at that -- especially the Turkish officers, glad to have these amusing American fellows here for the duration.

Just not the people on the far end of the club, alternating between watching the television news (someone shot at the Republican front-runner, still no details) and trying to make small talk with one another. 

And failing, miserably. 

"So," Shining Guardsman -- looking damned weird with his armor retracted, and a ball cap on his bald head -- "No word in almost a full week."

"No," Myron says, pointedly not looking at the cyborg, or anyone else in the team for that matter.

"And you'd think... well..."

"Sorry, maybe I wasn't clear," Myron says, tapping his almost-empty beer can as a sign for the bartender to bring him another: "That wasn't 'no' as in 'no, we haven't heard from SPYGOD.' That was 'no' as in 'no, we are not having this damn conversation again.'"

"Look, man," Gosheven says, sauntering over to sit on the other side of Myron: "You know the !@#$er. He's indestructible, but only up to a point."

"No."

"And, well, Josie's saying they lost all telemetry on Free Fire," Guardsman says: "That's not a good sign."

Myron almost shouts at them, but then his beer arrives. Efes. Nice and nutty.

He pops the top, takes a sip, then a gulp. Then another. 

"You elected me team leader in SPYGOD's absence," he says, turning around to look at everyone: "So this is me leading. I'm waiting until I see a damn corpse. And even then I'm not going to throw in the towel, just yet, because he's come back from worse. I think we all have by this point?"

He looks at Shining Guardsman and Gosheven in turn, and they both nod and look away.

"Okay, good," he says, taking another chug of the beer: "So why don't we actually talk about what's really !@#$ing bothering everyone for a damn change, instead of this penny-ante bull!@#$. 

"And that's the fact that, when we signed on, we agreed to follow him into Hell wearing gasoline-soaked dresses. Thick or thin, legal or illegal. We bought the ticket, we took the ride.

"So we stood by and smiled when he knocked poor Peg out and had you !@#$ing impersonate her, Gosheven. And we took his hand and ran all over the damn world, lying about our whereabouts the whole while, as we looked for Straffer instead of the Mahdi.

"And we lose Swiftfoot when SPYGOD blows him the hell up because it turns out he was spying for the !@#$ing Decreator the whole damn time. So we're down from the Magnificent Seven to the Somewhat-Magnificent Six. 

"And now, now that we finally find the mother!@#$er we were supposed to be looking for all this time? Well, guess what, kids? SPYGOD, the guy who we counted on to get our butts out of the fire he lit? Well, he's missing in action, along with the most powerful member of the team. We have no idea if he's alive, dead, or somewhere in-between. No telemetry, no sign, no nothing. 

"So unless he comes back? We're kind of !@#$ed. And even if he does come back? We still might be kind of !@#$ed. Either way, we've gone from Magnificent Seven to !@#$ed-Up Four. And the four of us need to prepare our anus for one hell of a reckoning at the end of the ride."

He looks to the two of them, and then to the beer: "So you gentlemen will have to excuse your duly-elected interim team leader if right now he'd rather sit here, in our emergency fall back point, drink this lovely beer, and not be in any damn hurry to go back and face the ass!@#$ing."

They look at him, then at one another, and nod. 

"We didn't want to tell you..." Gosheven sighs: "But we've got another problem."

"No gay bar on the base?" Myron asks, trying to smile.

"Oh please, this is Turkey," the metamorph chuckles: "I've gotten more ass than a toilet seat just by looking faaaaabulous-"

"Mister Freedom vanished, this morning," Shining Guardsman interrupts: "We were on our way somewhere, and he suddenly stopped walking, looked due southwest, and said 'oh dear.' And then... well, poof."

"Poof," Myron repeats, sipping his beer.

"Yeah," the cyborg says: "I was hoping he'd come back by now. But, well..."

"Okay then," Myron sighs: "And then there were three..."

The dog outside starts barking again, like it had a purpose.

Saturday: 5/14/16

The worst thing about Aleppo, right now, is that there is no noise coming from it -- especially animal sounds.

No cars. No trucks. No talking. No industry.

The city is black and dark. The fires rage, unfought and alone.

And as for what can be seen, in its streets, the sight of it turns SPYGOD's stomach and makes him abandon the binoculars for a time.

"What the mother!@#$ing hell..." he says, shaking his head and handing them to his enemy-turned-ally: "I had no damn idea."

"It would seem the way forward shall be more difficult than we thought, my friend," the Mahdi says, admiring the bloody handiwork of the creatures that live there, now.

It's like some weird charnel garden in there. The bodies of the dead have been piled higher than should be possible -- turned into gruesome totem poles of skin, flesh, bone, and organ, all bound up in a wet, low-hanging web of what might be tendons knotted together, or maybe even smaller forms of gristle.

"What could do such a thing?" the man with the burned face says, putting the binoculars down and staring with his own eyes. For a moment SPYGOD thinks he sees some trace of decency, there -- righteous shock and horror at such a terrible spectacle.

But no. The mother!@#$er is in awe. 

"I have a bad idea," SPYGOD says: "Last I saw of one of my operatives, she turned into a goddamn Wendigo. I thought we killed her, but maybe we didn't. Maybe she got better.

"And maybe she's been really !@#$ing busy since then." 

"It will be dangerous, then," the Mahdi says: "For that is where we must go."

"How did I know you were going to !@#$ing say that?" SPYGOD sighs, shaking his head: "You are just a barrel of damn laughs, Star-Son."

"Perhaps the joke is upon us both, my friend," the man says, grinning his dead smile...

* * *

 "... and put a damn bullet right through it," SPYGOD says, looking across the way at his enemy -- sitting in a makeshift hiding hole, out in an abandoned farmer's field, and trying to guess his facial expressions under the stars.

"I assure you, I will not betray you," the Mahdi says: "Not now, anyway. If these last few days have proven anything, it is that we need one another to survive.

"After that, however..."

He seems to smile, and then looks up at the night sky. And SPYGOD wonders why he doesn't just kill the bastard, here and now.

And then remembers that he really can't -- and not just because of the threats of what might happen if he dies, or anything like that.

Because the bastard is his father's son. And killing him might just make him appear somewhere else.

Somewhere SPYGOD won't have eyes on him.

So yeah. he's got to keep him alive for now. He's got to save his skinny, sallow-skinned ass from the hordes of zombie viking that keep finding them both, somehow. He's got to keep the various actors in the Syrian theater from even seeing them, much less shooting at them.

At least until he can find some way to freeze the !@#$er, like they did to his father, now so long ago...

"Swiftfoot," SPYGOD says, looking at the Mahdi, something becoming all too damn clear.

"What of him?"

"You put the whammy on him, didn't you?"

The Mahdi very clearly smiles, there in the starlight: "Well reasoned, my friend. How did you guess?"

"Because there's no !@#$ing way he would have willingly given himself over to those alien black goo zombie bastards," SPYGOD says, leaning forward: "And while I know he was erratic, which is putting it !@#$ing mildy, he's been real damn weird lately."

The Mahdi claps his hands, somewhat mockingly.

"Why?" SPYGOD asks, patting the gun he's been cradling in his lap.

"Would the knowledge bring you peace? Or simply cloud your judgment?"

"Just tell me, please. I'd really like to know why I had to !@#$ing kill an old friend."

"Very well, then," the Mahdi says, uncrossing and recrossing his legs, putting his hands on his knees, and assuming a story-telling position: "Simply put, I knew you would come for him again-"

"How?"

"I have my ways."

"I know, asshole. I want to know what those ways are."

"That would-"

SPYGOD raises his gun and aims it: "You make that reference again and I will !@#$ing kill you."

"After all we have shared?" the Mahdi says, raising an eyebrow over a burned eye socket: "That would be so disappointing. Besides, I think you know that even a bullet may not rid you of the likes of me."

"Maybe not," SPYGOD says: "But it might bring others. And they might kill me. And then you'd be all alone, out here, with no one to save you from them."

The Mahdi looks at the gun, and nods: "Very well. As for your answer, well, let us just say that, while I would never be so cliche as to say that you and I are a lot alike, our methods are not too different. Except that where you bully and blackmail others to give you information? I ask. And I ask politely."

"You put the damn whammy on them," the superspy corrects his ally-enemy, putting the gun back down.  

"Admittedly, yes. But it gets the job done. And I find they tell me everything they know. Not because they want to, in all cases, but because they have no choice."

"So someone you spoke to knew I'd come to find him, again? How?"

"A combination of things. A few of your AGENTS. A former handler of the Soviets' precognitive program. That, plus my knowing you too well, (REDACTED)."

SPYGOD bristles to hear his name on this man's grinning, burned lips.

"So, suffice it to say that, through fair means and foul, I knew you would come after me. And I knew that you would come for him again while building your inevitable team of useful but disposable persons.

"So I spoke to him over the phone, there in his sorry pit of squalor in Thailand. And I ordered him to report back to me, and damage your efforts in subtle ways. But he kept resisting my orders to do more terrible damage, somehow..."

SPYGOD raises an eyebrow at that: "He resisted?"

"Yes. He did."

The superspy raises his other eyebrow, and then furrows them: "Bull!@#$."

"No, my friend. Before Allah, most high, I swear this to be true. And such a thing is not entirely unheard of, as my recent issues with your President have shown. And then there's you-"

"Whatever," SPYGOD says, waving a hand -- trying to reconcile this fact with what he knew about the dead speedster, and his many epic, sad, and utterly predictable falls from grace caused by his inability to resist a goddamned thing: "Let's take it on faith he resisted, like you're saying. What then?"

"I decided to up the ante a bit, as one might say," the Mahdi goes on: "I had him approach your alien enemies to act as a go-between. I was reasonably certain such a strategy would either kill him or strengthen my hold upon him, either of which would further my goal of inconveniencing you."

"But it didn't do either," SPYGOD mutters: "Did it?"

"No," the burned man says, shrugging his shoulders: "So when, courtesy of him, I learned you were secretly heading to Africa to deal with the compromised lockup, I had him inform them of your actions. And then, as you truly prepared to raid the place, I ordered him away, hoping that would hobble you more. And I told him to give himself fully to the alien, so that they would use him to destroy you all from within.

"And yet, once again, he somehow disobeyed me-"

"That's because I !@#$ing put a bomb on him, you asshole," SPYGOD says: "I blew him up as soon as I realized he was a mole. I just though he'd been a mole for them. I didn't know you were involved, too."

"Yes," the Mahdi nods: "And your bomb made quite a hole in the coastal city of that country, my friend. The place where their headquarters once was is now a hole in the ground.

"But I fear he was not there, my friend."

SPYGOD blinks: "What the hell do you mean?"

"I mean that he has been seen, elsewhere," the Mahdi says: "Strobing in security cameras. Caught on tape. There is evidence that a ghost runs upon this land."

The Superspy considers that: "So maybe they found the bomb when they took him over."

"And, perhaps, being so alien, they did not realize what it was," the Mahdi suggests, shrugging his shoulders once more: "So they left it in their headquarters. It exploded. And perhaps they are dead, now.

"But yet, he lives..."

"So you've got a half-controlled speedster with alien gunk in his system !@#$ing running around on the loose," SPYGOD sighs: "Great. Perfect planning, there, dumbass."

"The world turns as Allah wills, my ally. I feel our shared asset will have a part to play that is yet undetermined, but will be incredibly important."

"No," SPYGOD insists, tapping the gun on his lap: "Not if I !@#$ing kill him first..."

* * *

"... we have to hunker down somewhere safe," SPYGOD says, looking back at the city: "For the night, anyway."

"Why?"

"Because what she's become?" he says, gesturing to the garden of rotten meat and bone she's turned Aleppo into: "It comes out at night. And believe me when I !@#$ing say you do not want to run into her. Not in the dark."

"I shall command her, as I do all others."

"You will, huh?" the superspy asks, leaning in closer to his enemy-ally: "Just like you've done with the President? With Swiftfoot? With me?"

The Mahdi sighs, and nods: "I take your point, my friend. Perhaps we could do with a rest."

"That's putting it !@#$ing mildly."

"So we will just have to hope that our enemy does not find us, tonight, Inshallah. And that none of my servants do anything stupid or dangerous tonight, either."
"Yeah," SPYGOD says: "You know I know you've had a satellite phone on you the whole !@#$ing time, right?"

The Mahdi blinks: "I did not. No."

"And I have seen you texting people. Which means that while you haven't been talking to your servants, you've probably had people run them messages on your !@#$ing behalf."

"Yes..."

"So you really want me to get you into Aleppo for some other !@#$ing reason," SPYGOD says, looking around for a good place to lay low: "And I'm really looking forward to seeing what it is."

And for once, the Mahdi is at a total loss for words.

Sunday: 5/15/16

"Well, that's !@#$ing special," Red Wrecker says, looking down the M-9 at what's waiting for them at the end of it.

"How many..." Hanami says, shaking her head. Can there really be that many dead people in Moscow?

And yes, there can. There can be a lot of corpses, plucked from the massive boneyards in and around the city.

And they can be outfitted with metal helmets, leather armor, iron circular shields, and a panoply of axes, swords, spears, and bows. Stood in a long lines at the roads leading into and out of the city.

Made ready to march on the enemy at their gates -- arrayed around the city in preparation to take it back.

Behind the Freedom Force stands all the force the Russian Federation could spare. Tanks, troops, and high-tech vehicles no one's even seen yet -- all waiting for the chance to prove themselves against this new and strange foe.

Beside them are all the heroes Russia has to spare. The new People's Protectors. The Cold Guard. The Federation Guards...

Everyone.

"I don't think the zombies are the real problem," American Steel says, figuring firing angles in her head: "It's the ones behind them, cheering them on."

"Racist scum," the leader of the People's Guard spits, smacking his very large fists together -- lightning crackling between his knuckles as he does: "I look forward to laying them flat upon the pavement."

"Agreed," Mr. USA says, nodding to his Russian counterpart -- The National Man -- and looking to Hanami: "Are we waiting for some kind of sign, or...?"

"We're operating under Russian orders, here," the Japanese android says, shrugging her shoulders: "That and FAUST, though I haven't seen their people, yet."

"They are being delayed, my friend," a young man with webs for hair -- who looks like a weird cross between a human being and a spider -- says: "Something about the weather between here and Berlin."

"Horse!@#$," Dr. Uncertainty mutters, looking at her pad: "Weather Underground's clear."

"So we're just waiting," Dragonfly sighs, crossing her arms: "Great."

"You in any hurry to get your ass handed to you by a million viking zombies?" Blastman asks, chuckling.

"Who says I would?" she says, raising an eyebrow: "It's not like I can't let loose on them. They're already dead-"

"Shhhh!" Hanami says, holding up a hand: "Something's changed..."

It has. There's movement, all the way down there. It's a motion in the line of zombies as someone walks through and then past them, heading in the heroes' direction.

"Oh my god," Mr. USA says, shocked: "It's... that's Thor."

"Are you sure?" Dr. Uncertainty asks: "Remember, it could be anyone."

"No, that's him," the older hero says, looking to Hanami: "Let me go talk to him. I might be able to end this before it starts if I can talk some sense into him."

The android looks at the older hero, and nods -- somewhat hesitantly: "If it goes bad, signal us. We'll come running."

He nods, and heads that way. He walks like he's got all the time in the world, which is pretty fast.

With each step he becomes more certain it is his old ally from the War. But at the same time, he sees things that make him wonder.

Same armor? Yes. Same hammer? Oh yes.

Same face? No, not really. The beard is gone, as are the warm, blue eyes and the smile. It's some skinny-faced guy, now. Bad teeth, grinning.

But the eyes -- it's what's in them, rather than how they look, that convinces him it's the same entity, somehow.

"Thor," Mr. USA says as they get within ten feet of one another: "It's been a while."

"It has at that," the son of Odin says, hefting his hammer. The voice is the same, too.

"When they told me the Aesir had come to Earth, I hoped we might meet again."

"That was a foolish hope," Thor sneers: "Now we stand at odds, you and I. You would have been better to stay at home, and leave the fight to younger men."

"You know I can't do that."

"Then you know I will fight you, old man. And kill you where you stand."

"Thor, I don't understand this," Mr. USA says, holding up his hands: "You were a decent man, before. Maybe we didn't see eye to eye on some things, but you weren't like this."

"Oh, but I was," the hero of the Aesir says: "You saw only what you wished to see. And we fought together only because it was required of me. 

"And now? I need only fight the war as I desire to, old man. And that means we conquer, and we hold, and we lay waste to those who will not submit."

The eyes. They're broken. Something horrible is living there, back behind them. And the old hero realizes there's no convincing the god he knew that he's gone down the wrong path, here.

"Then I guess we got a problem," Mr. USA says, holding up his fists and getting ready to use them: "And damn me for thinking we could settle this by talking."

"That is the first thing you've said that makes any kind of sense, you fool!" Thor says, raising his hammer.

It sparks in his grip. A bolt of lightning arcs from it up into the sky, bringing down a torrent of heavenly fire down upon the Russian National Guard -- exploding their tanks, troop carriers, and large numbers of their soldiers in one go.

Mr. USA shouts and runs forward, ready to stop this god.

Thor screams and rushes at his his friend-turned-foe, hammer raised and ready to strike.

The zombies run forward, screaming through dead lips. The heroes run and fly at them, prepared to destroy their foes if needed.

And then...

(SPYGOD is listening to The Neon Indian (Glitzy Hive) and having a Thor's Equinox