Sunday, April 26, 2015

1/17/13 - Seven Days of the Con Job - Pt. 6.5

"Lo! Death Has Reared Himself a Throne."
Tempete Bleu (Aka Armilus)
(Art by Dean Stahl)
* * *

We should not be here, now, woman, the Other tells Ciel Rouge as she flits her way across Washington DC, never staying in one spot for longer than a few minutes. 

"I know," she says, looking up at the skies for any sign of the person she's come here to find: "This is ill-considered, dangerous, and not a good idea."

But you're going to do it anyway.

"Yes," the red-shrouded woman insists, teleporting not far from the Jefferson Memorial -- strangely deserted on this afternoon: "This conspiracy must be exposed, and now! This obscenity... the innocents imprisoned, the plan they have!"

A plan you could stop all by yourself, now that you know what you do.

"Yes. I've gotten all the information I needed. That part was easy. But now I need to go public with it, and now. And to do that I'll need more than simply my word."

You'll need the help of that lightning-throwing fellow who, up until a week or so ago, you didn't trust either. 

"I know," she sighs, looking up and around for any sign of him: "The truth makes for strange bedfellows." 

It also makes for uncomfortable revelations. 

"What do you mean?" 

I mean that, if you meet him? I cannot help you. 

Ciel Rouge blinks, and then shakes her head: "Why?" 

I cannot tell you. All I can say is that, if you choose to confide in him, instead of simply going it alone, you must walk alone for a time. 

"Of all the sullen, stupid, spiteful things..." the red woman mutters.

This is not about spite, woman. This is about your soul. This is about the mission you were placed on. 

"What do you think I'm doing?"

Hiding behind a man, apparently. 

"I need his help. Surely you can see that?"

Then you don't need ours.

"Wait," she says, but it's too late. Her Other has left her.

"Well fine," she declares: "If you want to pull this merde on me again, so be it. I am tired of your ridiculous attempts to teach me something without explanation. You just walk away! See if I need you."

It's a childish tirade, she knows. She feels incredibly stupid and small for having said it. But given how fickle her Other can be -- how smug and yet childish -- she doesn't feel the least bit sorry. It'll come back to her at some point, either when it thinks it's made its point, or else when it gets lonely again. 

Until then, she'll just have to handle this on her own. 

Ah, there. She sees Tempete Bleu, up ahead. He's floating over the White House for some reason. And the look on his face...

For a moment, she thinks maybe she shouldn't do this after all. Whenever she looks at him, there's always been that weird, visceral reaction in her gut -- the one that makes her wonder who's side he's really on.

But no. She'll need help in this. She'll need the word of France's greatest hero if she's to take on the knight of Paris, to say nothing of an entire agency of the Terre Unifee, and who knows how many National Facilitators.

He sees her. She knows this, as she can feel the uneasy reaction to his gaze. She can also tell that he's smiling, though she's not sure why. 

And as she teleports over to meet him, hopefully halfway, she can only hope it's as a friend, rather than anything else. 

* * *

"So what do I say?" New Man muses as he walks through the wintery streets of Old Deerfield, looking for an impossible building: "Just passing through? Mind if I come in? !@#$, anyone home?"

He has no idea. All he knows for sure is that he has a job to do -- one he's not sure he can do, now or ever.

But one he has to try, if only to save his son.

This sleepy, Massachusetts town is a living museum: an 18th century community, lovingly restored, and presented as a page out of the past. It's prosaic and calming, especially now that it's ankle-deep in fresh snow. And as he walks, he can almost imagine the years flipping back upon themselves, leaving him blissfully alone in another place, another time.

No wonder Doctor Power liked it so much -- he always seemed a man out of his era.

A long time ago, when he first appeared on the scene, the Doctor claimed he'd found a doorway to nowhere, here in this town. He'd gone in and done battle with the terrible things he'd found there, and then used his will to carve a sanctum out of the resulting void. And there, in the strange intersection of realms and forces, he'd used the occult secrets he'd learned at the feet of the Great Masters to perform wonders and miracles -- using his sorcery for the cause of right and justice.

Sadly, most of that had turned out to be bull!@#$.

As they learned later, Doctor Power had made deals with a number of devils and demons to get his powers. He'd been reckless and feckless, and left the bodies and friends and allies strewn behind him as he'd danced forward, ever-seeking a new patron who'd erase the sorcerous debts he owed so many others.

He was, in the words of one of those many broken friends, a gambling addict using the world as collateral while playing dice with the Gods. 

In the end, Doctor Power's bill finally caught up with him in a big way, and cost a truly innocent life. SPYGOD had taken matters into his own hands, and the magician never been seen since. Some say the devils had come to collect on their marker, others claimed he'd hidden himself away so deep even they couldn't find them.

And then there were those who insisted -- in spite of all sense -- that he was just biding his time before coming back, smug as always and better than ever.

New Man didn't know what to think. He'd known the man since the Liberty Patrol, and while he wasn't always the nicest guy, or the easiest to understand, he'd always seemed to be decent, under it all. The sort of person you could trust your life to with no compunctions or regrets.

Or maybe that was just his being naive. Maybe he'd been fooled like the others. Maybe even worse than the others.

Maybe he'd just narrowly missed being one of those many victims, left behind in the man's mad dash for occult power.

But no matter how Doctor Power had come across it, the door to nowhere was real. So was the sanctum behind it. And, if what Mr. USA had told him was correct, that was also the location of the COMPANY's secret Third Base.

It made perfect sense in a way. SPYGOD made his home in a decommissioned supervillain weapon, and floated above the clouds in a mobile base of operations with enough firepower to crack open the Earth. He'd had a seven-sided stronghold built in DC just to thumb his nose at the Pentagon, and took his Scouts vacationing in a pocket universe, alternate Earth full of dinosaurs.

So if he was going to have a secret, third base for the COMPANY, why wouldn't he have it be through a mystic portal?

And that's what New Man was here to find, apparently. According to Mr. USA, there was untold amounts of aid and information, waiting right within it. AGENTS no one else knew about, hiding in there, doing who knows what. Tools and toys and weapons galore, all ready to be used to break SPYGOD out of jail -- for good, this time -- end this French farce, and make all concerns about his son's safety something of a moot point.

All he had to do was figure out how to get in.

A tall order, perhaps, but something Mr. USA thought he might have a special angle on. Given that his powers seemed to come from tapping into something, rather than being an accident of biology, or converting one kind of energy into another, it was just conceivable he might be able to transmute himself through the barrier, there. And if he could do that, well, maybe he could be the one to get in and out, and bring whatever was waiting in there back out into the world again.

As he strides towards his destination, New Man considers -- for something like the three-hundredth time -- that this could all be a trap. Maybe Mr. USA wasn't on the side of the angels after all. Maybe the TU is watching him, even now. Maybe that electric !@#$ from Le Compagnie is lurking nearby, just about to give the signal and have him turned into lunch meat.


He sighs, shrugs, and keeps walking. Even if this was a trap, it was far too late to turn back, now. He had to go forward and just hope he could do what he was supposed to do.

He had done a lot of good in his life. He'd also done some bad, here and there. And one of the worst things he'd ever done was to turn his back on his son when he was growing up, and not be there for him. His child had grown up bitter and broken without him, and while part of that was because of the poison his mother had dripped into his ears, a large measure of it had to lay at his feet for having not been there to show him any different.

Maybe this couldn't erase all that neglect, or fix how cluelessly he was doing this "dad's back in your life" thing, now, it could go some distance to make up for it.


That thought makes him smile, just a little. It's enough that he barely notices how everything goes too silent, just before a far-off crack splits the air.

And then there's a bullet inside his chest, right through his heart.

He gasps and tips forward, but before he can cry out he feels a weird sensation -- like he was being shut down from the inside out by something intent on chaining him with his own energy.

"Oh !@#$, not again," he mutters, and then flickers like a broken television, just before being sucked right into the bullet that felled him. Only, unlike the last time someone disrupted his energies so grossly, he's able to see what's going on around him -- albeit from the warped cylinder of the projectile.

A large figure appears in his field of vision. Then it becomes two people, both of whom he thinks he knows.

A hand reaches down to pick him up, and he realizes he does know this person, but something has changed.

He also knows that weapon slung over her shoulder, from his brief time as Director of the COMPANY.

But he doesn't even have time to say its name -- much less hers -- before the two figures become one, again, and he's somewhere else entirely.

* * *

Fangataufa, Gunther has finally realized, is a really !@#$ty place to get killed.

It's just a picturesque atoll, on the southernmost part of so-called French Polynesia. A vaguely squarish, broken, and thin line of sand some nine and a half kilometers to a side. About 45 square kilometers of water on the inside, deep and blue due to a crater in its center.

A crater formed by the atoll's one real claim to fame -- having been the site of over 200 nuclear weapons tests by France.

Browbeaten by world opinion, the French stopped their testing in the 90's. However, the damage was already done: the area's ecosystem had been wrecked by radiation and nuclear waste, and fallout had caused birth defects on numerous other islands throughout the archipelago. This made what would otherwise be a beautiful and secluded area a massive no-go zone, even for the most foolhardly of visitors and tour companies.

It also made it the best place to hide something.

Finding that something had been Gunther's part of the mission. He'd looked into Champlain Entreprises, following its many trails of cash and materiel -- a significant amount of which ended in French Polynesia. After that, it was a simple thing to follow supplies to a seemingly-abandoned nuclear testing post on nearby Tureia, and then observe what went on at night, when a fleet of submersibles left the post, heading due south.

And, after that, a simpler -- but ultimately foolhardy -- thing to smuggle himself onto one of those submersibles, and then infiltrate the base they'd built within that crater.

And then see what secret that crater contained...

Gunther had to give them credit. In spite of all they'd found, and what they realized might be going on -- based on who was at the center of it -- the moment of realization was rather overwhelming. He found himself regretting that his otherwise-impeccable piece of reportage had been marred by his saying "Scheiße" on camera as he panned over the length of what he'd seen.

He also regretted saying that for the simple fact that it had completely blown his cover, leading to a number of well-armed and very unamused guards firing at him.

He'd given as good as he'd gotten, of course. He'd even taken a few of them out as he'd run back the way he'd come, narrating his findings all the way. Sadly, he'd zigged when he should have zagged going down one of the long, steel cylinders leading from the central pen, and took some bullets for his pains.

As Gunther crawls backwards towards a corner wall, using one hand to cradle his guts and his other to drag himself on -- and somehow hold his almost-empty rifle -- he knows this is probably it. The bullets they hit him with are the special, frangible kind that shatter against hard surfaces, making them ideal for pressurized environments. They also tend to shatter inside the human body, creating all kinds of trauma as they go.

And as he struggles towards the corner, the splinters grind against each other deep within his guts, making each inch he makes a special kind of agony.

He can feel his brothers and sisters calling out to him, knowing that something is wrong, but he's doing his best to block them. He doesn't want them to feel this pain, for fear of tripping them up. He doesn't want them to suffer the same kind of trauma they experienced just over two years ago, when Geri and Johan died.

He doesn't want their last memories of him to be how badly he's !@#$ed up, in search of the story.

"I love you all," he says, hoping they can somehow feel him without hearing, and then presses upload, sending all the information he's gotten straight on to them.

A hail of gunfire reaches him seconds later. The bullets turn him into ragged, bloody meat. 

But they can never stop the truth.

* * *

His name was Orange Streak. He was a space hero. And now he is dead.

He floats about 100 miles up, his body a mess of burned flesh inside what's left of his spacesuit. Perfect, flash-frozen spheres of his blood float around him, glittering like rubies in the sunlight. His last enigmatic gesture -- an outstretched arm, as if to stop his killer -- makes a heroic pose against the black.

He is dead, now. He is far from the only one.

Hundreds of miles beyond that floats another hero. His name was Krasnoye Koltso, named for the mysterious red ring he wore. An artifact of deranged Soviet science, it allowed him to create anything he could imagine, and survive in almost any environment, provided he fed it with his own body.

Like the brave cosmonauts before him who'd wielded the ring, he'd started out a large, tall man, and slowly shrunk down as the ring took more out of him that heavy eating and ridiculous weight training could replace. A small, spinning top of a corpse, he tumbles end over end, falling away from the ship-shaped star that killed him.

He'll reach the Earth, eventually, there to burn on the way down to the ground. They may find the ring, to give it to yet another idealistic young man.

On the other hand, they may not.

Past that, the line of dead heroes continues. The enigmatic Ether Phantom floats far beyond, invisible even in death. Stellar Sandy's amazing space horse lies broken and still, having long since bucked its rider towards the Lagrange Point she used to patrol. Some distance beyond that, a dysfunctional family of cyborgs crackles and twitches in their death throes, knowing too well that there will be no last minute rescue.

No one will be coming to save them from their bravado, this time.

They were proud, these guardians of Earth's upper atmosphere and near-orbit. With the demise of Deep-Ten, they were our first and last line of defense against cosmic menace, space-based malfeasance, or asteroids that came too close for safety. And when they got word that something hostile was headed for the Sled, it went without saying they raced into action, confident they could overcome it.

Confidence that was sadly misplaced.

They were young, most of them, and had no idea what they were up against. And even those who'd seen the Fire Flier in action might not have known just how dangerous an adversary it was. They may not have even seen all its weapons systems in action -- products of the best technology a paranoid, high-tech nation could produce, or else steal from the strange things that tried to attack it.

They never even had a chance, and the line of the dead pays bitter testament to this fact.

The procession of floating corpses goes on and on, slowly becoming more sparse the further it gets from Earth. And as the ship approaches its destination,  Mister 10 laughs and cries in equal measure, screaming bright blue abuse at the man who's taken everything from him.

He's given up on demands, though. He realized, somewhere between liftoff and the first kill, that there will be no going back from this. He will not be given Hanami at the end of this trail of death. He will only get death, itself.

But he will take Faraj al-Ǧazāʼir with him, and that will be enough.

(He wonders, is this what insanity feels like? He considers whether the machine has begun to warp his mind, just as it warped Dr. Toriyumi, and all those young fools he got to fly her. Or maybe he's always been this crazy, and it's just now coming into focus, at the end of his life.)

The Sled is close, now. He can almost make out fine details. If he's going to turn this ship into fire, and plunge on in to his death, now is the time.

He's a simple gesture away from turning on the transmutation matrix when he looks ahead, and sees that she's standing there, in space.

Hanami. His Hanami. His beautiful little girl, floating in the vacuum in her schoolgirl outfit, serene and smiling.

For a moment he thinks he might actually be able to win this. Maybe she's come for him. Maybe he's going to fly on over to meet him, and come inside his ship.

Maybe, now that she's seen how far he's willing to go for his love for her, she will love him at last...?

He smiles, hopeful. She smiles as well. But it isn't until she raises a languid hand and cocks her head just so that he realizes she's not here to join him.

She's here to end him.

He screams. It's a pitiful, sad sort of thing -- hardly worthy of him, or the image he tried to project all those years. The deadly, dangerous man no one dared cross. The scourge of Prime Ministers, the man who held the keys to all the hazardous things that fell from the sky or rose from the waves.

Mister Ten, the taciturn keeper of sea monsters, space machines, and miracles -- undone by one of his own possessions, but yet something he could never truly possess.


There's a bright flash of light, followed by an even brighter one. A second star flares in the sky, not far from the ship being crafted in orbit.

And then there's just darkness, once again.

Darkness, and the dead.

* * *

A long time ago, when he was a young boy, Tempete Bleu dreamed of bug zappers.

His father had one. It was large and black and hung from a high branch in their backyard -- just high enough for the kids to not be able to reach it, but not so tall that an adult couldn't reach up, unscrew its base, and shake the dead insects out. They would eat a late dinner on the patio, in spring and summer, and the sound of the occasional insect going zapppp never failed to raise a chuckle.

He would sometimes stare at it, as he sat on that porch -- hearing its low hum, watching it waver in the heat. Sometimes he thought it was talking to him, and maybe it was. And at night, he would dream he was a human bug zapper, and that he could reach out and shock people with a touch of his fingers: bullies at school, the teachers who annoyed him, his parents who punished him.

Zap zap zap. 

As he got older, and his needs changed, he would dream of a different kind of zapping. He would slip himself into the women he wanted, and the noises they made as he did were a source of much satisfaction. The moaning in pleasure. The screams of pain.

The burning.

Zap zap zap.

Was that his power trying to express itself at an early age? He wondered, sometimes. He wondered a lot of things, now that he knew even more about himself than he'd ever dreamed, or dared.

And now that he knows exactly who he is, and his part in things, he's amazed he didn't think of daring to do that particular thing before now.

Ciel Rouge was the ideal candidate for it, really. Any ordinary woman would have died too soon, but something about how she was put together made her last a lot longer. And the fact that her mind was mostly gone even before he started kept her from going into shock.

(Showing her the truth about himself was too much for even her to bear, oddly enough.)

In truth, he'd been planning to do this to her for some time. Something about how she clearly revolted him caused him no end of excitement. He hated her for hating him, and yet wanted her because of that hate.

And when she came before him, trying to get him to be on her side against Foudre Blanc? Oh, that was just the most perfect excuse to make this happen.

So he let her speak to him, hidden around a corner of that monument-strewn town like a pair of spies conferring. He let her accusations wash over him, and pretended to be interested, and to care. He even looked a little sad when she shed a tear, clearly upset by the plan she'd uncovered, and the white knight of Paris' role in it all.

So when he put his hands on her shoulders, ever so gently, and looked into her eyes, she was unaware of what was happening until he opened his true eyes, and showed her Hell.

He expected more of a fight, truly. He thought that "Other" she spoke of might manifest itself, in that moment, and give him something resembling a real fight. But if it was there, it chose not to intervene, and she could only scream and flail as her mind shattered to pieces.

After that, he brought her up here, to his broken throne above the world. He tore her red shroud from her, and all other things besides. And then he took her in as slow and intimate a way as possible, in as many ways as he could conceive -- some of which should have been impossible, even for him, but were somehow accomplished.

And now that he is sated, draped nude across his throne, he ponders what to do with what's left of her.

He can sense her Other, lurking nearby. It might be trying to hide from him, but he's neither fooled nor threatened. It's clearly powerless without a living body to possess, and he's left very little of hers worth retaking.

All it can do is curse him, though it maintains a hard, stoic silence he can't quite decipher.

He can also hear his mentors speaking to him, from beyond. They ask if this was really a worthy act for one such as he, almost at the cusp of taking his power. Surely he could find more worthy targets, and more worthy ways to dispatch them...?

He pretends to not hear them. They have taught him all they can, and brought him this far. Now he must do what needs doing, and in his own way.

To that end he gets up, grabs her near-lifeless body, and -- with three quick spins -- hurls it straight towards the Sun, some distance away.

"A revoir," he salutes her, his mouth a crazy nest of fangs nestled within lips of barbed wire: "Salope."

And then she's gone from his sight, leaving him to consider his next move, now that Les Trois Grandes are down to only two. Is the end of this era an auspicious thing, or merely part and parcel of how this world ends?

He's not sure, yet. But by the time he figures out what to do next, and why, his broken victim has hurtled past the Moon, heading for a star.

And what may be a final change.

* * *

In the hidden room beneath the White House, where a holy sword once blazed, there is now nothing but the most ephemeral of glows.

A heap of corrupted slag bubbles and boils in the center of the darkened room -- its sorry state testament to the power of Hell's emissary. It does its best to reassemble itself, and stand tall once again, but each attempt only weakens it all the more. Before long, it's clear that it has no option but surrender.

And as it finally gives up, and the last, trembling vestige of Heaven's power and grace leaves it like a long-overdue death rattle, the room goes completely dark.

In that eerie silence that follows, there's a sound not unlike a long, well-forged chain falling from a mighty, invisible gate, and then the sound of that gate slowly opening.

The world shifts, just then.

And the moment it does, a strange, bone-white man with black skulls for eyes stands up from his throne, in his superslam cell in the Ivory Coast, and opens his mouth in a massive O. The ghosts that attend him howl and swirl in his wake, suddenly afraid for their unlives as a large measure of power flows from the world right into his body.

And he gasps, and shudders, and then stands perfectly still -- almost serene.

For the first time in ages, Prisoner 52 knows who he is.

More importantly, he knows what he is.

And he knows why he's been down here so long, unable to fully recollect his name.

"Satanoth," he says, walking out of his cell and out to the balcony before it, putting his hands on the railing and looking down at the sorry kingdom of living dead men he's ruled for so long.

"Satanoth" he repeats, both amused and angered by his predicament.

"Satanoth!" he screams, his hands bending the rails as his voice shatters the boundaries between the land of the living and the many realms of the dead, allowing a sudden, brutal traffic between them all.

And as bedlam rules, and he laughs to feel the power once again, his mind reaches out to those like him -- lost all those years ago -- to find his brothers and sisters in power.

All those sleeping Supergods, about to wake up and taste freedom.

And Gods only know what they'll do with it.

* * *

My Nerves Are All Jangled
But I'm Pulling Through
I Hope I Can Handle
What I Have To Do

* * * 

(SPYGOD is listening to Only The Wind (Pet Shop Boys, live) and having a Thanatos

Sunday, April 19, 2015

1/17/13 - Seven Days of the Con Job - Pt. 6.0

The New Rulers of The World
The Angle, Emperor of Pain, Chassis
The Pusher (with METALMAID), Lord of Spiders, The Sound
(Art by Dean Stahl)

* * *

It's Only the Wind
They Say it's Getting Worse
The Trouble That it Brings
Haunts Us Like A Curse

* * *
It's 7:26 in the AM, and the Sun's rays strike a monster, floating

Tempete Bleu is hovering outside a certain window in a certain high apartment building, over in Neo York City. It's the one that was, up until a few days ago, surrounded by angry protestors and the news media -- all hoping to get a piece, however remotely, of its infamous occupants. 

At least until the occupants pulled off an audacious -- if short-lived -- escape.

Now the angry demonstrators are all gone. In their place are legions of Terre Unifee guards, police vans, and the occasional tank armed with subsonic crowd suppressors. They stand toe to toe on the remnants of furious signs, written in dozens of languages, and sneer at the passions they read there. 

Up above them all, their greatest hero stands on the air, itself, looking into the newly-replaced, much stronger window that houses their charge: SPYGOD, himself, fresh from recapture, interrogation, and the mother of all punitive beatings.

He's sitting on a couch in the front room, dressed in only a light, white coverall with prisoners markings and a half-mask to cover up his eye. He's right across from a bulky, white-armored Russian hero -- Bely Rytsar -- who's leaning against the wall, languidly watching him for any sign he might try to leave, again. 

He's not, though. 

He's sitting there with his arms wrapped around his chest, still sore and bruised. He's got his headphones on, and is listening to the same song, over and over agan.

And he's trying not to cry, but is clearly just one little push away from failing miserably. 

Tempete grins to see him so broken, so low. And the thought that, when the time comes for him to be executed for his many crimes, he will be the one to fling him into the Sun? 

Oh, that just makes him smile all the more. 

It's decided, then. First he goes along with this farce of a trial, then the punishment. And when his man-turned-god -- who doesn't even know who Tempete Bleu really is -- is a cloud of gay cinders in orbit around their star? 

Then he will crack the world, burn the sky, and turn the rain to blood and !@#$.

Just another day or so, and he ends everything, well ahead of whatever superfluous doom is on its way. 

He can wait. 

* * *

"I will begin this by saying that I am not a patient man," the grey-haired Mexican fellow -- dressed in the flowing, long red robes of a Catholic cardinal -- says, as he lays out strange, sinister-looking things on the tray between Mark Clutch and Martha Samuels

"I know," Martha says, looking at El Inquisidor Escarlata as best as she can through the bonds of her chair: "My father worked with you, once. He said you were insane. No better than the criminals you fought."

"Well, there we have a disagreement," the man says, turning to regard the naked woman, strapped down so tight it's a torture unto itself: "One of many, if we're being totally honest. 

"And we will, I can assure you," he added, his smile a thin, cold thing.

This was the dreaded Truth Room, far down below the Heptagon, inside its super-slam. Down here, captured costumed villains, super soviets, heroes gone bad, and other undesirables were thrown into escape-proof cells for what might be months, years, or a lifetime. 

And if they were let out at all, it was only to come here for questioning. 

Martha had heard a number of horror stories about this room, over the years. All the heroes did. Some of them were just rumors, spread by SPYGOD and his AGENTS to spook strategic talents into behaving themselves. And it didn't hurt that, every so often, some idiot in a cape would switch sides, get caught, and prove those rumors true. 

But this black, brick cylinder? Its walls spattered with old, dried blood and what might have been human !@#$? Hung with the sorts of things Martha had only seen in one of those awful gory movies a long-gone boyfriend had insisted on watching with her? 

This was real, and worse than she ever could have imagined. 

"Your friend," the scarlet-robed man says, indicating a similarly-undressed, equally-bound Mark: "He has never heard of me? Yes or no."

"I don't know," Martha says, and instantly regrets it. She barely sees the man move before he's picked up something from the tray between their chairs -- like something from a Cronenberg movie -- and jabs it into the spot where Mark's left pectoral muscle meets his arm. 

The resulting scream is loud and bright, and makes her ears rattle along with his teeth. 

"That is the first and last time I will hear that phrase here, today," El Inquisidor Escarlata says, holding the instrument there just long enough to let the scream die down, and then removing it just as quickly: "If you say it again, I will do permanent damage to him. If he says it, I will do permanent damage to you. This is understood?"

"Yes," Martha says, clearly afraid to ask him the obvious question. 

"Yes," Mark whispers.

"The truth, then," the man smiles, wiping the instrument with a sterile pad and putting it back down: "Mine is a useful ability. I can tell, without fail, whether someone is lying to me or not. I can tell a brazen lie from a small one. I can even discern if someone is holding something back, or knows, on a subconscious level, that there's more to be told.

"Sadly, I cannot tell what that truth actually is. So I must resort to other means to get it out of them. Once upon a time, I merely scared criminals. By the time I'd met your father, I was beating it out of them. Since then, I have... refined my methods."

"And now you torture people for Le Compagnie," Martha says: "You must be proud of yourself-"

"Martha," Mark cautions: "I don't think we want to !@#$ this guy off."

"A very astute observation," the man says, picking up what might be a very good attempt to blend H. R. Giger with Freddy Krueger from his tray of toys, and then slipping it onto his left hand: "I can see why you two are in love. You are in love with each other, yes?"

"Yes," Martha says.

"... yes," Mark says, with just a little trepidation.

"Oh, there's no need to be ashamed or afraid, young man," the Inquisidor says, flexing the biomechanoid blades he's affixed to his fingers: "We know of your feelings for one another. That is why I am here. It is hoped I can extract the truth from you without having to rely on more crude and final methods. Perhaps when this is over, and your co-conspirator is tried, convicted, and sentenced, you can be publicly rehabilitated. You can be put to work, once more, for the good of society?"

"I won't serve them," Martha says: "I'll answer your questions if I can-"

"You will answer them even if you cannot," the man corrects her, putting a blade under her nose, and then right up into her nostril: "You see, when dealing with a man like SPYGOD, we can only assume he had plans within plans, and schemes within schemes. We can only assume there was much going on that he did not tell you, but that you might have seen pieces of. So I am here to help you piece those things together, so that we may learn all we can."

"And you know we know something even if we don't realize it," Mark realizes: "So you can torture us to death if we can't remember his secret code words. Is that what you're saying?"

"Exactly," the man says, gently flicking the knife, which takes out the side of Martha's nostril. She screams in pain, and then tries to get hold of her emotions, but fails when Mark starts screaming on her behalf. 

"You bastard!" he shouts, especially when he uses a spray can of stinging and painful disinfectant upon the wound, followed by some weird spray that causes it to cauterize, but not really heal. 

"I have been called worse," the man says, only now wiping the blood from the blade: "But know this, Mark Clutch. I give you my word I will not torture you to death, provided you cooperate. I have not been allowed the luxury of that, here. 

"Now, that's not to say you, or her, will ever be desirable again," he continues: "You may have to hide your faces behind masks for more than crimefighting. You may need prosthetics, or transplants. In time they may even allow you to have some plastic surgery, just to be seen in public. 

"But you will always bear some evidence of this time we've spent together," the man says, smiling coldly once more: "A small little gift, from me to you."

"Know this," Martha says, her face streaked with blood and nasty, brown flakes of coagulant: "You can torture us, you can kill us. But you can't take Heaven from us. You do understand that, right?"

"Oh, I do," El Inquisidor Escarlata says, moving over to where Mark sits, and considering where to cut first: "But Heaven's gates are a long way from here, and we have only begun our journey."

And - with that gruesome decision made -- the interrogation truly begins.

* * *

"C'est bien, c'est bien," Henri says into his communicator as he saunters out of the transport, heading across the Heptagon's landing platform along with a few other folks who made the trans-Atlantic trip with him: "Appelez-moi quand ils apprennet quelque chose? Bien. Bien. A bientot."

"Well hello," Josie says, standing at the edge of the platform, and smiling to see Henri. In response he smiles back and walks over just a little faster. 

"Hello, my dear," he says when he gets there, going to kiss her on both cheeks. To his surprise she wraps her meaty arms around him, snuggles him close, and picks him a full foot off the ground, much to the amusement of those nearby. 

"I'm so glad you're here," she whispers into his ear, smiling: "Please tell me this isn't just about what's going on down in the sub-basement?"

"Only in part," he gasps, indicating that maybe she should put him down -- which she does, ever so carefully: "The President has sent me over here to discuss a number of things. Most of which we should probably do in private."

"Agreed," she says, and gestures to her exclusive elevator, nearby. When they approach he feels a weird sensation -- like being tickled by the wind right down to his DNA -- and then the door slides open, somewhat begrudgingly. 

"So, the trial?" she says as soon as the doors are closed, turning to look down at the little man: "We need more information?"

"We need everything," he says, his eyes gleaming a little: "Anything we can find out from his lover. Anything we can find out from the Team Alpha members we've actually captured, rather than merely killed. Anything from his old associates, some of which are still in hiding, I'm led to believe?"

"'We want... information,'" she quotes, matching the gleam in his eye, and then being a little disappointed when he doesn't get it: "You never watched The Prisoner?"

"Should I have?" he asks, a little confused: "Was it one of those Showtime things?"

"Oh no," she says, hitting the button to go down: "It was a British show from the 60's."

"That's probably why I never watched it," he shakes his head: "I cannot stand the rosbifs or their television shows. I'm hoping we can find an excuse to burn their BBC to the ground, one of these days."

"Well, this was ITC, so hopefully you'll spare it," she grins, delighting that he doesn't know the difference: "Anyway, there's this spy, and he quits his job. His superiors aren't happy with his decision, and think he might have sold out to someone else. So they kidnap him, take him to some weird place called The Village that he can't escape from, and tell him he's now Number 6. Everyone's got a number there, and someone named Number 2 is running the show. Every episode there's a new Number 2 trying to get him to say why he quit, which he won't do, and every episode he refuses."

"I don't like him already," Henri grouses: "What sort of a person won't answer a straight question from their superiors?"

"Who indeed."

"And shouldn't it be Number One instead of Number Two?" the man goes on as the elevator stops: "Who is Number One?"

"'That would be telling,'" she quotes again as they step into her office: "Anyway, the point isn't the story. It's the point of the story. It was about maintaining human dignity, freedom, and individuality in a world where nothing was what it seemed, anyone could be plotting against you, and the real enemy was often hiding in plain sight."

"It sounds juvenile," he sniffs, going over to her desk and putting his briefcase down upon it.

"Well, I fall asleep watching it," she says, smiling at him: "So I suspect you'll see at least a few episodes while you're here."

He smiles a little at that, thinking of some of the interesting things he brought along with him.

This was, indeed, going to be a lot of fun. 

* * *

"So, what do we do with our world first?" the Pusher asks his fellow conspirators, who are sitting at a table across the room the map of the planet they just stole from the Terre Unifee.

"We could totally !@#$ing disrupt the food distribution in Asia," The Angle chuckles, extending his arm through a geometric jump to literally point at the map from across the room: "I figure some starving faces on the nightly news'll bring it home. Who doesn't love a humanitarian crisis?"

"I wouldn't care about them," the Emperor of Pain sighs, trying to enjoy the coffee that Chassis "liberated" from the local Big Belly, just this morning: "The Third World is always starving to death. They'll find some has-been rock stars and throw a benefit concert if the disruption goes on too long."

"Your cynicism is amusing," the Pusher says, having another sip of his special tea, and then putting the mug down on his new trophy -- the dreaming head of METALMAID, perched on top of a car battery.

"Which means you disapprove," the old man replies, furrowing his brow over his domino mask. 

"No, it means it's amusing. But do you have something other than it to offer?"

"I'd say a breakdown in medical supplies to Europe. When their children can't get their insulin and their parents can't have their heart medication, you'll get their attention."

"I say scare them," the Lord of Spiders says: "A military accident. All those transports going overhead, carrying munitions to who knows where? Drop them from the sky over someplace small but photogenic."

"Where would you pick?" the Angle asks, very interested in this.

"Barcelona," the tarantula-faced man says, pounding his fist on the table: "It's pretty and inconsequential."

"I always wanted to go there, someday," The Sound says, somewhat wistfully: "Ring myself in the Sagrada Familia."

"Do you have another suggestion?" the Pusher asks, sighing.

"Well, let me think-"

"That's the problem!" Emperor of Pain shouts, almost spilling his coffee "We've been at this for two !@#$ days and we haven't come up with a good idea we can all agree on, and it's because we're thinking."

"So we just do something, and !@#$ the consequences?" the Emperor of Spiders asks: "Well, that sure sounds familiar-"

"Quiet, both of you," the Pusher says, putting his tea down on their former leader's head: "We just got rid of one shrill !@#$. Let's not replicate her by accident."

There's some giggling there, but not from the two elder villains in question.

"I think the Emperor's right," the man goes on, adjusting his million dollar, green tie: "We control every superhuman mechanism the TU has. We have a world of choices at our fingertips. It's more power than we've every had, any of us. And I'm sure we all know how power can be paralyzing. We chase a dream our whole lives, and then when we get it..."

"We're just a dog chasing a car, in other words?" the Angle asks.

"Man, I loved that movie," the Sound offers. 

"What movie?" the Lord of Spiders asks, and the others just sigh.

"So, we need a snap decision," the Pusher says, leaning over the table and looking each person in the eyes in turn: "We need one thing, right now, that will get their attention and show them how little control they have. How much we have. What we can do if they don't play ball. It has to be big, it has to be crushing. But it can't be so bad that we can't trump it with anything even worse."

"Then I say... Barcelona," the Emperor of Pain says, putting his hand out.

"Barcelona," the Lord of Spiders says, putting his hand over his friendly rival's.

"Barcelona," the Angle repeats, doing the same.

"... Barcelona," the Sound says, seeming a little sad.

The Pusher smiles, and puts his hand over theirs: "So be it. Barcelona Delenda Est."

And if either of the younger villains at the table don't understand the reference, they wisely keep it to themselves.

 * * *

"Of course, sir, please," the tall, balding Secret Service Agent says to the hovering, blue-clad hero, waving the way down the hall: "The White House is your house, sir. The National Facilitator isn't here, right now, but-"

"I'm not here to see him," Tempete Bleu says, smiling at the thought of shoving his !@#$ into a ragged crack in this man's gleaming pate, either before or after killing him: "I'm just visiting."

"Should he be informed of your being here, sir?"

"No," the hero says, patting the man on the head -- a promise for later,  perhaps: "I will find my way and show myself out. Thank you, Jerome."

And then he leaves, letting the fellow wonder how he knew his first name.

He knows them all now. Their names, their parents, their parents' parents. Their virtues few, their vices many. Their hopes and dreams and secret lusts, and how to turn them all against them.

But there's still a few things he doesn't know -- most notably, what's calling to him from the White House basement. 

The last time he was here, he felt something. He just wasn't sure what. It's part of why he asked Mr. USA that stupid question, though not all -- even Antichrists need to vaguebook from time to time, apparently.

So, since he was in this benighted, backwards, and all-too-undeservedly-powerful country to check up on SPYGOD, he figured he might go solve this mystery. As his new mentors were teaching him, there were no such things as coincidence. There was only prophecy unfolding, or destiny being decided anew. 

It's a short float to the basement. Then a small jaunt down one hall, then another. And then he's standing in front of a wall that shouldn't be there, and knowing full well there's something behind it.

Something very important, and powerful. 

Once, he would have torn down the wall. Now he simply tells it to ignore him, and it does. The metal made from alien ores does not deter him in his progress. 

What does is the blinding light on the other side: a bright, puissant flare that echoes the primal burst that created the universe, untold aeons ago, when his ultimate foe spoke those four hated words. The day when the barrier between light and dark was finally made, and those lovely, scrabbling things that lived within the latter were forced down and away. 

"Let there be light," he muses, his eyes adjusting to the sword stuck in the floor. 

He shouldn't be here, right now. He knows enough to know this. That light should have burned him up, heatlessly, giving him the shortest tenure of any Antichrist. 

And yet, apart from a sunburn he'll have to suffer through for a few hours, he's just fine. 

The answer seems to be in front of him. The sword has been poisoned, somehow. Tarnished on some metaphysical level. Made less.

"Well then," Tempete Bleu says, walking towards the strangely-impotent fire of his eternal adversary: "Here we both are, then. Are you going to strike me down for invading this shrine, marking your dominion? Or are you just going to wait for free will to defeat me, same as always?"
There is no answer. There never is, and never will be. His mentors have taught him that the Backers do not to answer with words, but action.

Alright, then. 

He unzips the front of his uniform. He pulls out his flaccid prick, and aims it at the sword. He grunts just a little, forcing a certain biological process into motion.

And then he splashes the sword with copious amounts of his urine, smiling as the holy metal shrieks and loses its light from the violation.

He laughs, then, watching the sword waver, sag, and begin to melt. It falls over to the floor, its glow wavering, then flickering, under the weight of his water. 

"Consider this the gauntlet thrown down, you ancient salope," he shouts: "The war is coming!"

And as the light goes away, and the darkness overtakes the room, the true sight of France's greatest hero begins to take shape...

* * *

... from the darkness she fell into when that nasty-looking, clearly-insane woman in the miniskirt -- and nothing else -- hit her that one, last time. 

Florence blinks, realizing she can't move or speak. For a scary moment she thinks she's been paralyzed, but within seconds she realizes she's just been immobilized by a series of high-tech, metal restraints. They're the kind that band around every joint in the body, one after the other, and then lock into each other to totally prevent movement. Metal Mummy, they call it. 

She's been Metal Mummyed, and the men who are wheeling her away are TU guards. 

!@#$. They got her. !@#$ it. 

She should have known better than to get in a fight with that crazy !@#$. Not in public, anyway. There were too many distractions. Too many onlookers. 

Too many innocent bystanders for that woman to grab hold of and hold hostage. 

And that's exactly what happened. No sooner did Florence -- aka the Red Wrecker -- and Suzi Slam start brawling in downtown Neo York City than the fight got turned into an impossible choice between running away and watching the deformed cheerleader gone wrong stomp on people. 

A choice she could not make. 

So she stopped fighting and started begging. She told the woman -- clearly suffering from muscle dysmorphia and some crazy-bad steroid abuse -- she could do whatever she wanted, just put down the kid. Please just put down the kid, and they'd talk. !@#$, she'd give her a free punch, just put the kid down. Please. Please.

It took three seconds too long for Suzy to make up her mind. She thought maybe she was getting through to her, but in reality she'd been thinking of how to hurt her the worst.
She threw the kid at Florence is what she did. Threw him like a javelin, right at her chest. It was all she could do to jump and catch him, cradling his neck and head as best she could to keep him from getting his neck broken.

And as soon as she was sure he was as okay as he was going to be, and put him outside of the fight, Suzy was right next to her, swinging at her temple. That's when things decided to go black for quite a while, and as far as she could tell it wasn't quite done with that. 

She closes her eyes, and suddenly she's in a transport, under armed guard.

She opens them again and they're wheeling her off it, across the landing pad at the Heptagon.

Another blink and she's in an elevator, going down. Yet another and she's being wheeled down a hallway, hearing screams she can't recognize and pleading from a voice she can.

And then she's in a room, being put into a cell that's been made to accommodate her special restraints. Suspended from its roof, wired in and tubed up, she can see she's not alone. Gosheven sleeps in a tank across the way. A man she's never seen before -- but somehow thinks she knows -- lies on a table, hooked up to all the life support in the world. 

And Yanabah swings from a Metal Mummy in another cell -- drooling from the tranquilizers they've dosed her with. 

"Don't worry," someone in a lab coat says, walking over to her with a large syringe in her hand: "We'll get to you, too, eventually. And when we do, I'm sure you'll be happy to talk."

She just stares at her, wishing she didn't have the gag in her mouth. If she didn't she'd very happy to tell her two very special words. 

But maybe that's what she gets for making a bad decision. 

Maybe that's how this is meant to go. 

The screaming starts up again, from down the hall. And when the blackness comes to call, once again, she decides to not fight it. 

Sometimes oblivion is the best option.

(SPYGOD is listening to Pet Shop Boys (Only the Wind) and having an Antichrist IPA)

Monday, April 13, 2015

1/16/13 - Seven Days of the Con Job - Pt. 5.5

The New Men - Son and Father
(New) New Man {aka Violet Demon}, (Old) New Man
(Art by Dean Stahl)
* * *

Five miles off the coast of Choshi, in Japan, there's an undersea hangar no one's been in for at least a decade. 

It's a sizable affair, though most of it is now flooded. In fact the only areas that have not fallen to the relentless pressure of the ocean floor -- and the occasional seaquake -- are the ones that were hurriedly encased in thick, radiation-blocking concrete, just before it was abandoned.

The areas that housed a certain, amazing spacecraft that had fallen to Earth, back in the late 60's. Laboratories that played host to the brilliant exo-cyberneticist who'd discovered how to make it work in the first place. Apartments that housed the brave young men and women who made it fly and fight, all confined to the base for what they believed to be reasons of absolute security. Machines that kept it all together, somehow, there on the bottom of the bay.

Those people are all gone, now -- this cold, damp hangar their secret tomb

The problem -- as a stack of Organization 9's ultra-redacted reports would later indicate -- was the ship, itself. More accurately, it was the strange, interdimensional power that animated it, and allowed it to transmute into pure energy, for a time. The energy gave off a particular etheric vibration that eventually drove its pilots mad.

Each team of Flying Young Science Commandos could withstand perhaps seven months of near-constant flight and battle before starting to go insane. This is why they were proactively euthanized in their sleep after six. They would then be replaced by a fresh, new team that had no idea of the fate awaiting them, half a year from then.

Dr. Toriyumi Ryu believed that not being in the ship would save him, but he had no idea how long and deep the vibrations could travel. Over the years, his mind was slowly warped by the energies of his great creation, but its effects were carelessly written off as the stress of isolation or overwork. The fact that he'd been quite eccentric before being sequestered didn't help matters much.

So it wasn't until he had to be shot before he ordered an attack on Tokyo -- all over a small misunderstanding with the Prime Minister over funding and autonomy -- that his superiors realized the extent of the problem.

Worse still, without Dr. Toriyumi's unique understanding of the ship, no one else had a hope of fixing the problem. Knowing the precariousness of his position, he'd jealously hoarded all information to himself. Even the most technically-oriented members of any Commando team ultimately had to follow his radioed directions to fix the simplest of mechanisms.

So was Project Fire Flier halted and buried by direct order of the Prime Minister, himself. The workers suddenly removed the air from the Flying Young Science Commandos' quarters, suffocating them where they stood. They slathered concrete everywhere, and then left on subs that were remote-detonated to preserve the secrets of the base. 

Mister 9 is, himself, quite dead. The leadership of his organization died along with him. From its ashes rose a new Organization, Ju Kikan -- Organization 10 -- whose leader entered into a rather unusual agreement with SPYGOD and the former President of the United States of America, in order to oust the Imago from the world. 

That leader -- the appropriately-named Mister 10 -- is no longer the leader of his own group, thanks to the Terre Unifee. And even if he were still in charge, he is no longer in the mood to make agreements and arrangements on behalf of what's left of it.

Now he is in the mood for revenge -- swift, brutal, and total.

It was a simple thing to steal a salvage submersible from one of their old, secret lockups. It was even simpler to come out here, to this sealed underwater tomb, and open one of the hatches that his predecessor had installed "just in case." 

It was not so simple to come down into a cold, wet chamber, smelling of damp and rot, and trudge through the condensation and disgusting, dead bodies of disposable teen heroes. It was also not so simple to do so with only a flashlight to guide him, and so many strange and unnerving surprises, waiting down there.

But Mister 10 is not afraid. He is the one others are afraid of. He tells himself this, step after step, as he imagines the strange, interstellar radiation of the Fire Flier working its lethal changes upon his brain.

No matter. Once he gets to the ship -- still in perfect working order, in spite of what he told that one-eyed gaijin -- he needs only a few minutes to get it to recognize his commands. Then it's just a matter of getting its engines warmed up so he can lift off, which shouldn't take more than a day.

And then getting up to the Sled and back, which shouldn't be a few hours, provided they do what he demands...

But if they refuse, and he cannot have Hanami? Then he has no desire to come back.

If he cannot win her back? He will gladly turn the Fire Flier into its namesake, and plunge it right into the Sled. 

If he cannot have her? Then he will die with her, and the Earth can watch him burn.

One last passage, one last body, and he stands before the ship. The spacecraft lights up at his approach, sensing the presence of a warm body after so long in the cold and the dark.

Mister 10 takes it as a sign, and gives a rare, begrudging smile.

* * *

The old man looks down at the city fifty stories below his feet, feeling the thrill of the hunt for the first time in years.

The TU transport vibrates as it hovers, which is throwing off his aim a little. He likes to tell himself that's why he keeps missing as he tries to kill his quarry. It's not true, but it's not like he has to believe in his own lies.

Lies are for other people, after all. He can handle the truth.

In fact, he demands it. 

He is Underman -- the original Underman, at that. The one who built the Tunnelator. The one who developed the vibration guns, drill bullets, rock melters, and numerous other devices and gadgets that made his criminal career.

And what a career he had! He stole and pillaged both above and below the Earth's crust. He struck terror into the hearts of law abiding citizens and police officers. He went further and deeper than any Lithonaut before him, mapping out wide swaths of the amazing world beneath our feet.

He came, he saw, he took -- discovered, learned, and stole.

And when he no longer felt the thrill of theft or discovery, and his joints began to ache too much to keep repairing that ancient, well-worked machine of his, he did the same, smart thing so many other aging supervillains did. He auctioned his franchise off by way of the Legion, and then retired to a tropical paradise, down in South America. There, in a small house between the jungle and the city, he would spend his sunset years happily spending what he'd earned, dreaming of his glory days, and maybe someday put it all down in print. 

That was the plan, anyway.

But then the fat piece of !@#$ who'd outbid the others had gotten himself captured by the COMPANY. And, rather than tell them to get stuffed, he'd utterly capitulated to their demands. He'd gone straight, as they said, which was bad enough.

Except that part of his "rehabilitation" was telling them where his aging predecessor had retired to.

Which was why one fine morning in September, two years ago, some ridiculous-looking man in a costume led a group of much less-camp soldiers into his mountaintop hideaway, and arrested him while he was having his morning shower.

That was bad enough. Worse still was that, as he'd refused to have his mind wiped, it wasn't too hard for the COMPANY to get all the information it needed from him. Thankfully, he'd given all his files and information over to the traitor, so they didn't have to use the N-machine.

That didn't stop them from giving him quite a workover, though. And when they were done with him, they sent him off to the Ivory Coast, there to be stuck in a super-slam.

That was two years ago, and he still lives with the reality of every terrible thing about that place. The lack of privacy and freedom. The removal of humanity and dignity. Being forced to live with some of the worst examples of humanity, and be guarded by even worse examples.

That and waking up every day knowing he'd been sold out. Betrayed by the overly-eager kid whose eyes had been so alive with wonder that the aging villain had actually told the auctioneer to all but give it to him, just because he thought he'd be good for it. The fat-faced piece of !@#$ who had sworn -- sworn -- that he would keep what he knew a secret.

Lies are for other people, but no one lied to Underman. Ever. 

Which is why he's slowly floating through the city, now -- carefully watching its streets through the scope on his gun.

The laughing madman -- Friendly Fire -- is acting to flush the pretender out. He's working to get him to step out of the maze of alleys and abandoned buildings and actually show up in the main streets.

Once he does, Underman will use the vibro-cannon on him.

From this distance, it'll take a while to reach critical mass. He'll have time to realize what he's in for as his entire body shakes, and the veins and arteries begin to burst under his skin, inside his lungs, and in his eyes.

He'll know who's killing him  -- and why -- before his bones shatter and organs burst, and his mind runs out of his mouth.

All he has to do is aim straight. All he has to do is nail him with the wide beam that doesn't quite reach down from this height.

All he has to do is rely on a crazy !@#$hole who hunts by echo-location, courtesy of his insane, endless laughter.

But sooner or later, he will have his revenge. Myron Volaar will show himself. The fake "Underman" will die.

Sooner or later, his pain will be redressed, and his betrayal avenged.

And that's the truth.

* * *

"Mssr. President, I must admit to some confusion..." Jean-Jacques says, hoping the man can hear him over the sounds coming from that ridiculous rifle the man's shooting at his own office walls.

"What do you mean?" the President asks, putting his spent gun down and sitting down in his chair, waiting for his gaggle of interns to put up fresh new targets.

"Why are we putting SPYGOD back into the very cell that he escaped from?" the fat man asks, trying to mask his frustration with apprehension: "We know full well, thanks to your inside person, that he was involved in a plot. Several, in fact!"

"We do, yes," the President answers, pulling a large flask from one of his desk drawers and unscrewing the cap.

"And if he was involved in those plots, he must have many more conspirators than we know of," the Minister says, gesturing to the screen halfway down the room that's tallying which members of Team Alpha have been captured or killed: "With all respect, I fear that having him back there, in plain sight, may act to rally them."

"Well, if you had to guess?" the President asks, offering the man a drink, which he refuses.

"Are you waiting for more information from the Owl and her lover?"

"No," the President says, having a long and fragrant pull from the flask: "We've got enough info as it is. Just the original charges alone are enough to pin him to the wall for an eternity, provided you've got your ducks in a row."

"Um, yes," the man says, a little miffed that the President would doubt his efficacy: "All your ducks are, as they say, in a row."

"Then we're good."

"I do not understand, Mssr. President."

The President snorts, and, taking another pull from the flask, raises a finger: "Let me explain something to you, Jean-Jacques.... you know that SPYGOD trained me for spy work for a time, right?"

"I think so..." the fat man says, knowing full well what happened in Mongolia, last September.

"One of the things he told me was to learn to think like the enemy. And one thing I know about SPYGOD is that, no matter how well you have him backed up to a wall, outgunned, outmaneuvered, whatever? He always has an exit strategy. !@#$, he always has fifty of the !@#$ things. He's got so many plans it's a wonder they aren't all stepping on each others feet like kids at a school dance."

"He does show remarkable foresight," the Minister admits: "So, you are worried that some of them may go off? If so, should we not place him someplace more secure?"

"Oh no," the President says: "He probably already figured on that. He's most likely got the exit strategies for the ten most likely lock-ups. So putting him back where he escaped from puts him at a disadvantage."

"Except that he may have had other things hidden there-"

"He did. But we know what they are, thanks to Straffer. And we took most of them away, and left a few behind, slightly altered. If he tries to use them he'll be in for an unpleasant surprise."

"Can we trust his lover?"

"Oh, I think we can," the President smiles: "I turned him good."

"You did it?" the Minister asks -- that is a surprise.

"I did," the man says, selecting a new rifle to fire, and then hefting it: "I got in touch with him not long after that farce with the Nthernaut, the other week. I made him a promise and a guarantee, just like SPYGOD taught me. The promise was that, if he cooperated, I'd put him in charge of the Space Service again, which was more than enough to get him back on our side."

"And the guarantee? I presume that was a threat?"

"Oh yes," the President says, his eyes like cold stone: "We can take him apart a lot easier than we put him back together. And when we're done, and he's just a brain in a tank? We can leave him in a dark room, somewhere, pumped full of those drugs we use to keep disembodied brains alive.

"The kind that cause the sort of nightmares where you don't know if you're alive and in pain, or dead and in Hell. And thanks to being unable to form long-term memories without sensory input? Well, every second it's a new bit of confusion and terror. A horrible sort of thing to do to a man, wouldn't you agree?"

"I would, yes," the Minister of Justice says, thinking of how many people he has in cerebral detention: "But what of SPYGOD's connection with the Nthernaut? Surely this must be a concern?"

"Ah!" the President smiles: "You've hit the nail on the head, Jean-Jacques. That's his ace in the hole. He's imprisoned in a city run by one of the most powerful allies. And you can bet his escape plan is going to use that."

"So we should move him-"

"No," the President sighs, shaking his head and turning the gun over and over in his hands: "You're missing the point, Jean-Jacques."

"Then perhaps the President can remind me of what it is?"

"Gladly," the President says, shooting a round into the floor between the fat man's feet, which does wonders to sharpen his concentration: "Remember how this man thinks. He's so paranoid that he thinks everything is out to get him, anything can go wrong, and everyone could either screw up or betray him.

"So he makes as many plans as he can to deal with every eventuality. Plans that even Straffer didn't know about. And to make those plans he needs as much information as he can get his hands on, and as many people to help him as he can command or force to do so.

"Now, does that make sense?"

"Yes... yes. It makes total sense," the man stammers, hoping he doesn't get shot at again. 

"Knowing that, we have to assume he knows we're making something to deal with the Nthernaut."

"But how? Even that eye can only see so much-"

"Same way he knows everything, Jean-Jacques. If he didn't have someone look into what we were doing, and find out our plans, he'd probably have used that box we confiscated and come spy on us himself..."

The Minister's face goes stark white at that. Clearly he hadn't considered SPYGOD and Straffer ghostwalking all the way to Paris.

"This also means we have to assume that he knows we have to wait until it's done to use it, and that the Maker will not be rushed.  Now, what does that suggest to you?"

Jean-Jacques opens his mouth like a fish, and then closes it. He has to shrug, and feel stupid under the President's withering glare.

"It means, Minister, that your prize criminal is going to try and escape from his cell just before that device becomes available. And that's because he always waits until the last minute to pull off a plan like this. Always. It's how he says '!@#$ you' to his enemies. And because he can't !@#$ing help it."

"But that is also when he at his most vulnerable..." the Minister says, finally getting it.

"Yes," the President says with a smile: "So we pull the rug out from under him, just then, and catch him with all his pants down. And then you'll have your trial, and we'll have the city under control, and everything will be right in the world again."

"Agreed," the fat man says: "But, what of his remaining allies? Could they not try and affect some plan of their own?"

"They're being mopped up as we speak," the President says, getting another text to indicate a success by Team Omega: "And as for others, I sent Henri over to talk to Josie. She's in charge of the COMPANY now, knows where the bodies are buried, has no love for SPYGOD at all, and wants to stay at her job.

"So if there's any chance we've overlooked something? I think they'll find it," the man says, indicating that someone should change a face on the board from AT LARGE to DEAD. 

"It's all about filling in the blanks, Jean-Jacques," the President says, grinning a little wider than his Minister of Justice is used to seeing.

* * *

"What does 'vanished' mean?" a certain, shadowy person is asking over the phone.

"I mean they're not here, sir," an invisible man wearing a no-suit explains, looking around the vast, underground cavern that used to hold the Toon Nation.

"How 'not' is 'not here'?"

"Sir, there are no people here, Toons or otherwise. There is no equipment or vehicles. There are no papers or supplies. If it wasn't bolted down to the walls, it's gone."

The shadowed man sighs and shakes his head: "Unacceptable. Getting tired of people just vanishing."

"Can we get something from IMINT, sir? Something must have seen something."

"Can't depend on satellites for anything, Agent. Believe me."

"Yes, sir," the agent says, knowing full well that the man does know all about that.

"No, this is a good, old-fashioned gumshoe problem. Look around. Talk to people. A whole colony of cartoons come to life doesn't just disappear without some trace."

"Will do, sir," the agent says, turning off his phone and heading out of the echoing chamber, knowing full well that he's probably pulled a losing assignment. The Toons picked a great place to hide out in: no one for miles around. If he finds anyone out here, they'll either be lonely weirdos or gun nuts, crazed from the heat. Maybe both.

He gets about three feet from the front entrance before a shadow hides the sun. He looks up and realizes what's casting that shadow has big ears, beady eyes, and very big teeth.

And can see him. 

"Good evening, good sir," the fuzzy, non-animated coyote -- standing up on his legs -- says with a strange, upper-crust accent: "Allow me to introduce myself..."

* * *

"So, why aren't you coming to me directly?" the scrambled voice on the other end of the old Freedom Force communicator asks. 

"Because I'd rather not get my name attached to this, if you don't mind," New Man sighs, hoping this Scranton flophouse he rented for the night isn't bugged, or worse: "And I think you know why."

"I do, yes," the voice says. There's a pause, and then: "What do you think I can do for you?"

"My son," the man says, putting his hand up to his eyes: "He's... he's mixed up in something big. Something that's gone out of control, I think. He tried to tell me as much as he could, before all this !@#$ started. And I had assurances he'd be okay, no matter what. But now..."

"Now, you know those assurances aren't worth a whole lot," the voice picks up from where he's left off.

"Yeah," the old man sighs: "Not a load of beans, near as I can see."

There's silence for a time, and New Man is afraid he's being blown off -- even after everything.

"Alright," the voice says: "I'll do what I can. And you know I'm good for it. But I'm going to need something in return."

"What's that?" 

"Call it a leap of faith," the person says: "Did SPYGOD ever tell you where the Third Base was?"

New Man's heart skips a beat at that: "What, the COMPANY's Third Base?"
"That would be it."

"I thought... it's just a joke, right? Something SPYGOD told people to get them looking in the wrong direction to find all his secret !@#$?"

"Well, it didn't hurt that they wasted all that time looking for it. But no, it's real. It's been hiding in plain sight all the time. And back when he and I weren't exactly friends? I found it."

"You're kidding."
"We don't have time for jokes. So here's the deal. I'm going to give you the coordinates. You go straight there and secure it. And in return, I'll make sure your son walks out of this. !@#$, I'll make sure he walks on water for the rest of his adult life if you pull this off."

"Is it that hard to get in?"

"Let's just say it's... unusual."

And when the National Facilitator of the United States gives him the address, New Man understands exactly what Mr. USA means by that word, and why this counts as a favor.

He also understands just how far he's willing to go to save his son. 
* * *

"Oh God, you idiot," the Violet Demon says, looking at what's left of Sir Smashalot -- a wet human outline thrown up against the whorehouse wall.

It hadn't been too bad, as far as assassination attempts go. Talk him into a well-deserved night out, now that they'd achieved their goal. Get him a few drinks. Convince him to splurge on one of those Croatian hookers for the two of them. 

And then try to kill him while he was good and distracted. 

It might have worked, too, except that the moron made too much noise putting his smash gloves on. They were weighty metal and plastic. They clinked, just so.

And the moment he heard that clinking, and looked around, he saw the villain aiming his high-tech hands at him, clearly intending to use them for their intended use. 

The reaction was automatic: he spun right off of the woman he was paying for, ducked by the bed, and aimed his own, innate power right at the man he'd been working with for the last few weeks before he could do the same. 

He hadn't intended to do that much damage. Maybe the fact that he'd been !@#$ing had messed with his metabolism. Maybe he'd panicked. 

But now his ally-turned-assassin was a smoking spraypainting of a man -- his gloves the only recognizable thing left.  

As he stands there, hearing the woman scream and cry for help, he realizes that this was doubly senseless. There was not only no reason for him to have actually killed Sir Smashalot, but there was no reason for the man to have tried to kill him. It just wasn't in his nature -- he wasn't that kind of supervillain. 

Which means the only reason this just happened is because someone higher up in their group has called for him to die. And that means that either the Scarlet Factotum finally figured out what he was up to, or else -- and far more likely -- the crazed, red robot was no longer in charge, and the new regime was not wanting her actual allies to complain about it. 

"The Pusher," he intuits, a whole lot of things suddenly making sense. 

He grabs his clothes, leaves a lot of money, and starts running. He doesn't know exactly where he's going, yet, but he knows where he can't go anymore. 

And that's as good a place to start. 

* * *

Myron sits down in a pool of his own blood at the front of a corner party store, not really sure how long he's got after what he's just done. 

It wasn't a bad plan, after all. He just had to make the laughing idiot think he was scared and helpless. Make him chase him everywhere he went, no matter what. 

Even if it meant going somewhere like this. 

Myron had no weapons. None of his gadgets. Nothing that could help him win a fight but his brains and what little he had to show for brawn. 

But if there was one thing he had -- something he's always had -- it's the ability to cobble !@#$ together on the fly. Take ten mismatched items, break them down, and make a radio out of it, or something. That kind of thing. 

So when he ducked in here, just ahead of Friendly Fire, he knew there was something here he could use to confuse a blind shootist who hunted through echolocation. If nothing else, a few ruptured canisters of helium might make his voice go so weird he'd have trouble shooting straight. 

But when he saw the noisemakers? Oh, that was the moment. That was it. 

That was when he realized he had a chance, after all. 

The crazy !@#$hole walked right into it. He ran in, laughing like a loon and grinning like a freak -- guns blazing. And then, just as he thought he had Myron dead to rights, his quarry let a whole pack of those blaring things go off. 

The effect was instantaneous. The idiot stopped laughing and started screaming. His over-sensitive eardrums burst like plums. He dropped his guns in pain and shock. 

And Myron, not wanting to lose a second, grabbed one of those guns and shot the blindfolded man in the head. Several times. 

It wasn't until he was sure the man was dead that he allowed himself to realize that, in the confusion, the man had shot him, too. Upper chest. A lung was ragged and painful, and didn't want to inflate all the way. He coughed blood and other, less happy things into his hand. 

So he sat down, feeling the pain come on. He couldn't quite feel his legs, anymore. It was just shock, and he knew that, just as he knew that if the !@#$-scared employees had stuck around to call 911, he'd probably live through this. 


He can hear the old man coming, now. A TU transport makes the whole block hummmmm under his !@#$. There's the twinned clopping of heavy boots on the ground outside. A swagger no amount of age could disguise. 

Even now, he could still beg for his life. He could crawl and say he was sorry. He was forced, he was threatened. His younger brother, his mother, his family. 

His own life, for that matter. 

He could, but it would be a lie -- well, most of it. In his heart he knew he was doing the right thing in the wrong way, even then. He'd known the story of his life was going to go a different direction the moment he bought that old machine and made it his own. 

He didn't know all the strange turns it was going to take, of course. He didn't know he'd take down a science terrorist organization, find and lose love, and then save the world almost all by himself. He didn't know he'd lose his soul and then find it again

And no idea he'd put on a costume and call himself a hero.

Something that, after being caught in a vibro-blast, it had taken a long day's run to finally shake out of his brain. 

The old man's here, now. He's yelling and shouting at him. Telling him how worthless he is. How low. A liar, a cheat. A fraud. A traitor.

Myron just closes his eyes and smiles, denying the old fart the honor of looking scared in his presence.

And then, just before the original Underman can lift his rifle, and vibrate his errant protege out of his own skin and bones, he flips the old man the bird and says just three words. 

"Game Over, mother!@#$er."

And then it is.

* * *

Up Against It
The Higher You Fly - The Further You Fall
Up Against It
Wondering Why - We Fought After All

* * *

(SPYGOD is listening to Up Against It (Pet Shop Boys, remix) and having a Labelle Game Over)