Monday, April 25, 2016

Valhallopolis: 4/18/16 - 4/24/16

"Do I Believe in God? / Do I Believe in Me?"

Director Straffer, The Bomb, and all three parts of Mister Freedom

(Art by The Lemonade Project)

* * *
* * *

Monday: 4/18/16

In Godspace, there is nothing but clouds and the mist.

Thoughts and ideas swirl together there, forming whirlpols of concept, eddies of identity. The occasional flash of insight or inspiration gives life to something more. 

From one such flash of light comes three distinct shapes. Not there one second, there the next, they emerge and come forth, or at least forward.   

And they say...
* * *

"... what exactly does this mean?" Gosheven asks -- either too late to be useful or too soon to be appropriate.

Myron holds up his hands and tries to get the metamorph to shut his damn mouth. He looks really ridiculous doing this in a heavily-armored environment suit, but there's no way in hell he was going to come in here wearing nothing but his Underman costume.

And, after what he's just seen, he was clearly right to have made that choice.

Because they're down here in the belly of the beast, as it were -- the main floor of the Korhogo Superslam. Ground zero of the awful hole the UN had been tossing its supervillains down for years, and a center of operations for the horrid new enemy Earth has made.

They should have known better than to just break in here, rescue Director Straffer, and get back out again. They should have known that their foes had one more awful trick up their sleeves.

And no sooner did they get in, and find who'd they been looking for, than the enemy decided to play it -- with a vengeance.

Which is why SPYGOD is standing over Straffer with a smoking gun in his hand.

And eyes full of rage...

* * * a man -- short, dark-haired, and olive-skinned. He walks with a cane, and can't seem to stop smiling. 

"I'm Abdullah Ismail," the man with the cane says: "I am a Muslim. A Frenchman. A Beur to some, just a man to others. I created an organization to work for peace and understanding. And some call me a hero."

BUT THAT IS NOT THE ANSWER, the stone statue says...

* * *

... because the damn raid was going to happen today. There was no getting around it, and no putting it off any further. 

After the fiasco that Saturday turned out to be -- and what happened the next day -- they all realized that if they didn't break into the superslam today, it wasn't going to happen at all. 

The enemy was too well-entrenched, there, now. Too many planes had landed and unloaded. Too many crews had walked off and not gotten back on, again. 

And if they let them build up their forces any further, their chances of success were going to go from "crazy" to "suicidal." 

So they attacked -- right at dawn, so they'd have the rising sun on their side. One moment there was nothing but calm and light. The next, Shining Guardsman and Free Fire were raining missiles down on their air defenses, and Swiftfoot was turning their ground measures into shrapnel and debris. 

Of course, the bastards didn't take that lying down.

They were down for all of ten seconds, and then started showing just how much they'd been modifying the jail in the meantime. Hidden defenses popped up from nowhere. Banks of missiles emptied into the sky and hails of bullets rocketed towards the ground.

And they fired and aimed and shot and thundered and roared, not realizing that the attack was just a distraction.

The real action was going on far below the ground, as Myron's newly-rebuilt drill tank came crashing through the wall. It ate its way through concrete and steel alike, and then pulled a full bootlegger reverse, just so its crew could jump out the back and mow down anyone waiting for them inside.

But there wasn't anyone down there. Just a rigged elevator, a stinking mess that used to be a lot of prisoners, and a black, metal harness that held Director Straffer.

Or what was left of him...

* * *

...a skeleton, wrapped in cracked, white, high-tech armor. He has no face left, but he seems to be frowning.

"My name is Bruno Roquer," the skeleton declares: "Better known as Foudre Blanc. I am also a Frenchman. A true Frenchman, not some immigrant riffraff. I work to keep my country safe from all threats, especially the invasion of foreign filth. And I am
a hero."

BUT THAT IS NOT THE ANSWER, the stone statue says...

* * *

.. that they should have known. Or at least suspected. 

It had been a month. Strafer had been in their hands this entire time. He represented one of the greatest threats to their plans. 

Why would they have kept him alive? Why wouldn't they turn him into one of them?

And if they knew SPYGOD was going to come after him, why wouldn't they leave what remained of him there for them to find, provided they got that far?

And that's exactly what the alien bastards did -- leave the squirming, barely-human remnant of what had once been Director George Straffer standing there in his restraints, leering and drooling at his would-be rescuers. 

SPYGOD was first off the gangplank -- lumbering through the poisoned air in his containment suit - and first to see what they'd turned his lover into. 

The black, burbling parody looked at him through eyes made large and protuberant by unknown anatomies, and stuck something out of its mouth that was much more tentacle than tongue. And it began to tell him that it was too late, and he'd been far too late to save him, and that nothing could save him now...

It probably would have said more, but SPYGOD didn't let it. 

The gun was one of his special models: the sort of hand-cannon that fired bullets the size of pop cans -- guaranteed to shred the muscles and break the bones of any normal person who tried to fire it. 

He put three bullets into the slithering heap of black, suppurating flesh that was once the man he loved. One, two, three -- right to the skull, neck, and chest. 

And then he stood there, reloading the gun with hands that neither shook nor wavered, and waited for it to give him an excuse to shoot it again. 

Any damn excuse at all...

* * * defer to a grey stone statue of a seated, bearded man. It floats so that its crown is a foot above the others' heads.



* * *

"... so what do we do now?" Myron asks, more to himself than anyone else. 

It's been a half an hour. The battle is still raging up top, and judging from what their allies are saying, the heat's not letting up. 

There's nothing down here but dead bodies -- one fresher and less human than the others. No computer systems to hack. No secrets to pilfer. Nothing. 

But yet SPYGOD stands there, over the smoking remnant of the man he used to kiss, hold, and say "I love you" to. 

And no one dares to ask him the same question. At least not just yet...

... until, finally, he turns and looks at the one person down here (other than Gosheven) who isn't wearing a containment suit.

"This is bull!@#$, isn't it?" he asks Mister Freedom, point blank. 

"In a sense, yes," the exiled Olympian says, walking through the dead, stale air of the prison's main floor and looking around: "The substance you describe is useful for making things grow. And that's what they've done, here. Made things grow."

"Like what?" Gosheven gasps, suddenly afraid of what's underfoot. 

"Doubt, primarily," the escape artist chuckles: "Suspicion, also, though that's been growing for some time now."

"Damn straight," Myron says, looking at SPYGOD as he recalls their quiet conversation from the other day. 

"They want us upset and angry," SPYGOD says, looking at the mess he made on the floor: "This isn't even one of them, really. I'd have to !@#$ing fill it with incendiary blasts to get it to lie down and die."

"Wait," Gosheven says, shaking his head: "I'm confused."

"They want that, too," Mister Freedom says, looking around: "Upset, angry, confused. Doubtful, suspicious..."

"And afraid," SPYGOD says, looking around: "On your feet, folks. Look for anything that looks new."

"Other than the bomb on the elevator?" Myron asks, pointing to the large device that's been attached to the doors. If they open, it goes boom, clearly. 

(Hopefully no one comes down)

"Yes," the superspy insists, and no one's reckless enough to challenge him. So they all check the walls, and the floor, and the cells, and supply closets, and anything else in this tall, long underground sepulcher of a prison that might contain something that looks too recent.

It's Gosheven who finds it, in a cell on the third floor. And the moment he sees it he realizes it can't be anything else.

Especially because it starts to attack him...

* * *

"... but are you a hero?" Ismail asks the stone statue: "Or simply playing at one?" 

"I could ask you the same question," the skeleton asks: "Are you a hero, or just exercising control over the world?" 


"But is that the question for the answer we're looking for...?"

* * *

" let me get this straight," Shining Guardsman says, down behind the cover that the heavy fire's forced him to get behind: "You need us to keep making like we're attacking them?"

"That's right," Myron says: "Not at all once, though. Spread your attacks out. See if you can make it seem like there's more than just the three of you, too, if you can."

"Well, I'll be sure to wear a damn disguise," the cyborg grouses.

"Good. We might be a while down here."

"HowLongIsAWhile?" Swiftfoot shouts, clearly speeding along.

"Well, that's hard to say," Gosheven cuts in: "I guess it depends on whether Freedom can actually pull this off or not...."

"And whether it kills him right away," Myron says: "Don't forget that."

"Yeah. And once he's got that out of the way, well..." 

"What exactly are you four going to be up to, down there?" Free Fire asks from wherever he is, right now.

"It's like this, folks," SPYGOD breaks in: "We found Straffer. He's in a !@#$ing bomb. And the bomb's intelligent, angry, and capable of ripping anyone who tries to defuse it to shreds."

"Oh," Shining Guardsman says.

"Yeah," the superspy goes on: "That's one !@#$ing way to put it, son. Now, you know Mister Freedom. He thinks he can !@#$ing defuse it. But it's like all their damn tech. It's as much concept as thing. So he's got to actually !@#$ing talk to it to get it to stand down."

"And who knows how long that's going to take?" Gosheven adds, perhaps unnecessarily: "I mean, I don't speak bomb."

"Well, good thing Freedom does," Free Fire says: "We'll keep them busy up here, then. You free him."

"Thank you," SPYGOD says: "Just a little while longer, folks. And then maybe we can finally !@#$ing go the hell home."

But as he breaks off, and his three attackers have time to consider the situation, they realize it might not go as smoothly as all that...

* * *

"... we are, in here," Abdullah says, both to the others and to himself: "Broken, we have become whole. Apart, we have become one. Limited, we have become limitless."


"Merde," the skeleton sneers, but doesn't sound very convinced of its contrary position.

And with that settled... 

* * *

...down below, in the room the monster-bomb has been installed within, Mister Freedom stands before the writhing, black thing -- as much shining, silvery metal as undulating, breathing black goo, with semi-symmetrical bone spikes along its sides -- and decides it's the most beautifully direct assassin he's ever tried to converse with.

"Hello," he says to it, bowing a little: "My name is Abdullah Ismail, better known as Mister Freedom. I'd like to talk to you about the person you're holding onto, and see if you'll help me take him home."

It doesn't say anything to that. But then, it doesn't send a legion of rasping, black tentacles out to try and shred him to pieces -- like it did to Gosheven -- either. 

Somewhat emboldened by that, Mister Freedom walks towards it, and then sits down less than a foot before it. 

It still doesn't attack him. Good. 

"Before we begin?" he says: "I need proof of good will. Please show me my friend's face. I wish to see that he's alive, and himself."

At first, nothing happens. But then there's a wet, gooey noise, and something pushes itself out of the black mess.

A face. It's Straffer's. He's alive, clearly, but either asleep or unconscious. 

"Thank you," the Olympian says, crossing his legs and putting his hands together: "I appreciate your cooperation. I feel I can trust you now.

"So now... we can talk."

And so they do.

Tuesday: 4/19/16

"Sir!" the Secret Service agent says, snapping to attention as the Interim President suddenly appears before him, just outside the Oval Office doors.

"Good morning," the man says, looking at his would-be guardian: "Sorry that I startled you."

"Yes sir. Sorry sir. No, I mean yes," the agent says, clearly embarrassed: "They, um. Well, they told me you just stayed in the office, these days. And that I shouldn't expect to see you out, or to see anyone come in."

"Well, they were wrong," Dan Quayle says, wondering if he did a bad job of shaving this morning. Or maybe the clothes are a little ripe, again.

It's hard to tell. He's too used to his own smell by now.

"Well, what can I do for you, sir?" the young man says, looking around: "Is your Chief of Staff here? Should I check with her, or...?"

"There's no need for that," the President says, clapping the nervous man on the arm: "And no need to panic, either. I just think I need to get out more."

"Of course, sir," the agent says, nodding: "Would you... well. I can come with you, if you'd like."

"I'd like that. What's your name?"

"Agent Gibbs, sir," smiling a little: "Tyrone."

"Well, Tyrone," Quayle says, leaning in to whisper: "I should tell you, there's a good chance I might be shot, soon. Or maybe blown up."


The Interim President takes a deep breath, shakes his head a little, and decides to just be honest: "I've been under the influence of a really awful person, Tyrone. Someone who can make you do anything he wants you to do just by talking to you, even over the phone.

"And this man, well, he's had me doing nothing when bad things have been happening. He's had me just sit on my hands and let other people make mistakes and stumble around. And it's only now that I've been able to get out from under him."

"Oh," Agent Gibbs says, nodding -- as though this was the sort of thing a President might tell a junior Secret Service Agent every day.

"So now I need to get out of that office and go try and fix things, if I can," Quayle says, putting his hands in his pants pockets: "It might be too late. It might not. I don't know. But I won't know if I just sit there and make calls, and no one picks up. Will it?"

"No sir," the agent agrees: "It won't. And I'll be happy to accompany you, sir."

"Alright then," the Interim President says, nodding down the hallway: "I'll take you up on that. But whatever we do, we do it alone, and we do it quietly."


"Because I don't know who I can trust, anymore," Quayle says: "But I get the sense you're still yourself."

"Well... that's the best complement anyone's ever given me, sir," Gibbs says, taking his radio and turning it off: "Where to first?"

"Get me to the Heptagon," he says: "I really need to talk to the COMPANY. Now..."

 * * *

"... better than to ask if you're serious," Hanami says over the COMPANY Transport's radio -- the signal scrambled so many times it might as well be a plate of eggs.

"I wasn't certain either, at first," Josie confides: "But after talking with him for a while, I'm pretty convinced he's not imagining this. He really did get this Mahdi in his head."

"Well, it certainly explains a few things. How did he get free?"

"That's... well, it's pretty damn strange, and I don't feel like talking about it at all, except face to face."

"Okay," Hanami says: "I agree. How much of the team do you need up there?"

"How are things in Florida?"

"About as well as can be expected," the Japanese android sighs: "The looters are still trying to make it over the cordon. And we've got people trying to get in there and make their own damn independent republic, too. So far we've gotten them all, but sooner or later..."

"Alright, then," Josie says: "You, Dr. Uncertainty, and Red Wrecker. Get your butts up here by tomorrow morning. I'll need you to hear what he has to say and see to his security from here on out."

"You got it," Hanami says: "We'll get on that."

With that, she logs off, and then looks back out at the city the US Armed Forces turned into a smoking crater less than three days ago. 

And she wonders if she should have told Josie what else they've run into, down here...

Wednesday: 4/20/16

"... among the glorious dead," the tall and spooky man says, striding acros the floor of the Beehive as though he were walking through a gooey swamp -- his movements slow and ponderous.

The place is mostly cleaned up, now. All the rubble has been picked up and moved away, the slagged computers and electronic equipment taken out and replaced with newer models.

(And as for the bodies they found when they broke through the ceiling, they're gone as well. Though the sheer number of the corpses -- and what they looked like -- spooked the hell out of the cleanup crew.)

"My boss isn't paying you for poetry, Nekronaut," Karl sighs, doing his best not to walk too far ahead of the fellow -- clearly disgusted by his funereal air and skull-faced makeup: "He needs to be certain you can do what he needs. And there's only ten days remaining."

"Does the Sun need a guarantee to rise and set?" the Dutch spiritualist asks, rattling a handful of human knucklebones in his hand: "Does the moon need a work order to wax and wane? Some things must be coaxed into being. And some things happen because they are meant to."

With that he kneels down, looks up at the ceiling, and then down at the floor. He spits on the handful of bones, shakes them up in his hand, and casts them across the tiles before him.

"I see... success," the Nekronaut says: "But not entirely the results hoped for. He'll have to learn to take the rough with the smooth, your boss. Also to deal with the pleasantly unexpected."

"He's not much for surprises," Karl grumbles: "You'd do well to remember that, unless you want to not have to make yourself up to look like a damn skull."

And the Nekronaut smiles, as though he's party to some small, private joke, and -- with one swift swoop -- collects his bones and stands up again.

"The first thing we learn, upon gaining the Craft, is the knowledge of exactly when, how, and why we die," he says, not bothering to turn around: "So you can threaten me all you like, if it makes you feel better to let your boss' stront run down the hill. Just know it will not make me work any harder that I already would to make this happen.

"Because I very much want for this to happen, Karl. On that you can depend, and believe." 

And with that, the Nekronaut walks away...

* * *

"... good of you to come," the Interim President says, shaking Hanami's hand. 

"Of course, Mr. President," she says, taking his hand and head-bowing a bit: "You've met Red Wrecker before, I'm sure. And this is Dr. Uncertainty. He's new."

"Sir," the President says, shaking his hand: "And Florence, isn't it?"

"Yes, sir," she says, trying to hide her distaste for the man behind a neutral expression. 

They're all gathered in one of the secure wings of the Heptagon. It's just them, Josie, Katie, and a few AGENTS who have special responsibilities in regards to the Mahdi situation. 

"So," the man says, gesturing to them to be seated: "I've managed to throw his power off of me, at least for now. But I need to stay under the radar until we get this taken care of. And right now's not a good time for me to just disappear, as I'm sure you know."

"That's true," Dr. Uncertainty says, nodding and adjusting his sunglasses: "Not with what we've had to do to Miami, and the Atlantic Seaboard. Not to mention the fact that more might be on its way."

"So the sooner we deal with this bastard, the better," Red Wrecker says, not caring about her mouth right now: "Where's SPYGOD, anyway? Isn't he dealing with this guy, right now?"

"He's on special maneuvers," Josie sighs: "Code black radio silence. The whole bit."

"Well, maybe we'd better get him back online," the President says, giving her the look that says this is not negotiable. 

And she nods, calls over an AGENT, and sees about making that happen...

Thursday: 4/21/16

"... are you !@#$ing serious?" Shining Guardsman asks -- clearly winded from the latest attack he's performed on the Korhogo Superslam.

"Yes indeed," Myron says: "We need to wrap this party up, somehow."

"Well, we have it covered from up here," Free Fire says: "But I understand the real issue is what's going on in your area."

"Right," Myron says, looking down the hallway and up at the area where the cell is.

(They don't dare go down the way to look. The thing might attack. Or it might ruin the whole thing if they do.)

"So how does that get hurried up?" Shining Guardsman asks.

"It doesn't," SPYGOD barks, jumping on the line: "But if we need to break up the party to keep up !@#$ing appearances, we're going to do it. Aren't we?"

"Yes, sir," Shining Guardsman says: "What do you need us to do?"

SPYGOD looks down at Myron, sitting on the gangplank of the drill tank. They're nearly out of water and food, and the atmosphere suits are running out of oxygen tanks.

"Opera Protocol," he says: "You all know what that means."

"Okay," Gosheven nods, getting up: "How many?"

"Depends. Does anyone have eyes on Swiftfoot?"

"Well, funny you should ask," Shining Guardsman replies: "I've been trying to get hold of him for the last couple hours, and, well... he's not answering."

"Okay," SPYGOD says, raising an eyebrow at Myron: "Free Fire, come down and resupply us. Can you do that?"

"I can, yes," the armored android says: "What else?"

"I think that'll do it," the superspy says, and breaks contact.

"I don't like this," Gosheven says, looking back up the tunnel: "That freaky old !@#$ used me like a damn pinata the last time I ran into him. If he's gone off the reservation-"

"Point the first, you have no !@#$ing idea how long I've been waiting for you, of all people, to use that term," SPYGOD chuckles.

"Ha ha ha," the Native American metamorph says, rolling his eyes: "Seriously, though. He's bad news."

"Point the second," SPYGOD says, pulling out something he's had waiting for quite some time -- something that looks a lot like a remote detonator: "He should have known better than to try to spy on someone who used to get other people to spy for him."

And then he presses the button. The light goes from green to red, and there's a loud BEEP. 

Then he drops it to the ground, shakes his head -- as if dispelling a bad dream -- and looks at the metamorph: "Ready to go earn your Oscar, Ms. Streep?"

"Ten times over," Gosheven says, wondering if he's been wired to pop, too...

* * *

... in Abdijan, on the Coast of Cote d'Ivorie, there's a small, metal building that has just turned into smoking, white powder. 

It wasn't always like that, of course. Once it was a shed that was surrounded by barbed wire, electric fences and a few guards. There were also signs saying it was part of some international security agency -- the same one that ran the Korhogo Superslam -- but no one was sure if that was legit or not. 

They just knew to stay well away from the guards and their guns, because they'd shoot on sight, and not be punished for it. 

After the superslam was decommissioned, quite some time ago, the building was abandoned for a time. Then a new company moved in, with the same sort of armed guards, and same tendency to shoot and not be punished. 

Just a different look in their eyes, was all. Almost unfeeling. 

Alien, even. 

Over the last few days, there had been a lot of activity in the building. Jeeps and covered trucks had come to and fro, quite a bit. There were troop movements, equipment transfers. 

And a sense that, every so often, something to fast to be seen somehow ran into and out of the compound. Though that had to be crazy, surely. 

That all came to a stop an hour ago, when the building suddenly exploded. It burned so brightly, and for so long, that the ashes were pulverized into powder. And nothing remained except for that dust.

Nothing should have, anyway. 

But as the curious come to gawk, now that they don't fear being shot, anymore, there's a sense that something is moving in the pale and smoldering dust. 

Something that has somehow escaped the heat and the blast. 

Something that, even now, slinks through the dust like a small, unseen snake, and slithers out into a waiting hole nearby...

Friday: 4/22/16

"Good of you to join us, then," Josie says as SPYGOD enters the room, along with Gosheven and Myron.

"Sorry it took me so !@#$ing long," the superspy snorts, ruffling his coat and heading for the chair around the big table: "Kind of out doing our damn jobs, you know?"

"Yes," Katy says, raising a green eyebrow and looking at her pink-haired sister, as if to say you're going to let him talk to you like that? 

"So, right to it," Josie says, sitting down and gesturing to a screen in the wall: "That's the Interim President, gentlemen. You may well wonder why he's sitting in one of our quarantine wards, incommunicado. The answer-"

"Oh !@#$," SPYGOD says, raising out of his seat.

"Well, I guess you guessed, then," Dr. Uncertainty says.

"The Interim President of the United States of America was under the control of the Mahdi," SPYGOD says, looking at Josie: "For how !@#$ing long?"

"Long enough," Josie says.

"Well, that totally explains a few things," Myron says, looking around the table.

"That's pretty much what we said, oddly enough," Josie agrees. 

"Well, you want to tell me how the !@#$ing !@#$ this happened on your damn watch?" SPYGOD bellows, looking down at the current Director of the COMPANY.

"You want to tone that down a little, AGENT?" Katy snaps.

"Katy," Josie holds up a hand, and then looks at the superpy: "Better question, how did it happen while the former Director of this organization, along with a hand-picked team, was going after that threat? You'd think you'd have found out about this by now."

The superspy looks at her, nods, and then sits down: "Fair point. I'm !@#$ing shocked. And not happy.  At all."

"So what do we do about it?" Josie asks, looking at the six supers, from two different teams, sitting at the table together: "He can't be President in a cell at the Heptagon, folks. We need to get him back to work."

"How did the mother!@#$er get to him?" Red Wrecker asks: "I hear he does this through voice contact."

"He's been communicating through a phone," Josie says, a little confused to hear her using that kind of language: "It's a satellite phone, shielded and separate from the White House communications array."

"Did the Mahdi give him this phone?" Myron asks.

"More likely he was contacted remotely," Dr. Uncertainty says, looking at SPYGOD for confirmation: "This person has that power. He uses it like a scalpel. Being seen in person would be the last resort."

SPYGOD holds up a hand a second later, and then looks around to... Josie: "Please tell me we have that !@#$ing phone, still."

"It's back at the White House, I think-"

"!@#$ing get it," he all but shouts: "Now."

"Why?" Gosheven asks, seeming a bit concerned at the dire look Josie just gave him for talking to her like that. 

"Because it might lead us right to the Mahdi," Dr. Uncertainty realizes, almost rising from his chair: "If he doesn't know the President's left his employ, that is?"

"Leave that to me," SPYGOD insists, sitting down: "In fact, leave !@#$ing everything to me. Because while you people have been !@#$ing snoozing on the damn job? We've been out there, in the trenches, chasing this bastard. We've done things you wouldn't believe, and seen things that would make you !@#$ your pants.

"We got this, folks," he says, leaning forward and looking around the table: "The President's good as gravy, now. You just watch..."

* * *

The first person to notice a Pre-Death -- officially, at any rate -- was Specialist Powell J. Hunt, stationed at (CLASSIFIED) as an "enhanced interrogation technician." Which is a fancy euphemism for "torturer" that fooled no one, at least inside the compound.

It was 0300 on Wednesday morning when he had two privates roust one Boutrous Khalil Muhammad al-Gheb from his cell. They pulled him up from the pool of his own filth he'd been laying in all night, and dragged him to the small, cold, concrete cell Specialist Hunt worked out of.

The plan was to spend a few hours "discussing" what Al-Gheb had been doing around Aleppo when coalition forces had picked him up, a few months ago. However, Hunt had long since given up any hope of getting anything worthwhile out of this detainee. And, in the time-honored tradition of all "technicians" everywhere, had decided today was going to be the day he indulged in the ultimate luxury his job afforded him.

Namely, allowing the "expiration" of his subject.

Unbeknownst to Specialist Hunt, he'd luxuriated in that ability one time too many for the Pentagon to be fully comfortable with his work record. So, the day before, someone he didn't know anything about arranged to have a hidden camera installed at his "work station," hoping to catch him in the act.

So what happened is a matter of record, and would be viewed and puzzled over several times over the next few weeks. It would also lead to the eventual charging and arrest of Specialist Hunt, though that turned out to not matter all that much.

Because as soon as Al-Gheb was strapped to the chair, and the privates left the room, he all but exploded in a welter of blood, bruises, and broken limbs -- dying from massive system shock caused by stress, topped off with a burst organ or two.

Specialist Hunt hadn't even touched him.

So far as anyone could tell, that was the first verifiable case of what would come to be known as Pre-Death. There would soon be many others.

Far, far too many to ignore.

People would get into cars, turn the ignition, and then die horribly of massive injuries that would have been caused by a fatal accident. Home handymen lost limbs before they even touched their chainsaws or high-powered weed whackers. A glazier was split in half by an as-yet seen sheet of plate glass on his way into work.

The suicides were the worst, because they died just about anywhere. People suddenly became waterlogged and exsanguinated at their desks. Gunshot wounds to the head appeared just before they got online to vaguebook their sadness. Aspirin overdoses in contentious meetings, broken necks and strangulation at single bars.

(Drug overdoses were also somewhat confusing, as the tragic demise of a true American musical genius soon proved.)

Heart Attacks, strokes, and other such fatal maladies occurred as normal. On the other hand, entire cancer wards emptied out overnight. A whole Death Row in Texarkana was electrocuted one fine afternoon.

In a more spectacular case, a Delta 333 sat at the gate, deserted, for hours before anyone verified that its 300 or so crew and passengers were all dead. They were found in their homes and hotel rooms, pulverized and burned. FAA investigators would soon determine a serious fault would have developed with the airbus in flight, doubtlessly damning everyone on board to an fiery crash that none could have possibly survived.

No one could really give a cogent, rational explanation. How could they? There was none. It didn't happen to everyone, or at any given time, or to any kind of person. It was hopelessly random, and terribly unsettling.

And all the magical talents the COMPANY could call up would simply say the same thing: somehow, for some reason, Death was becoming insatiably greedy.

And it wanted its due, now. 

Saturday: 4/23/16

"... here in Orlando, this is WESH news at 10. I'm Shelly Roper..."

"... and I'm Clyde Smiley. Our top news at this hour, a stunning nighttime resignation by Governor Rick Scott, following this morning's equally-stunning info dump of extremely damning evidence regarding the Governor's exact role in the Columbia/HCA Medicare Fraud case."

"That's right, Clyde. Viewer may remember that, when the Governor was CEO of that company, back in the 90's, he resigned just ahead of a very embarrassing investigation that revealed the company was bilking Medicare to the tune of millions of dollars. While Governor Scott was never found guilty of any wrongdoing in that scandal, there was a great deal of suspicion that he was at least partially aware of what was going on."

"Well, as of tonight, he's still not admitting guilt, Shelly. But the trail of emails, hitherto-unseen internal documents, and tape transcripts that was released today, on the Governor's own web page of all places, makes it clear that he not only knew what was going on, but was in full command of it. They also show that, towards the end, he was making moves to jump ship ahead of a looming audit -- one that led to what was the largest government fraud settlement in US History, a 1.7 billion dollar fine."

"The Governor, excuse me, former Governor gave a short, last minute statement to a few members of the press at 8:59 PM, tonight. We have some near-exclusive excerpts, but will caution our audience that, as a large group of protesters had gathered by that time, some raw language can be heard in the background. We cleaned it up as best as we could, but some parental discretion is advised..."

* * *

"... no, really," American Steel says, holding her palms up to the large group of would-be infiltrators she and Blastman just caught trying to sneak across the cordon: "You do not want to go in there. It's bad for you."

"And that's not just because she'll zap you clear down to your bones, folks," the middle-aged man with the pyramid on his head says: "It's just not safe."

"So we've heard," the man who seems to be in charge of the group says, not acting as though he's ready to surrender -- or even afraid of having been caught: "We'll make that decision for ourselves, we think?

Blastman rolls his eyes, not bothering to hide his disdain for these people. Especially this group -- all dressed up in their Sunday best to tread into a No Man's Land, just ahead of a city they burned down to powder less than a week ago. 

"Okay, let's try this again," American Steel sighs: "You're all wearing dress clothes and penny loafters. We dumped enough defoliant in there to burn the rubber off of combat boots. Your feet won't survive the trip, and your hands and knees won't do too well, either-"

"You think we aren't prepared to suffer?" the man asks: "We'd crawl on our hands and knees through the burning dirt to get in there, sir. Of that have no doubt."

"Why?" American Steel asks, putting her hands down and sinking down a few inches, closer to the ground: "What could you possibly want to do in there?"

"The only thing we can do, madam," the man goes on: "Surrender to our new masters. Seek refuge in their mercy. Beg for a place in the new world to come."

"oooooo-KAY," Blastman says, not a beat later, and looks at American Steel -- the look that says the less they actually talk to these people, the better. 

"Why do you think they'd listen?" the woman in the large exo-suit asks, taking a step forward: "They sent a massive monster to eat the city, sir. There were dozens more of them on the way to hit other places. And they did this with no preamble, and no communication. If they're willing to accept a surrender they aren't going out of their way to let us know about it."

"You don't know that!" the man shouts, clearly not used to having his faith questioned: "They're intelligent beings! They have to listen to reason! They have to!"

"Alright," American Steel says, and, nodding to Blastman, activates the hypno-lights in the front of her chest unit. The pulsing glow quickly lulls the group into a state of waking dream -- the easier to corral them, and carry them away to join the others like them. 

"Why the hell didn't you just zap them when I told you to?" Blastman asks on the way back.

"I wanted to know why a bunch of intelligent-looking, well-dressed yuppies would risk their lives to enter that kind of area," she explains: "I wondered if maybe someone was goading them on."

"Who the hell would do that?"

"Best case scenario? Some crazy fool on the internet."

"Worst case?" the middle-aged hero asks, seeing where his new teammate is going with this.  

"Infiltration agents," American Steel says: "We know these things can take people over and change shape. There might be someone out there who's trying to get more people to go in so they can be taken over. And that would be a !@#$ing nightmare."

"Well," Blastman says, nodding: "That's... pretty good thinking, kid."

"And you just wanted me to zap them," she grins.

"Yeah, well..." he says, but decides not to say anything more than that.  

"I'll feel a lot better about this once we got the wall up," American Steel goes on, a minute or so later: "There's something about all this that has me seriously spooked."

"You think so?" Blastman says, somewhat incredulously: "You don't mind my saying so, kid, that's probably the damn understatement of the month, right there."

"Just the month?"

"It's going to be a bad year," he says, waving at a jeep full of Army guards as they come out to rendezvous with them. But he doesn't care to elaborate.

And by the time the Army can take custody of their prisoners, and they both fly off to continue their patrol, American Steel doesn't remember to ask him to.

Sunday: 4/24/16

"So did you get the damn phone?" SPYGOD says to himself, over the communicator in the Drill Tank.

"You bet our fine gay ass I did," his doppleganger says: "The tech boys are quietly taking it apart as we speak. It rings once every six hours, on the nose, so we think he's still trying to contact the President."

"And still has no idea how he !@#$ing broke loose," the superspy says, nodding: "That's good news. We got an ace in the hole. Let's !@#$ing use it."

"How thick you want me to lay it on?" the faux-SPYGOD asks: "I'm already dancing on the valentine, here. Josie doesn't know whether give me a medal or shoot me. And that Katy !@#$, jesus, she needs to change her tampon or something-"

"If you dial it back they'll get !@#$ing suspicious," the real deal interrupts, not really wanting to think about clone reproductive cycles: "Just don't make them have to knock you the !@#$ out or it's game !@#$ing over. Okay?"

"Alright," Gosheven says: "Out."

"Damn right," SPYGOD says, putting his suit helmet back on so he can go outside the tank.

It's been a long drag down here, with just him and Myron for company. Every so often Free Fire makes it down the tunnel to deliver supplies -- mostly food, water, and oxygen tanks --  but that's all the company they can get.

And they don't dare go around the corner and up the stairs to see how Mr. Freedom is doing...

"What's the news?" Myron asks, rounding the corner with a ratchet in his hand. He'd decided to take the time to work on the tank a little, not liking how it had taken the bootlegger when they broke in down here.

"Progress at last," SPYGOD says, grinning like a mother!@#$er: "Now as long as our Olympian friend gets my man back, I'll call this a !@#$ing success and a half."

"A bit costly, though," Myron says, looking askance.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean... well, Swiftfoot," he says, instantly regretting having uttered the name, and then deciding to push forward: "I mean, okay, he was dirty, but-"

"But nothing," SPYGOD says, shaking his head: "Maybe all those times he was running away he was reporting right to these !@#$ing black jello monsters. Maybe he was reporting in on us. Maybe he was in league with those !@#$ers the whole time, getting us ready for all this invasion bull!@#$ we're having to deal with now."

"Maybe," Myron says, looking his team leader in the eyes (or glasses, as the case might be): "Maybe we could have found out more if we'd confronted him. Maybe we could have used him against them. And maybe... well.."

"And maybe we could have redeemed him, somehow," the superspy says, nodding, and putting a hand on Myron's shoulder: "I considered all that, Myron. Believe me, I did. Given our history, and all that's gone before between us, I considered all that.

"And then I considered that, for all we !@#$ing know, they might have had a hold over him. He might have been reporting back all we said without even knowing it. And they might have had a bomb on him, too."

Myron shudders at that thought, and SPYGOD nods, taking the hand away: "I didn't want this to end with his death, Myron. But better him than us. And better us than the whole !@#$ing world.

"Try to remember that, eh?"

And he walks away, all clever, not realizing how ridiculous he sounds -- even if he is 100% right...

* * *

"... now, we have to decide what we are going to tell them,"  Abdullah says, looking at his other two selves, here in Godspace.

"Why not the truth," Foudre Blanc sneers from where he sits, some distance away: "It's what you white knights are always saying is the best policy, after all?"

"Perhaps not in this case," Abdullah says, looking at the black thing they've been conversing with for all this time. 

(Days? Weeks? Years? Aeons? Time moves strangely, here...)


"Which is just a pretty way of saying 'let's lie to our friends about what's really happened, here'" the skeleton of Bruno Roquer accuses, getting to his feet and stomping over to where the other two portions of Mr. Freedom are.

"They're your friends, now?" Abdullah asks, raising an eyebrow. 

"You know what I mean!" the dead French super-racist shouts: "How are you going to explain how you could tell it what to do? How are you going to explain how you know what it's going to do next? How do you explain any of this?"

"I don't know that I can," Abdullah admits, looking between the statue and his worst enemy: "So I suppose we will have to be careful in what we say, for now. And err on the side of positive action, as opposed to inaction."

He directs this last bit at the statue, who he can tell is troubled by the concept, but also in agreement -- for now. 

"Your hypocrisy sickens me," Foudre Blanc snorts, turning away: "But fine. I agree. If only because I don't feel like dying all over again when they find out what our stone supervisor's done."

THEN WE ARE AS ONE, THOUGH MANY, the statue in question says...

* * *

... and then -- with a wet, sucking noise, off in the distance -- Myron and SPYGOD somehow just know that it's over.

"Oh my !@#$ing God," the superspy says, getting to his feet. He puts a hand on his gun and another on his heart, hoping he won't have to use the former on what he sees next.

Mr. Freedom walks along the upper tiers of the prison without a care in the world, or so it seems. He cradles the body of George Straffer in his arms -- his butt seated on the weird manacle he always wears -- as if the man weighed next to nothing. 

And as he comes down the stairs, one careful step at a time, it's all SPYGOD can do to not rush up to greet him. Each motion is a special torture for him, with his heart beating out of his chest, his mouth dry as the desert, his mind racing through a million terrible outcomes. 

But then, at least, the Olympian is on the ground floor, and SPYGOD can see that the man he carries is alive, and just now coming around. 

"Straffer?" SPYGOD asks, walking closer -- arms out to take him -- "Is that you? Are you...?"

The man just smiles. He looks horrible -- pale and drawn, as though he'd been crawling through a mine for a couple weeks. 

"Metabolic shutdown," Mr. Freedom explains: "His body was eating everything it could to preserve his brain, and keeping him asleep. I think he can recover, given time and care. But try to avoid taxing him-"

SPYGOD heard as much as "time and care" before rushing forward, all but yanking Straffer's body out of Freedom's arms, and taking him into his own. He's too light, too pale. 

"I love you," he says, kissing him: "I'm sorry. I love you and I'm !@#$ing sorry. Please forgive me for not coming sooner. Please forgive me for being !@#$ing stupid. I'm sorry. So damn sorry..."

Is he crying? Yes, he is. He very much is. 

And Straffer just closes his eyes and smiles, too weak to take him in his arms in return. 

"Well, that was one hell of a defusing," Myron says to Mr. Freedom, who walks away to let the reunited lovers have some space.

"What do you mean?" the Olympian says. 

"The bomb?" Myron asks: "You defused it to get him out?"

"Ah, no," Mr. Freedom says, smiling: "I did not defuse it, not as such. I have not defeated it. We simply have an understanding."

"Then... what's to stop it from exploding?"

"For now? My presence here," he replies, walking up the gangplank of the drill tank: "But even that can change. I suggest we leave as quickly as possible before it changes its mind."

They don't have to persuade SPYGOD -- he's already on his way up the plank and into the tank, hoping his time in the belly of that beast has made his still-human parts less susceptible to the poison in the air. 

As soon as he's up, the other two join him -- both eager to be gone from this place.

And then...

... as Free Fire gets the message they're bugging out, he activates an inbuilt, triple-encoded communications channel to tell Josie that -- several days and one dead hero later - they've succeeded in getting Straffer...

... and Josie takes the news from her mole with a wide, big smile she hopes no one notices, and wonders what she's going to do with her wayward, traitorous former Director when he gets back...

... and Dragonfly sits lotus-style on her trailer, overlooking the rapidly-assembling wall around Miami, listens to the Purple Rain soundtrack one more time, and wonders how long she can keep this deal...

... and Tombo abruptly leaves the All Dead Rock Band -- suddenly very interesting, given its newest member -- and turns to look down at Moscow, wondering what the hell she just felt happen down there...

... and the Interim President reads one of the books these COMPANY people thoughtfully provided for him as he sits in his quarantine cell, trying to to think of the burning tattoo on his arm, and what it's protecting him from...

... and Secret Service Agent Tyrone Gibbs weeps as he makes the device the man on the phone told him to, knowing he'll be using it to kill both a good man and himself, but unable to stop his hands from doing it...

... and the black, roiling surface of Mars shakes as its equatorial tides slide into motion, preparing to whip themselves around so quickly that they can hurl more pieces of itself at the small, green and blue planet it cannot help but kill...

... the drill tank powers up, surges into motion, and leaves the Korhogo Superslam the way it came in -- leaving only ruins, death, and a very confused conceptual weapon in its wake.

And silence, cold and supreme. 

(SPYGOD is listening to Prince (Controversy Mutiny) and having a Prince

Monday, April 18, 2016

Valhallopolis: 4/11/16 - 4/17/16

"Black Water By My Side / I Will Go Out Tonight"

(Dr. Uncertainty, Red Wrecker, Mr. USA, Hanami, Blastman, Dragonfly, American Steel)

(Art by Dean Stahl)

* * *
* * *

Monday: 4/11/16

O-Dark-Hundred, they call it: the weird, transitional point between the end of the night and the start of the morning.

It's felt more than seen. The Sun's moments from beginning to tell, and the stars and moon are still shining brightly.

And yet you just know that, any second now, that strangely-colored glow is going to leech up into the eastern horizon, and night's dominion will soon be done.

For some, it's the best time of all, mostly because of the wild, slow creep of color that heralds the morning. For some -- especially those who leave their overnight jobs right at that point -- it's the worst.

And for some reason known only to God and the American Military, it's the best time to roll out the troops.

Especially when no one wants to own up to the mission.

* * *
"Sir, with all due respect, the President should be in the loop, here," Josie says, furrowing her brow as mightily as possible.

"I'm aware of that, Director," the whey-faced Secretary of Defense says, over his screen in the video conference: "I'm fully empowered to assess the situation and speak on his behalf in this."

"Yeah," the buzz-cut Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff mutters: "Let's just see what you super-powered people have to say for yourselves at this time of night."

"Alright, then," Josie says, and gets ready to do just that: "As you all know, we've been flying surveillance drones into Miami since just after this emergency began. At first we were hoping to find knots of trapped survivors and assess the damage, but as time's gone on we've realized everyone in the quarantine zone is compromised, dead, or worse than dead."

"Worse than dead?" the Admiral asks: "Would you care to clarify that, Director?"

"Oh, I can show you, sir," she says, and does so, using the most recent remote telemetry Gold Standard's drones have to offer.

And then takes some perverse pleasure in watching the Chief of Naval Operations almost lose whatever he had for dinner the night before. 

* * *
In one, almost massive burst of motion, the flesh and steel machine is let loose.

The barracks are deserted. The hangars are opened. The seemingly-endless lots of trucks, tanks, troop carriers, and other vehicles are emptied, one long row at a time.

The jets scramble and take off. The helicopters whirl and judder away. Satellites narrow their eyes and take careful aim.

The ships break off and form new convoys, heading down the coast. Guns are positioned and made ready, then aimed at their targets.

And around the cordon surrounding Miami, the National Guard gladly salutes their better-equipped replacements, and leaves their post.

Hopefully to never see the likes of this again.

* * *
"What in the name of God is that?" the Assistant Chairman says, fighting back some toothsome combination of horror and nausea.

"As near as we can tell, it's what's left of anyone who died during the attack, prior to infection," Josie says, doing her best to appear unfazed: "The infected are using them as raw materials for their building projects, and then slapping them together with what might be excretions, or pieces of themselves."

"It looks a lot like that crab thing," the Air Force chief opines.

"It does, yes. Their organic technology all has a similar feel to it."

"It looks like !@#$," the Chief Marine says: "Pardon my English."

"Well, yes. We have taken to calling it Turdscaping, but not in public," Josie says, glad for one moment of levity: "We're not entirely sure what all the structures are. But we've been able to make a few educated guesses, based on what we're seeing.

"Now, the things that look like smoking anthills? The fumes coming out of them are mutagenic agents. Anything living that gets hit by those fumes gets infected within minutes, and starts to grow black globules. Sort of like corn smut, I'm told.

"Here's the thing, though. Note I said anything living. That includes grass, flowers, plant life, and animals. But it also means things you can't normally see."

"Like what?" the Secretary of Defense asks, clearly terrified of the answer.

"Fungus, mold, microscopic organisms, pollen. Anything that's alive in our definition of the word is being changed, which means the infection is being spread across buildings, and even the air. You can actually see lines of the stuff forming in mid-air, slowly tracing its way back to the source of the pollen. Like those trees, here, or these flowers."

"What are the other targets, Director?" the Marine General asks, amazingly even-headed in the face of the threat.

"Well, we have these things here," she says, changing the feed over to massive clusters of what might be cancerous grapes, slopping over both sides of Miramar Parkway: "As you know, Hanami made it to Mars and back and made a detailed report of what she found. Based on that, we're guessing those are eggs for a creature like what attacked Miami the other day."

Everyone gasps, and she holds up a hand: "Now, before you panic prematurely? She also said they had to be grown in something like a special womb, maybe the size of a jumbo jet hangar. We don't see any of those, yet, so it's not like we're going to be crawling with giant radioactive crap crabs anytime soon.

"However, we have a bigger problem. And that's the major part of why I called you all together, today..."

* * *

From the depths of the Flier, they come -- heroes, one and all.

Mr. USA, senior-most and sere. A symbol of a nobler, simpler time who knows all too well that those days were rarely simple, and not always noble.

Blastman, grinning but grumpy. One of the old Baby-Boom guard of heroes who's still got it, but at some personal cost.

Hanami, certain and stern. A super-powered android from a future she can't remember, adopted by a country she's no longer comfortable with, and given authority she's still learning to handle. 

Red Wrecker, pint-sized but powerful. Once the shining star of the team, now rather disillusioned with the cost of fame and heroism.

American Steel, high-tech harridan. Piloting the latest Crisp Industries exo-suit, she's not sure if she's a protector or product placement, much less if she's really Freedom Force material.

Dr. Uncertainty, genius and cypher. Content to work behind the scenes, up until now, the 'Human Question Mark' is here to solve problems -- one ass-kicking at a time.

And Dragonfly, reborn yet again. Once their killer, hidden from view, now up in the frontlines with a vow to take no lives, and a secret she must forever keep...

Hanami leads them out to their waiting COMPANY transport, parked at the far end of the flight deck. They're in no hurry to get in, given what's waiting for them, But they come forward, anyway.

Because they're the Freedom Force. And this is what they do. 

* * *

"What the hell are we looking at, Director?" the Marine General says, furrowing his brow: "It looks like... is that a heart?"

"It is, sir," Josie says, pointing to the throbbing, cyclopean thing, strapped to the base of what used to be the Freedom Tower: "A heart the size of a two-story house, beating at the rate of fifty times a minute."

"So what's that mean?" the Chairman asks: "Are they building another creature?"

"No sir, it's worse than that. This isn't technology as we understand it. This is conceptual as well as functional. The heartbeat isn't meant to pump blood or anything like that. It's meant to send a signal."

Everyone opens their mouth, and then -- one by one -- closes it. 

"A signal," the Secretary of Defense repeats: "To Mars?"

"Exactly," Josie says: "The previous instances of our being shot up by projectiles? They've been firing them using a poor understanding of orbital mechanics. As near as we can tell, only about ten percent of what they've launched is actually coming right at us. The rest is missing badly."

"Ten percent's bad enough," the Assistant Chairman -- who's also an Air Force General -- states for the record: "Ten percent's got the UN Space Service down to twenty-five percent flight capability, right now."

"Exactly. So if they get a homing beacon?"

"Then they won't need luck or mechanics," the Secretary of Defense says.

"So what do we need to do, here?" one of the Generals asks the rest: "I'm sure we can blow the smokers, and take out the heart. But something tells me that's not going to be enough."

"No," Josie says, shaking her head sadly: "If it was, I'd just tell Gold Standard to send in some remote units and deal with it. I think what we have to do with Miami is a lot more drastic. 

"And, frankly, I don't think my people should be the ones to do it."

There's silence, around the table. And then slow, deliberate nodding. 

"What about the problem at sea?" the Fleet Admiral asks: "That's something else we need to consider. If this is what's happening on land...?"

"We're... taking steps on that," Josie says, coughing into her fist: "I'd rather not get into details at this time, but I can assure you that we're going to do our best to counter the problem."

"Then I guess we need to wake up the President, and tell him the bad news," the Chief of Staff says, sadly: "And then get our forces ready to mobilize."

"May God have mercy on us all," the Fleet Admiral says.

And no one really wants to disagree. 

Tuesday: 4/12/16

Korhogo, Ivory Coast. Hilly, hot, and humid as !@#$. 

I'm sitting outside on the mud road outside the scenic Hotel Mont Korhogo, not too far from the mountain it gets its damn name from. I'm on my second bottle of Flag Speciale, which is just cool enough to make me forget how bad my !@#$ing boxers are climbing up the crack of my ass, and waiting for my team to make it back from recon. 

After a month and change of looking, we finally know where the hell Straffer is, son. And we're here to get him out of the Superslam those !@#$ing black shoggoth zombie alien things stuck him in. 

So they're up, north of town, having a check on the physicals. Just posing as !@#$ing tourists that got lost in all the damn green. Not too !@#$ing hard to do, around here. 

(Korhogo isn't big on signage.)

Meanwhile? I'm just !@#$ing sitting here, son -- drinking beer, eating fried bananas, and watching the foot traffic go by. Counting motor scooters and the occasional car. Smelling the earth, feeling the breeze. 


Yeah, yeah. I know what the kids are using the term for, these days, son. But back in the day it had a different meaning for me. 

See, places can !@#$ing haunt you, same as people. And when we're someplace long enough, it leaves a little piece of itself in you. Feelings, sense memories, tiny pieces of the landscape. 

Now, you !@#$ing know how memory is, son. You forget half of the !@#$ you see, say, and do in an hour. Another half the hour after that. And then another half after that. So by the time your day's !@#$ing done, it's a wonder you can remember a damn thing, sometimes. 

And then, if that wasn't !@#$ing bad enough? Your brain's changing !@#$ around on top of it, too. Watch old TV shows you saw as a kid if you don't believe me. 

But I'll tell you, son. You go back to one of those places you visited, however long ago? And you sit in one damn spot, for a while, and just let it all roll back?

The ghosts will come back, son. The memories will return.

Been a long !@#$ing while since I was here. At least, that's what I've been !@#$ing led to believe according to the notes left to me by the Superspy Formerly Known as SPYGOD.

(Who would be me, before I lost my optic nerves, !@#$ing frontal lobes, and most of my damn memory, last year.)

According to those !@#$ing notes, I came here a number of times from 1995 on up. Mostly visits to the Superslam, though I'm told I might have dropped in to work with, or at least around, a certain pan-African spy organization that I may have helped deep-six a couple years back. 

(Long !@#$ing story, son.)

Now, looking back through those files and reports, it looks like a lot of !@#$ went down. Prisoner transfers gone bad !@#$ing wrong. Schemes started and foiled. The occasional assassination. You know, the usual spy !@#$.

But after everything that's happened in the last year or so, I can't remember a goddamn thing. 

So all these reports and things? They're just words on !@#$ing paper to me. Sounds on a tape of some ego-driven asshole with a gun the size of his damn arm justifying how many times he had to !@#$ing shoot it off that day.

And yet, when I sit here, sucking on a cold beer on a humid day? Watching the folks go by, staring at the weird white guy with the glasses and the tacky as !@#$ tourist clothes? 

It's like I can actually remember some of it, son. Just bits and pieces, but enough to say that, somehow, my !@#$ing brain is accessing some of those memories I thought were gone. 

And for me, that's just !@#$ing wonderful. Especially because maybe it means that I might start to remember something about Straffer. 

Because that's what really !@#$ing bothers me, son. All the rest of the !@#$ I went through? I got files, I got tapes. I got people who were !@#$ing there I think I can trust, up to a point. And I got guns to persuade the rest of them to !@#$ing tell me the damn truth. 

But Director George Straffer? Former Director of the Space Service, steward of Deep-Ten? The man who fell in love with me? The man who !@#$ing cheated death twice over to get back to me? The man who moved heaven and Earth to put my fine gay ass back together again?

I don't have those kinds of files on him, son. No AGENTS to tell me how we kissed, or how we argued. No top secret photos of us !@#$ing or kicking ass. Just a weird blank in my memory, shaped like a man. 

And now he's been captured by !@#$ing aliens, of all the damn ironies. And all I got's a trail of !@#$ing bread crumbs, leading from one !@#$-show to another. That and confusion and regret and a lot of long-simmering anger and desire. 

And a burning sense that, whatever else, I have to !@#$ing do right by this amazing man who insists that we're going to get married, soon.

I know where he is, now. I know how to find him. And thanks to what we got from the Flier, the other day? I think I know how to get him out. 

Which means, as soon as everyone gets back from recon, we got some work to do. And then we're gonna put these jokers through some !@#$ing changes. 

But meantime, I'm going to sit here and enjoy the beer, the breeze, and the scenery.

And the ghosts, all waiting to haunt me. 

Wednesday: 4/13/16

If you want to think of Hell on Earth, you need only explore the sub-levels of the Heptagon.

The first few are fairly germane, of course. An underground parking garage and vehicle bay. Maintenance and machinery, laboratories and disposal.  An armory or two -- three if you count the one no one can find on the directory.

(The secret energy source no one's supposed to know about.)

But below that? It's a series of prisons, holding cells, and interrogation blocks -- all stacked one atop the other like an inverted pyramid of bad, evil, dangerous, and insane, with the threat level getting worse the further down one goes.

Down around the mid-level -- right on the cusp of "too dangerous for a Superslam," but not edging into "Why not Detention Camp Zebra?" -- is the floor where the COMPANY keeps its would-be world-burners.

Genocidal monsters who thought Hitler and Stalin were too lenient. Eco-warriors who think the world doesn't need humans, anymore. Magnetic pole-flippers, atmosphere-thieves, quislings for alien invaders, and scientists so mad they need better adjectives to describe their level of insanity.

All of them have been stuck in cold, concrete cells for years, maybe even decades. Given only a bed, a toilet, and a shower unit for scenery. Three meals a day, clean linen and library books once a week are privileges, revoked at the slightest provocation by the guards.

And they're always watching, and listening, even if it seems like they're not.

Down there in the dark, surrounded by thick concrete, heavy steel, and endless, wet earth, these men and women who would have destroyed their own planet are waiting for one of the only two certainties they have left down here: death, or a deal.

And they have no real idea when one or the other might arrive.
* * *

On a good day, the dry man only dreams of a sea -- cold, black, and seemingly endless.

He dreams of his feet in the water ---  oh-so-white against the brown sand and dark rocks.

He dreams of his father, far beyond the rolling waves -- head above water, strong arms waving.

He hears only the crash of water, the laughter of others, maybe a seagull or two.

Not the screaming. That hasn't started yet.

And on a good day, he wakes up before it ever does. Before it turns red and ugly, and all too warm.

Before he sees the true danger that lies below that black, undulating wall of water for the first, and most formative time...

On days when he doesn't wake up in time, he screams himself hoarse for at least an hour. And though the guards may hear him, they pay him no mind, anymore.

They don't care that he cries. They don't worry that he panics at the sight and feel of the water of his own tears.

The blood below the skin he claws at to try and stop the water from coming.

On a really bad day, they gas him to keep him from doing too much damage to himself. Suicide by panic is not an option, here.

Not when he's got so long to wait for a chance to work off his evil.

But the rest of the time they just let him scream and claw at his face. They've fixed it so he can't do much damage.

(They just hope he doesn't realize how wet his eyes are, or this is going to be extremely messy.)

* * *

Today is definitely a good day for the dry man. Not only does he wake up before the ocean turns red and violent, but it's because the all-too-infrequent stomping down the hall ends at his cell door, for once. 

At first he thinks he's imagining it. Have they actually come for him, this time? Or did they make another mistake, like they did about four years, three months, twenty-six days ago?

(Yes, he counts. And you would, too. Don't lie.)

The door to his cell is silent, for maybe one moment too long for comfort, and then it groans into motion. Just the outer one, of course -- the metal armor in front of the inches-thick, clear-plastic shield. 

Standing on the other side is a large, burly woman with buzz-short, pink hair and black tribal tattoos running up the sides of her neck. She's wearing a COMPANY uniform, and so are the heavily-armed and armored guards standing to either side of her. 

"Good morning," the woman says, her arms behind her back as she looks at him: "I'm sorry we didn't call before we came. The intercom's been down for a couple years."

He looks at her like something from a dream, and tries to reply. 

"My name is Josie," she says: "You don't have to say anything if you can't talk. I can take a nod or a shake of the head. Do you understand?"

His voice is a dry, rasping thing when he finds the words: "What... you want... me?"

"Your cooperation, Dylan," she says: "If you give it freely and fully, I am in a position to reward your compliance. If not, I can't force you. And I'll tell you everything you're in for right away, up front. 

"But if you say no? You will come right back here, to this cell. And we might never call on you again.

"Do you understand this?"

He looks at the woman, and then down at his hands. It's been so long since he really looked at his skinny, dry fingers.

(The ragged stumps where they took his nails out.)

"Dylan, I need an answer," she says: "Nod if you can."

"Yes," he says, nodding and looking up at her: "I understand."

"Alright," she says, and takes a deep breath before she steps back: "Get him cleaned up. Then down to the briefing room. We've got a lot to cover and not a lot of time."

With that she walks away, not wanting to smell what comes out of the door.

* * *

"I'm not sure involving him is a good idea," one of Josie's clone-sisters says to her as they ride the elevator back up to the better, less oppressive levels of the Heptagon: "He's a mess, frankly."

"I understand that, Katy," Josie says, looking at the prisoner's file, again: "I wouldn't be here if we didn't really need this guy. But you've seen what we're dealing with..."

"... and he's got the best skill-set we can use," Katy nods, her green bob shimmering under the lights as she nods: "But don't let him out of your sight, hon. The last psych workup we did on him recommended a damn lobotomy."

"Jesus, when was that? 1978?"

"Last month," Katy shrugs: "Sometimes the worst solutions really are the only ones."

"I know, sis," Josie says, squeezing Katy's hand, sadly: "That's why I'm here."

And then the elevator ride's over, and Josie leaves it to head off to her rarely-used Heptagon office. 

Wondering if it'll feel any more welcoming, this time. 

Thursday 4/14/16

"Jesus Christ, hon," the white, touristy-looking woman at the hotel room door says, grimacing as the person who answered the door puts the massive pistol down and lets her in: "It's only me. And I swear I got the right order, this time."

"That's what you said the last time," Swiftfoot grumbles from where he sits on the bed, next to Gosheven.

"I rather liked the wrong order," Mister Freedom says, smiling at the table.

"I'm glad you did," Myron chuckles: "What was that joke? If you can't tell !@#$ from tuna fish, don't order seafood in a French restaurant?"

"Damn straight," SPYGOD says, ushering the woman in, along with her many bags of takeout. Halfway across the room she turns into Gosheven, and -- after putting the food down on the table -- goes to rejoin himself on the bed.

"I never not get squicked out watching that," a susprisingly-unarmored Shining Guardsman says, adjusting his ballcap and having a pull off his beer.

"Perhaps you need a new stomach," Free Fire smiles -- armored as ever -- and wonders what might happen if he tries one of those beers.

"Maybe we all need to get some !@#$ing focus," SPYGOD says, closing the door with something just south of a slam: "We're about to crash the damn party on one of the most secure !@#$ing prisons in the world, here, folks. I could care less about what you think about Rabbit-boy's unique talent or how what he brought back's going to sit in your damn guts.

"I do care about intel. Because that, added to what we got from the Flier, is the only way we're going to make the sorry-ass pile of !@#$ we called a plan last night have a hope in Hell of working.

"And by happy holy !@#$ you better have some better !@#$ than you !@#$ing brought to the table yesterday, or I'm going to cram your dinner up your damn backsides and send you back out for more."

And almost everyone coughs, just a little, and begins to spill what they know.

* * *

"Dylan Williams Aberforth," Josie says to the COMPANY observers, who are sitting on the other end of a number of hidden cameras, here in the interrogation room she's about to use: "Better known as the Lamprey..."

She shows them the picture of the man after his arrest: skinny, dry-skinned, and wearing some weird mask that made him look like a cross between his namesake and a deep sea probe.

"Bio-chemical scientist. Bonifide genius. Extremely hydrophobic. Psychotic by any standard definition of the word. And caught and jailed by the COMPANY in 1996 after his third and final attempt to kill all aquatic life on the eastern seaboard.

"Judged to be too dangerous for standard incarceration, even by Superslam standards at the time. Rendered into Extraordinary Confinement on the orders of SPYGOD. His research is all ours, of course, and we've used bits and pieces of it from time to time.

"But this situation, as you know, is something radically different. We need him to interpret the situation we're facing and use his skills to neutralize it. And we need a neutralization solution as quickly as possible."

"How much latitude are you willing to give him?" one of the observers asks.

"Full lab facilities, and everything he needs," Josie answers: "With full, multispectral supervision, constant mind-reading, and a full review of his ideas before implementation. We have numerous experts standing by to overview his findings and solutions before we let him near so much as a damn test tube."

"And what are you willing to do for him?" someone else asks.

"I'm going to try the carrot instead of the stick, at least at first, but if worse comes to worse I'm not above smacking him."

"Are you planning on giving him the carrot?" the same person asks, maybe a little panicky: "There's still a mile-long scar off the coast of Rhode Island from his third attempt. They say nothing will grow there for at least a thousand years."

And Josie nods and, somewhat reluctantly, tells that observer the truth -- knowing he won't like hearing it any more than Josie likes saying it.

* * *

SPYGOD listens as the last person finishes speaking, and then nods, ever so slowly, and takes a thoughtful pull off his beer. 

They've talked for hours, now. The food is almost gone, save for the weird, almost-unidentifiable things that Mister Freedom can recognize, but doesn't care to explain -- save to pronounce their name in his lovely, Beur-accented French. 

But there's always more beer. SPYGOD makes sure of that. And maybe it's because he thinks people say more than they realize when they're a little tipsy, and maybe it's because he needs to be more than a little !@#$ed up to put it all together in his head.

They've discussed everything. The air traffic, the ground visitors. The condition of the gates and the walls. The positions of the ground and air defenses, seen and unseen. The guards and their rotations, the alarm tests and drills.


And only now -- now that it's gone from afternoon to early evening, and they're all talked out -- does SPYGOD seem remotely satisfied.

"Now that's what I !@#$ing needed to know," SPYGOD says, nodding: "Thank you, gentlemen. You've done good work."

"So you're not going to shove the food up our asses?" Myron asks, just to be sure. 

"I don't think there'd be any difference," Shining Guardsman says, casting a sideways eye at the unmentionables in question.

"No," SPYGOD says, putting the lid down on the questionable morsels: "I wanted you talkative, gentlemen. I got talkative.

"So now, we put all that talk together," he says, getting a printout of the plans for the Korhogo lockup out and putting it down on the table, and handing everyone a pad and a pen: "And once we've done that, we make ourselves a !@#$ing plan that's better than what we came up with, last night, with that half-assed intel you gave me before.

"And then we save your man?" Swiftfoot says, with maybe just a little cattiness behind it. 

"Yes," SPYGOD replies, either not noticing the remark or not caring to dignify it. 

He's got bigger fish to fry, after all. 

* * *

"I see," the Lamprey says, sitting in the chair he's been shackled to, in the shade of the guards standing over him.

"And what do you think?" Josie asks, sitting down in her chair, a full ten feet across from him.

"I think..." the thin, dry man begins to say, and then looks down at his hands again: "I think you are ignoring the bigger problem."

"What's that?" the Director asks, looking across the table into his dark, sunken eyes.

"The life you want me to kill. This alien virus, as you call it. It's no virus. It's what's already there."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that... you're upset that this black slick is turning nature upon itself. Causing the balance to be upset. Darkness eating the light. The alien changing the terrestrial.

"But I wonder if you understand that what exists down there, already, is exactly what you describe," the Lamprey says, his voice rising as his eyes narrow: "Life feeds, Director. It consumes. It cannibalizes. It devours. It is one non-stop bacchanal of hungry violence, down below in the black and the dark. 

"And you want me to kill a competing species because... it might replace something that's just as evil?"

The genius looks at his captor, and laughs -- full, dry, and black -- for several minutes, until blood starts to stain his teeth.

* * *

The seven men all look at the notes they have taken, and the conclusions they've drawn, and blink a few times. 

"So, we all understand what we're up against?" SPYGOD says: "Because we can't really !@#$ing try this !@#$ out. Once we roll the condom on, we're !@#$ing in the hole."

"I think so," Shining Guardsman says, tapping the outsides of the compound: "These things are going to shoot us down if we don't have the transponder signal-"

"Which we don't have," Free Fire says.

"Exactly," the cyborg goes on: "So air approach is a no-go, and will cause them to shoot their whole load at us."

"Totally," Myron nods: "And that'll cause the ground to lock down, too."

"Right," SPYGOD says: "And if we go by ground, they'll !@#$ing do the same thing."

"But I can run faster than they can see," Swiftfoot says.

"Right, but you get too close to the guards and you're having other issues," Gosheven says.

"And you can get in, smaller than they can see," Free Fire says to the metamorph: "And have no problems with the issues."

"Exactly," Swiftfoot chuckles, leaning back: "So I'm... what, exactly?"

"Expendable," SPYGOD says, without missing a beat. And everyone laughs but the old speedster. 

"So, we can go loud, or go quiet," Myron says: "And even if we go quiet, we'll get loud eventually. And then lockdown. And then crazy."

"I can handle the lockdown," Mister Freedom says: "And crazy is simply the end result of a number of variables that cannot initially handle their new position relative to one another."

"What he said," Gosheven shrugs: "But if I understand what you're all saying? We're !@#$ing going in loud, anyway."

"Got it in one," SPYGOD says, looking over at Myron: "As long as we got the package...?"

"We got it," Myron says, smiling: "And that means that, as bad as it all looks? We're getting in..."

* * *

"Well, that went better than anticipated," Josie mutters, looking down at her side of the desk.

The guards have come and gone, taking one Dylan Williams Aberforth away to get fitted and fixed up. New clothes, a new cell, and access to lab facilities.

Some small degrees of freedom, however mega-supervised.

But what he wanted in return...

"I'm not comfortable with this," one of the observers says: "Any of this. That man is sick. He deserves treatment and needs confinement."

"Oh, he'll get it," Josie says, turning to regard the hidden cameras: "I'm not giving him a long leash here, folks. As soon as he's gotten our problem taken care of, he's going back in his box. No question there."

"And if he flips on us in the meantime?" someone else asks: "You heard what he said about the sea life, Director. About what he thinks is down there. Can we really trust him?"

"Trust, no," she says, amazed she has to explain this to any of these people: "Use? You bet your ass. And that's all this is, people. Using. That's why we keep those people alive in the first place instead of just !@#$ing shooting them and dumping the damn bodies."

With that she gets up, takes her things, and leaves the room -- disgusted on several different levels.

(Also, it has to be said, at herself. Just a little.)

Halfway down the hall she gets a message over her wrist pad. It's her special friend on SPYGOD's team.


And she doesn't have to think too long or hard when she says: GO ALONG WITH PLAN. WE NEED STRAFFER. WILL ADVISE FURTHER AFTER.

That done, she gets ready to report to the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- and, hopefully this time, the damn President -- that they're about to get the black slick issue under control.

And maybe, just maybe, actually feel good about herself for the first time today. 

Friday: 4/15/16

The Candidate puts the phone down and looks at it. A minute goes by, maybe two.

He's in the ready room at the Connecticut Convention Center. Outside the room, he can hear thousands cheering him. They shout his name like a mantra -- their minds empty of all but their undying love for him.

He takes a very deep breath, rubs his jowly face, and looks in the mirror. 

"So it's just that simple," he says to his own reflection: "That's all he needs me to do. Just go out there, be myself. No special instructions. Nothing. Just..."

He grimaces, and shakes his head: "Just do what I do best, he says."

And suddenly he's got nothing to say.

* * *

"So, what did you want to talk to me about?" Swiftfoot asks, wondering why SPYGOD's in his room.

He just woke up to find the superspy sitting there, in the cruddy chair by the door. He's been there for some time, clearly. Just sitting there.

Watching him in his sleep. 

"I want to know I can count on you," SPYGOD says, after a moment or two.

"Look, that thing I said about Straffer..." Swiftfoot says, easing himself up onto the pillows: "That was rude, (REDACTED). I'm... well... I shouldn't have-"

"I don't give a flying !@#$ what you think about my love life, Steven," the superspy interrupts, holding up a hand: "That's none of your damn business."

"It used to be," Swiftfoot says: "Once. Or is that something you forgot, too?"

"Oh no," SPYGOD says, nodding: "I remember that just fine. And I would have figured you would have figured out, some time ago, that what we were doing was about as far from love as you can get."

"So you were just using me for intel on the Freedom Force," the speedster says, looking down: "Well... I can't say I'm shocked. But I'd... well..."

"Oh, cut the !@#$, Steven!" the superspy curses, about to lose his temper: "The whole damn reason I set that up is because I knew you didn't give a damn about me as a person. You had someone you could !@#$ and make you feel important. I got what I needed and kept !@#$ing you. And we kept it up until there was !@#$ing nothing you could offer me, anymore. 

"That's all there was to it, Steven. I was !@#$ing using you as an asset. That is all you were.

"And don't tell me you did not know that."


"No," SPYGOD insists, sticking his finger in the man's face: "You don't call me by my damn name and pretend, friend. We both had needs. We used each other to get them. And there's nothing I need from you now, except for your powers.

"You !@#$ing got that?"

* * * 

The stage beckons. He takes to it, smiling and waving. Music he can't identify is blaring.

Blank faces, cheering. Staring. A sea of signs with his name on it. 

"Wow! Hello folks!" he says, behind the podium: "Hello! Amazing. Who loves Hartford, Connecticut? Everybody, right? Everybody."

They cheer harder. It's a throwaway. He knows it, they know it. They don't care. 

"Thank you everybody. It's an honor to be here. That's some crowd. That's a lot of people. You got people pouring in from outside. It's great."

More cheers. Everyone loves having their ego stroked. 

No one loves being told they're just the same as everyone else.

* * *

"Well," Swiftfoot says: "I see. Fine. Is that all you had to tell me?"

"No," SPYGOD goes on, leaning forward: "That's just the damn warmup. I wasn't even going to bring it up, because it's not an issue to me. But maybe that explains why I'm having to !@#$ing tell you."

"Tell me what?"

"You can't think I didn't notice you've been ducking out on us when things have gotten !@#$ing hairy, now can you?"

"I don't know what you mean," Swiftfoot protests, but it's rather weak. 

"You run off during fights when things get too !@#$ing crazy, Steven. You might not think we notice, but we do."

"Now come on-"

"I would have just let it go, at least for now. But the others have noticed, too. And if they can't trust you, they can't work with you. Now can they?"

The old speedster looks at the man he used to have wild, crazy, hyperfast sex with, back in the day, and swallows.

Now he is genuinely afraid.

* * *

 "So, scary things have been happening, lately," the candidate says, looking around the room: "You know it, I know it. We started this campaign out and I talked about things that were worrying me. Things you already know about. Jobs, Mexicans, Muslims. And I was the only one talking about them. 

"Now we got even bigger problems. We got Martians tracking their bad business here to Earth. We got Toons and the violence they bring. We got those so-called supergods in their white city, south of California, trying to lord it over us. 

"And now we've got monsters falling out of the sky!"

Boos, cries. He wasn't sure how they'd take it. But he sees something more than fear in their eyes. 

He sees hope. Hope that he can say or do something. 

Hope that breaks his heart.

* * *

"Here's the thing, Steven," SPYGOD says: "I don't know what your damn problem is. I never knew you to duck out of a fight before. 

"The War, the Liberty Patrol, the Freedom Force? I saw you go toe-to-toe with every !@#$ing thing the world ever threw at us, and come out the other side grinning like a damn champion. 

"Because you were a champion. You were our hero. Catty and flawed, yes, but out of everyone else there I at least knew I could count on you to leap into the fight and come back out of it again. 

"Now yeah, it's been a while. !@#$, it's been decades. And I know that you slip up and you fall. But I also know you never fall where I can't find you. And I know exactly what it takes to get you the hell back into the field and moving again. 

"And maybe that's all trust is, in the end. Knowing someone's limits and being willing to !@#$ing work with them."

He pauses, then, and looks away. But when he looks back it's merciless. 

"Now? I don't know, anymore. I recruited you for this team because I needed someone I could !@#$ing depend on. Someone I knew from the old days. Someone I !@#$ing trusted to stand by my side when I decided to !@#$ing go rogue. 

"But all I'm getting is snark, Steven. That and a tendency to drop the damn ball that even I am finding very hard to !@#$ing excuse, anymore. 

"And that's !@#$ing saying something..."

* * *

"The others? They aren't saying much about this problem. Even with Miami on fire and the armed forces surrounding it.

"Kasich defers to our Interim President. Sanders probably wants to welcome it in with open arms. 

"Me? I'm saying we find out who's responsible and we take this fight right to them!"

The cheers go up. They're deafening. And he stands there for a time, letting them wrap around his heart and soul. 

Hoping they will lift him up, now that he's got nothing left. 

Because now he really understands what all this has been about, all this time. 

* * *

"So," SPYGOD says, getting up from the chair and looking down at Swiftfoot: "Just so there's no mistake? I'm telling you now. You need to consider where you want to be, Steven. Because this mission isn't just to save the world. It's to save my !@#$ing soul."

"What?" the speedster asks, but clams up quickly when SPYGOD raises a fist. 

"That man, in that superslam? He didn't just save the world, Steven. He saved me. Time and time again.

"And in spite of everything that's !@#$ing happened? All the stupid mean !@#$ I've said and done because I've been in a damn pity party for one, or scared out of my !@#$ing mind, or whatever? 

"Well, Straffer's stood by me. He's remained. And he moved Heaven and Earth and made a deal with the !@#$ing devil to get me back.

"That's more than a lot of others have done for me. !@#$, that's more than I've done a lot of times.

"So you know what? I will do the same damn things to get him back, okay? And !@#$ the COMPANY. !@#$ Josie. !@#$ the rules. !@#$ the procedures. !@#$ anything that gets in my !@#$ing way.

"And if it means we're both outlaws after this? Well, !@#$ it. I don't care.

"And if you think I am going to cut you a break if  you screw up when we go in to get him, Steven? You are very. !@#$ing. Wrong."

He pauses then, and turns to the door, preparing to leave: "So if you can't help? You stay behind. I've made allowances for everyone being incapacitated. We can get by without you. Not as well, of course. Otherwise I expect your a-game.

"And if not?" he says, turning to look at the man: "I'm taking away your damn license to speed, Steven. You know I can do it. And you know how I'll do it.

"And if you aren't Swiftfoot? Well, who are you?"

And with that he's gone, leaving the old speedster to sit in the pre-dawn dark and shiver until the bed almost vibrates apart.

At least until he gets his wits together, realizes what he has to do, and goes to do it...

* * *

... turning off the television before Helvete even needs to tell him to.

"Astounding," the pale-skinned pyromaniac says, sipping at his finely-prepared drink and looking at the darkened television from across the room: "He knows, Karl. I am not certain how, but he knows."

"So what will you do?" the black-haired clone asks, his face no longer as bandaged -- the burns healing nicely. 

"For the moment, nothing," Helvete decides, putting down his mug and stirring the remnants with a spoon: "He cannot get too far out from under my shoe. I think he knows this, too. I have my hooks in too deep for him to squirm away."

"So it is possible?" Karl asks: "What would he have to do?"

"Stay very very far away from me, and my voice," the pyrokinetic says, smiling through jet-black lips: "And no matter where he goes? My people will find him. And I will speak with him. And there will be no escape."

Karl nods, and then deftly changes the subject: "Speaking of escapes? We had a little trouble with some of the people we brought over to join us. When we told them the plan they... well, they had problems with the concept."

"Were they irreplaceable?" he asks, suddenly quite concerned.

"No sir. No one major. Just one of the groups you wanted to join up. Minor players who did one, major thing."

"Very well," Helvete says: "But keep a better eye on our future recruits? I don't need any more heat, as you Americans say."

Karl nods and smiles, knowing that he could have corrected him -- he's not American, as the resurrected super-nazi should well know -- but decides to let his master melt his spoon instead of another spot on Karl's body.

And be grateful the ghoul doesn't realize what's really going on here...

Saturday: 4/16/16

... in the Oval Office, as the phone that only the President knows about rings and rings, and he does not pick up.

He grits his teeth and sits on his hands. His eyes start from his head and he can feel his heart pounding in his chest.

But he will not answer it. Not today.

Maybe not ever again.

A tattoo on his body burns like the sun. He doesn't like how it itches, but he's glad for its presence, today.

(And he has no idea how he'd forgotten about it, all these months. After all, it worked before...)

And as it burns, and he realizes -- with every passing minute -- that he feels less and less of a need to answer that damned phone, he knows that he can do what has to be done.

He can give the orders that only he, as Commander in Chief, can.

Even if it means his death, he can still do one last good thing...

* * *

... and that's not be found. 

His name was Terry Busey. He was the leader of a weird, religious racist group called the Sons of the Serpent -- blending early Christian doctrine, odd metaphysics, and white power into a heady brew of religious hate. 

He was also supposed to be meeting with members of Odal, a couple days ago. After all, someone in their organization was good enough to get them out of jail, down in Florida, and put them onto a plane for Dusseldorf, there to meet up for a larger, nobler purpose. 

Except that something went seriously wrong, somehow. 

He wasn't met at the airport by the right people, for one. He and his Sons were put into a car with someone who had some rather interesting ideas on what they could do for the group, none of which sat well with them. 

So the car took a couple wrong turns, just after the conversation did, and all the Sons got to meet their serpent -- up close and personal. 

Now he's face down, ass up in a rusted barrel full of quicklime, south of the city. So are his fellows. With any luck no one will ever have any idea they're dead. 

At least until the people who killed them have made their move...

* * *

"... now?" Myron asks, looking at the disheartening news they're getting from Korhogo.

The !@#$ of it was, the day was going to be perfect. Cloudy and humid, full of atmospheric issues to cloud their approach. Maybe some heat lightning, too.

Everyone was ready. Everyone was past ready, in fact. The last few days gave them time to think, to plan further, and be on their best game.

And then, for some reason they hadn't anticipated, the superslam became the star attraction for what had to be a prison guard convention.

UN Transports and VTOLs are landing and taking off every hour. Dozens of guards are exiting and no one is getting back on.

And SPYGOD has the uncomfortable feeling they're unloading more than people...

"Why?" Gosheven asks from his staging point: "How?"

And SPYGOD doesn't say anything to him, but quickly looks to Myron -- the one person here he knows he can trust -- and mouths the word 'mole.'

And what is there to say after that?

Sunday: 4/17/16

"Any second now," Mr. USA says, solemnly.

He and the other members of the Freedom Force are standing at the chokepoint of the major highway going into Miami -- ready for anything, though they think they know what's coming.

No one really can though -- not for something like this. And if Hanami minds the older hero taking point on this one, she doesn't show it.

There's nothing she really could have said, otherwise.

They've been here all this week, helping with the extended evacuation. A half mile in every direction from the previous cordon -- every last person they could find, every pet, every farm animal.

And then, when they were good and sure that they'd found everyone they could, the Army came in with terrible machines. Tankers full of contact poison so awful they had to manipulate the weather patterns to keep the fumes from spreading too far, and defoliant that made Agent Orange look like knock-off weedkiller.

Now that deed is done. There is a horrendous zone, just past them, where nothing living remains. Where nothing green will ever grow again.

And even that is not the worst thing that's going to happen, here, today...

* * *

"Good evening, my fellow Americans.

"I come to you tonight not merely as your President, but as the Commander in Chief of your armed forces.

"I also come to you in humility, and with my hand and my hat held out. I come to ask your forgiveness, both at what I have done, and what I have said, and what I now must do.

"I am certain I do not need to tell you about the dire circumstances surrounding one of our greatest cities. Miami Florida is in ruins, attacked and destroyed by a creature we still know very little about.

"But what we do know is the reason I am here, speaking to you.

"Because right now, I need to tell you some things. They will not be easy things for me to say. They will not be easy things for you to hear.

"And when I have said those things, I will need to ask you your forgiveness...

* * *

"No," the Lamprey says, cackling as he corrects the men doing his bidding on a Naval frigate, hundreds of miles away.

He's standing at his workstation in the Heptagon, watching as the substance he worked on over the last few days is tossed overboard.

Depth charges,  they figured. The best way to get the poison dispersed as quickly as possible.

All good, of course. But some weepy-eyed sailor had to say the words that the Lamprey finds the most foul and horrible in such a situation.

He had to say "God forgive us."

And the Lamprey found that both offensive and incredibly funny, for reasons he doesn't care to share with any of his minders...

* * *

"Forgiveness, because, for the past few weeks, we have not been telling you the entire truth of the situation.

"At first this was done because we didn't have the full accounting of the facts. Hopefully you can understand that.

"But as time went on it became an exercise in censorship, hoping to suppress panic.

"You doubtlessly know about the Martian crisis. You have heard that the people of that planet have come here, to Earth, to escape the horrible fate that has overtaken their planet.

"You have also heard that they are victims, their world destroyed by the remnants of the Decreator we destroyed, near their orbit, more than a year ago.

"Remnants that vast and dangerous creature fell to the surface of Mars, destroying what they touched.

"Corrupting both the soil and the soul of that planet, and turning it into a dark, hungry thing that sought to corrupt all living matter that stood in its path.

"My fellow Americans, it is with a sad heart that I have come to tell you that this world-killing danger is now upon the Earth...

* * *

Hanami hears it first. The whistling noise that heralds a fleet of transport planes, coming in low and fast. 

"Hold your ears," she commands to those who have actual eardrums, and they obey. 

(Especially Red Wrecker -- looking somewhat odd in the new boots that make her seem taller, and more imposing.)

Mr. USA doesn't need to, she thinks. But he does anyway. Maybe he doesn't like to think he's too far above this. 

Too far removed from the fear and horror of being all too normal, or at least vulnerable...

* * *

"The black ball that fell off the coast of Miami is the exact same thing that fell upon the International Space Station. It is also the same sort of thing that has been shot towards our world many, many times over the last few weeks.

"Only the brave actions of the United Nations Space Service have saved us from being all but overrun by creatures like the one that destroyed Miami, which we now realized hatched out of that ball.

"But even in death, the monster continues to attack us. 

"The darkness inside of it is infectious. People who are hit by it swiftly turn into horrible creatures, incapable of human decency and emotions, and wanting only to eat and despoil what they encounter.

"And any plant and animal life meets a similar fate.

"The water the beast strode through, and died in, is now irrevocably tainted by the foul contagion the monster carried with it. This means that a great deal of the Atlantic waters, going up the coast, has been tainted. All the animal life in it is undergoing mutation.

"With the assistance of the US Navy and Coast Guard, we have begun dumping substances that will kill all life into the water. It is highly toxic and will doubtlessly ruin the ecosystem in that area for some time. Perhaps forever.

"But if we do not take those steps, we will have to sit by quietly, on our hands, as the darkness spreads up the Gulf Stream, over to Europe, and beyond..."

* * * 

The Lamprey laughs, so he does not have to cry. 

It is not a comforting sound to those who have to listen. It is black and horrid, like someone being forced to guffaw at a truly offensive joke that just won't stop itself from happening. 

And as he watches his life's work do its thing -- turning the waters of the Ocean a strange, neon pink color as the substance obliterates all sealife it touches -- he imagines just how many things he's killing, right now. 

The fish. The plants. The crustaceans and cephalopods. Every living thing down there, below the black -- very large or incredibly small. 

All dead, or soon to be. All killed by the pink goop he taught them how to make. 

He laughs, imagining his father revenged. Imagining his own broken childhood revenged. Imagining every slight, every dismissal, every backstabbing he ever suffered because he, and he alone, knew the truth about what goes on down there, below the water. 

If he could die right now, fulfilled and happy, he would. 

* * *

 "My fellow Americans, I beseech you to understand. We cannot take the chance of this spreading any further than it already has.

"Sometimes, in medicine, you have to amputate an arm to save a patient. As the Commander in Chief, I have decided to amputate.

"That decision is echoed in my second announcement, this evening.

"I know that, early in this crisis, we spoke of being able to save Miami. I know that we said we could rebuild that proud and beautiful city, and one day return to it.

"I also know that we said we would maintain the cordon, but still provide emergency services for any survivors left remaining inside the city limits.

"Once again, I beg your forgiveness for being less than truthful..."

* * *

The bombs the transports are dropping are very dangerous things.

They're called MOABs: Massive Ordinance Air Blast bombs. They fall out of the back of the transport, activate on the way down, and explode above the ground -- creating a firecloud so massive that it dwarfs all standard ordinance. 

Creating heat and pressure so intense that nothing living can survive.

There are fifty of the planes coming, one after the other. Each one has four of the bombs on board. 

And, one by one, they drop them down onto a predetermined grid pattern within the Miami cordon. 

"The mother of all bombs," Blastman mutters, closing his eyes...

* * *

 "The fact of the matter is that Miami is now unsuitable for human life. It is a suppurating wound on the landscape, filled with creatures that were once human, but have been warped and changed beyond all recognition.

"And this wound is quickly turning into a danger to us all.

"As of this moment, as I speak to you here tonight, a number of advanced weapons are being dropped throughout Miami itself, and Miami beach. Nothing will be alive there by the time I end my speech, tonight.

"And if we've done our jobs correctly, nothing will ever live there again.

"I cannot hope to convey my sadness to you at having to do this. I can only say that I hope you understand why I did not come forward with this information before. And why I am doing so now.

"In the days to come, I will be more forthcoming about this crisis. I will also be announcing the emergency measures we will be taking in order to help those directly affected by this crisis.

"To the brave people of Miami, I say this. You are not alone. Your people, your government, and your President are all standing with you. You will be taken care of. This I swear.

"To all other UN member states, I call upon you to also be more forthcoming to your own citizens about the threat we face. I respectfully ask that the Space Service be ready to continue to defend our world against the danger we're up against.

"And I pray to my God -- a real and loving god, rather than the pretend pantheon we are currently being ignored by -- that these United States shall not be ushered from the Earth by this calamity, but only made stronger, and more indelible.

"I bid you peace and strength, and wish you goodnight."

* * *

And the Freedom Force stands helplessly, in the light of 200 newborn suns, and watches Miami burn.

The towers collapse. The streets go up in flames. The heat melts everything, and the pressure pulverizes what remains.

Those with super-sensitive hearing can almost hear the afflicted beings screaming, over the flames. But it might just be a trick of the noise, too -- the brain filling in details where they don't exist.

"Please tell me this is the last time we do this," American Steel says, looking at Hanami: "Please tell me we can do better than this."

But she has no answer, except to look up at the sky and wonder if that hideous, alien heart succeeded in telling their enemy where to send its next wave. 

And wonder if all this will really be enough to stop the horror she's seen from coming here. 

(SPYGOD is listening to Be Apart (Porches) and having a Final Absolution)