Monday, February 16, 2015

1/13/13 - Seven Days of the Con Job - Pt. 2.0

Prisoner 52 and Absent Friends
(Art by Dean Stahl)

Dreaming is Easy 
Life is Tough

* * *

It's 6:30 in the morning in Korhogo, in northern Cote d'Ivoire, and the dead are whispering to the bone-white man they call their king.

Prisoner 52 sits in his unlocked cell, surveying the large, gently-curving cellblock beyond. From his makeshift throne -- a stool from what used to be the Warden's office -- he can see across and down three floors, and most of the sides.

And what he can't see, he can hear with obscene and total clarity. 

The superslam is buried underground. There are no windows on their cells, and no contact with the outside world except for the ever-so-tiny vents in the ceiling that let in air, and occasionally rain during a truly torrential downpour. 

It's always a little too cold, in spite of the climate, and always too tightly-packed, regardless of how open it actually is. Smells linger for days, mold grows riot at a moment's notice, and even the warmest blanket -- stolen from the guards' quarters, after the revolution -- can't keep out the clammy damp. 

They are, however, excellent for hanging oneself, as the most current occupant of his cell can attest. 

The king of the dead is a big and burly fellow with skin the color of freshly-fallen snow. He's well-muscled and bald, with no eyebrows to speak of. His teeth are sharp, as are his fingernails. His eyes have small, black skulls for pupils. 

And no matter how much he tries to remember -- and he has tried, over the last thirty-odd years -- he simply cannot remember his name.

That might not be so odd in a place like this. So many of his fellow prisoners are incredibly damaged -- insane,  traumatized, or merely broken. It's a wonder some of them can even remember their lives before they were sentenced here.

A greater wonder that, after what happened when the Imago took over, they were able to survive as well as they did, before the Terre Unifee appeared to "rescue" them...

He smirks at that thought, listening as the solid, white walls of his cell begin to vibrate ever so slightly. The sound of a TU transport landing on the roof -- a big one, from the sound of things.

And that means that someone's getting out of here.

The whoop and cry goes up from all corners of the block -- a savage ululation, somewhere between defiance and supplication. All plans, pains, and punishments are stopped as the inmates return to their unlocked cells to make themselves ready, hoping this might be their lucky day.

The day they get to leave their past mistakes far behind them, and begin a new life somewhere well away from this place.

A day that will never come for Prisoner 52.

The ghosts that float near him begin to whisper louder, some strange echo of their hopes and dreams coming back now that so many people here are so excited. Their misplaced enthusiasm annoys him, but only slightly. He can't blame the dead for being confused, any more than he can blame a steer for defecating on the way to the slaughterhouse.

He rises from his stool, cracks his back and neck, and clenches his large, powerful fists. He strides past the piles of weapons, drugs, and other contraband his fellow prisoners have given him, hoping that when their time comes, he will be merciful. And he stands at the bars of the balcony, looking down at the surging mass of super villains as they run every which way they can.

"Like it's somebody's birthday," he muses, his voice rattling and sepulchral, and his breath so cold it steams in the air: "But who gets the surprise?"

The ghosts that float beside him have no answer. But then they never do. 

* * *
"Really?" the President of the United States sighs, looking down at the action plan he, Josie, and Ben Franklin have spent the last few hours coming up with, here in the Oval Office, since he got back from France: "How is it we can lose track of the leader of Team Alpha?"

"He goes where he wants to when he's off-duty, sir," Josie says, checking her datapad: "And, well, since it's 2 in the AM he's really off-duty by now."

"I thought we had them tagged by satellite?"

"We did, but he's a metamorph. He has a complete sense of every cell in his body. I suspect he found the tracker as soon as we implanted it."

"We suspect?"

"Well, if I was him, I'd leave it in during the day, and then take it out at night," she says, smiling: "That way we don't know where he goes, and don't know he's even gone."

Ben Franklin laughs at that: "A cunning fellow! I simply must meet him."

"Well, that's the plan," Mr. USA says, leaning back in his chair and looking somewhat dejected: "So if we can't rely on SIGINT?"

"Well, that's why I use HUMINT, sir," Josie says, holding up the pad and smiling: "I've got it narrowed down to a couple bars between Neo York, Trenton, DC, and Baltimore. We'll find him soon."

"I certainly hope so, my dear," Ben Franklin says, steepling his hands before his face as he leans forward in his chair: "He is the leader. If we take him out of the picture, the others will waste time deciding who's in charge. That's time we can use."

"Agreed," Josie says, putting her pad down: "Now, have we heard any more from the TU President about what he meant by "muscle"?"

"Not yet," Mr. USA replies, getting ready to order up yet another round of coffee, and being very glad he insisted the kitchen be open at all hours to accommodate those with odd metabolisms and weirder sleeping schedules: "I suspect he's rounding up some of his top Compagnie folks."

"That seems a little unlikely, good sir," Ben interjects: "This is the sort of thing best done quietly, in the dark of the night and the gloom of the shadows. If he sends in his brightest lights, it will attract too much attention."

"I agree," Josie nods: "It'll be strategic talents, but no one we'll have heard of before."

"Which means we won't know what we're dealing with until it actually begins to happen, unfortunately," Ben adds, leaning back and gently patting the sides of his chair. 

"Well, that's just great," the President glowers: "I'm getting really !@#$ tired of these magic mystery tours when it comes to anyone in a cape and a mask. I'd just like some straightforward planning for a change-"

"Trenton," Josie quickly says in response to what she's reading: "Wild Bill's Cowboy Bar. They stop serving at 2 but the party goes on until 3. If we hustle, we can nail him before he gets a block away."

"Excellent," Mr. USA says, standing up so quickly his chair almost breaks: "You get the troops rolling. I'll get with the Press Secretary and prepare a statement."

"What is the plan, my dear lady?" Ben asks, leaning forward as she starts tapping in orders.

"We're going to get the Cape-Containment Squad on it. Stunners only, we want him alive for questioning. And then a total containment unit."

"You mean those airtight balls?" the man shudders: "Rather medieval, I should think."

Josie looks up and smiles: "Sir, that man existed as a loose string of homosexual molecules for months on board the Flier. If we lose him, he's in the wind -- literally." 

Ben smiles and nods: "In that case, may I make an alternate suggestion? I have been working on something quite intriguing lately..."

* * *

"Quite something, is it not?" Khalil asks the beautiful woman standing next to him as they look down at the bottom of Ngorogoro Crater from the safety of the lodge's observation deck. 

"It is," Farashuu says, quite impressed by the view. From up here, the tiny world in the extinct volcano seems like a child's toy, complete with its own wispy clouds and flocks of birds.

"How many jumps would you have to make to get down there?"

"Oh, just three," she says, tracing the progress of a safari jeep, down by the lake.

"Only three?"

"Well, I'd leap from here to the center, and let myself fall," she explains, pointing to the air: "And then when I got close enough, I'd jump again and come out at a different angle, so as to slow myself. And then one last jump at the right angle, so I landed softly, and on my feet, rather than my punda."

They laugh at that, and then, nodding, turn to look around for their extraordinary contact, who said he'd be meeting them here.

The fact that this person would meet with them at all was something of a shock. That he wanted to meet in the middle of an overpriced, tourist-laden place like this safari lodge was even more impressive. 

But then, given his reputation, nothing should have really surprised them at all. 

"When did he say he'd be meeting us?" Farashuu asks, wondering if she'll need to change into her costume, or just stay in civilian dress, today.

"Right about now," Khalil replies, looking at his watch and wondering when he should ask her for a drink, after all this. 

"Indeed," a gravelly voice says, not far from them. Farashuu, to her credit, doesn't so much as jump, but Khalil has to work to avoid looking as startled as he is.

The timeless black man walking towards them is almost regal in appearance. His features are dark and stern, his hair is close-cropped to his skull, and his eyes are both commanding and terrible. He wears a metallic-grey suit so sharp it seems to cut the air as he walks, and a tie made of shimmering gold and green. 

"Sir, it's an honor," Khalil says, stepping forward to shake his hand. The man just looks at him, and then his hand, as if he was handing him a pile of monkey @#$# instead of a handshake. Khalil slowly retracts his hand, and takes a respectful step back, not wanting to anger this man in the slightest.

"Sir, please," Farashuu says: "I know there's a long-standing feud between your two agencies, but we have a bigger problem."

"A problem, young lady?" the man says, shaking his head: "There is no problem for me. I no longer have an agency, thanks to recent events. I and my remaining colleagues are, as you say, independent operators. And as such we are happy to cooperate with this sorry man, and his sorry masters, for the greater good. But I wonder if either of you appreciate the true nature of this transaction?"

"Sir, as I understand it, you have access to something our mutual friend requires," Khalil says, wondering why time seems to be going so slow, all of a sudden: "He's willing to pay you handsomely for its temporary use, and then return it to you safely and secure."

"I am certain that he is," the man nods, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a small, white box with a complicated lock: "Just as I am certain he will return it. He knows what will happen if he does not."

"Then what else is there to speak of?" Farashuu asks, trying to be as polite as she can.

"There is the matter of debts, young lady," the man says: "Three times, now, this mutual friend has been aided by me."

"Three?" Khalil asks, suddenly realizing that time has stopped, here and now -- birds caught in mid-flap, tourists' drinks frozen halfway to their mouths: "I thought this was the second time?"

"No," the man replies, handing the box over to Farashuu, who is clearly surprised at how heavy it actually is: "This makes three, as I hand over this box, and you inform your paymasters that they should, in turn, pay me. Before this was the sending of assistance during the fight for freedom, a few months ago. These two are the ones you must be referring to?"

"They are, sir, yes," Khalil says: "May I know of the first, so that I may explain this to our mutual friend?"

"You may, yes," the man says: "Tell him that when the Object was moved, and he thought he had infiltrated his way into where it had been moved, I was less than two feet from him the entire time, and yet I did not kill him."

Farashuu and Khalil just look at him, as they obviously don't know what to say.

"So you tell our mutual friend that, young lady," the man says, turning to go: "And you tell him that I said that three is a dangerous number. I will soon come to call upon him for aid. He would be wise not to refuse me."

And with that, the man turns completely, walks away, and vanishes between heartbeats. 

The birds begin to fly again. The tourists talk as though nothing had happened. And Farashuu -- aka Skyspear -- and Khalil both take a very ragged and uneven breath, realizing that the most powerful spy in all of Africa just threatened their employer.

And if you were going to assemble a short list of people you just don't !@#$ with, the Wandering Shadow would be right around the top of the list.

* * *

The inmates scatter well ahead of Prisoner 52 as he slowly strides from level to level, taking in each and every cell and office along the way.

The guards' offices are always of interest to him. The badly-battered ghosts of the men and women that used to toil there -- keeping a careful eye on the superpowered population of this hole -- remain there still, watching long-smashed screens as though they still had something important to say, or do.

As he passes, they stir into increased motion, perhaps rehearsing the last moments of their lives. Knobs are turned and monitors peered at intently as they relive the early acts of the horrible, red day when the riot swept from floor to floor, as the essentially-abandoned villains realized they would all die a lot sooner if they didn't do something about it.

All the guards had died, that day -- not a one of them in any way that could be described as good, or gentle. There had been brutal and sudden ways to die, as well as slow and torturous. There had been rape and murder, sometimes not in that order. Many inventive means were employed, either devised entirely on the spot or else done in accordance with long-imagined fantasies of revenge.

And in that paroxysm of blood, bone, brain, and bowel, Prisoner 52 -- never the most mentally engaged or aware of convicts -- had truly opened his eyes for the first time in decades, and knew, at long last, what he was.

Just not why he'd been sent here, or, more importantly, who he had been.

Other names have appeared in his mind, along with some sense of their place and personality. The ever-bountiful Aegio, fecund and full. Lordly Seranu, commanding from his throne of stars and night. Kanaan, ever-dicing with the lives of men.

And primordial Hoosk, from which all things spring fully-formed...

Those, and still even more -- a pantheon of mysterious, half-formed images and ideas. Sometimes he imagines what his relationship to them must be. Was he their brother, perhaps? A father, or a cousin? A lover of one, an enemy of another?

All of those things at once, somehow?

But try as he might, the nature of their web, and his place within it, remains a murky and uncertain thing. All these months later, all he knows for certain is that he is here, and they are not.

That and he knows what he can actually do. 

On his way to the floor, he comes across a younger fellow, dying out on the walkway -- clearly beaten to the point of death by his enemies, and abandoned by his friends. Such a thing happens a lot when the transports come, so as to eliminate competition.

(El Azul, he called himself. Some emotional pirate or some such. Apparently it did no good, down here.)

He kneels down before the young man, holding his cracked skull with one hand. The boy tries to talk, but no real words are coming. Spanish stutters and bloody bubbles as his eyes stare in two directions, their pupils widening.

"You must be calm," the prisoner says, stroking the boy's hair with his free hand: "This is not death. Death does not exist. It is merely a metamorphosis. Relax and let it happen. Nothing worse can happen to you, now."

The boy seems to take comfort at that, perhaps. Or maybe he's too weak to fight anymore. He slips away, then and there, and as the rattle comes from the back of his throat, Prisoner 52 feels a small surge of power building within him -- rising from the base of his spine to the roof of his skull, and then back again.

His pale skin begins to glow, just then -- the bones beneath revealing themselves as black, backlit structures. His eyes go wider, the skulls within them seeming to scream. And all around him that fear death are urged by the most primal portions of their brains to get away from him as quickly as they can.

And something in his mind begins to whisper a word to him -- an answer of sorts, preparing to reveal its full glory at last. 

But as soon as it's noticed, it's gone. The power dials itself back and down. He realizes that he's breathing, again, and his heart is starting to beat its familiar tattoo.

And whatever voice he'd heard, even the barest remnants of what it was preparing to say are gone from his mind, as though they'd never even been spoken. 

He looks about him, wondering if his spectral entourage has grown. It has not. Clearly El Azul was meant for a different place, after his demise. Or perhaps his presence, here at his end, kept him from being condemned to wander the stark white halls of this prison for eternity.

Prisoner 52 isn't sure. His actions are largely trial and error -- a daily voyage of discovery that seems to lead nowhere, but always gives him one more puzzle to chew over.

One day, he knows he'll get it right. Until then, he'll just have to endure.

That and be glad his singular diet is so well-sated in a place like this.

* * *

"Oh God, you're too !@#$ing gorgeous," Gosheven mutters, burying his lips into the cologne-drenched neck of the man he's left the bar with. 

"So are you," the leather-clad man says, running his hands through the pudgy fellow's hair, and then up and down his back: "I can't wait to have you."

"Why wait?" 

"What, here?" the man asks, looking up and down the almost-deserted street, just up the way from the club they left.

"No, silly," Gosheven says, gesturing to a nearby alley: "Just there."

"What, up against the wall?"

"Why not?"

"You pitching or catching?"

"I'm a big fan of 'and,' honey," the metamorph grins, and gently pulls the fellow over that way. 

Gosheven loves this sort of thing. It's still a massive turn on for him that he can go somewhere and not be recognized, even after the silly thing he said and did yesterday. And the fact that he can just go to a club and be wholly and completely anonymous -- especially when it comes to a no-strings hookup with young leatherboy -- is just the sloppy on the seconds. 

(Not that there's going to be any seconds. As soon as he's good, he's gone. And he wouldn't have gone out the door with this guy unless he thought he was on the same wavelength.)

The alley is dark and smells of old trash and wet newspaper. Two cats run out of a box before them and skitter away like the devil was after them. Gosheven grins as he adjusts his eyes to see in the dark and then debates whether to take it or give it. 

But then, as he's shifting his eyes over, he realizes they're not alone back here. There are men in No-Suits, trying to blend into the landscape. 

And they're carrying the weird, long guns with orange-and-purple lights that can drop a charging rhino for hours on end, to say nothing of most supers...

"Oh !@#$!" he says, ducking the volley that swings his way. His paramour is lucky enough to follow his lead, just then, and dive behind one of the trashcans. But no sooner does Gosheven seek to join him than he sees there's even more weird, human-shaped blurs coming down the street.

"Honey, listen to me," he says to the man beside him: "Just stay the !@#$ down, okay? They won't hurt you. They'll ask you a bunch of questions but you did nothing wrong, here. It's all about me-"

"I know," the man says, and then does something with his wristwatch that Gosheven doesn't quite see, but feels all too acutely a second or two later. It's like every inch of his body has been dipped into fire and then ice. He tries to scream but can't. 

And when he tries to shift himself -- maybe into a gas, or at least a fly -- he discovers to his horror that, for the first time in his life, he can't change his shape.

"Ohmy!@#$inggodwhatthe!@#$didyoudotome..." he stammers out as he falls down, shivering and shaking as every cell in his body utterly refuses to leave its place.

"I said I couldn't wait to have you," the man says, standing up and revealing the badge he had shoved into the front of his pants: "And now I have."

The cape-catchers. He'd been had. 

"GosheventoallTeamAlpha," the metamorph croaks out as the men in the No-Suits appear around him, stunners ready to fire: "Gameon! Run! Dear!@#$inggodrun-"

And then it's all bright lights and chittering sounds, and he's gone. 

* * *

The President throws something across the Oval Office. He doesn't care what it is, even after it shatters against the other wall, sending pieces every which way.

He can track the arc and fall of each one, but doesn't care to. He's too !@#$ angry, right now.

"I've got no excuse, sir," Josie says, radioing in from the location: "I told the agent to zap him before the others moved in. I guess he must have seen the agents, somehow-"

"Those No Suits are complete and utter !@#$, Josie," Mr. USA says, avoiding the temptation to pound holes into the desk that Teddy Roosevelt used to write upon: "Compromised six ways to Sunday, in fact."

"I'm sorry, sir. I thought we'd overcome that design flaw."

"Apparently not," the President says, sighing: "Well, I guess we have to catch the rest on the run, now. I wonder how we're going to do that."

"Did you ever find out what the President meant by muscle, sir?" Josie asks. Mr. USA's about to answer, but then he realizes he's not alone in the room, anymore. 

Floating above the center of the Oval Office, looking right down at him, is a man with long, red and blonde hair. He's wearing a blue suit with bright lightning coursing over the lengths of his arms and legs, and crossing over at his chest. Electricity crackles between his fingers, and plays from tooth to tooth inside his overly-friendly grin. 

"Mssr. President," Tempete Bleu says, slowly coming down to the ground: "You will please forgive the intrusion."

"Of course," Mr. USA says, cutting Josie off for a moment and stepping over to shake the man's hand: "I didn't know you were coming. Are you the muscle the President was talking about?"

"No," the man says, some strange humor playing across his features: "But I bring news of that matter... amongst other things."

"Well, I'm all ears," the President says, smiling: "We both are, actually-"

"Actually...." Tempete Bleu interrupts as he waves a hand at the screen on the desk, making it go blank and dark: "We must speak of this in confidence. My apologies."

"I see," Mr. USA says, somewhat astounded by how forward this man is: "What do I need to know?"

"The muscle, as you put it, is being assembled now as we speak," the man says, clasping his hands together as though there was some secret there: "You do not need to know who they are. In fact, it's better if you do not ask too much of them. They will be new, and raw. This will be their... baptism of fire, if you will."

He seems to smile a little too widely at that notion, which makes Mr. USA very uneasy. 

"I presume we're to give them every courtesy as they hunt down the rest of Team Alpha, then," he asks after a moment. 

"Yes," the man says, grinning: "And once they're done, they shall become Team Alpha. We'll find some interesting explanation as to why. Perhaps we can say the others were all killed in some horrible, secret battle with a long-lost villain? I understand that's a convenient excuse."

"Yes," the President says, really not liking this conversation at all: "Well, you can assure the President he has my full cooperation."

"Good," the man says: "Then I'll go back to France, and..."

He seems like he's about to say something, and then changes direction a second later: "I must ask you something, Mssr. President. Something important."

"Please do."

"Do you know what's about to happen?"

Mr. USA looks at him, and then blinks a few times, wondering why he feels so strange, just now: "Which something? There's a lot of things going on, right now. Some more important than others-"

"You'd know this one," the blue-clad French hero says, taking a step forward as he does: "It would consume your mind and chill your heart. It would demand your attention, every step of your day. You would awaken to the fear of it, and refuse to sleep because of it. And each new day, as you watched the clock count down the hours, you would be aware of just how little time there actually was left."

"Do you mean (Unintelligible Concept)?"

Tempete Bleu just looks at him for a second, and then, ever so slowly, rises from the ground and begins to float away.

"We'll speak of this again, Mssr. President," the man promises, and then zips away to the door in the ceiling they had built for fliers, however many decades ago.

As he watches France's greatest hero leave his presence, Mr. USA remembers a terrible feeling he once had. It was last Thanksgiving, in fact. And somewhere between the turkey and the pumpkin pie he felt as though someone had hammered cold, iron nails into his soul, making his spirit bleed from within. 

And then, just after dessert, something truly terrible had happened out on the lawn...

"Jesus Christ," he says, taking a step back as he realizes where that feeling was coming from, just now. 

The words are like tacks on his tongue -- sharp and dangerous. 

* * *

"Oh you have to be !@#$ing kidding me," The Commander says, looking down at what's left of the person they were about to kill, themselves.

The three supervillains are standing on the upper loft of a nice, A-Frame chalet, out in the boonies of Upstate New York. Up until maybe an hour ago, it was the home of a rather florid fellow who called himself Mr. Mental. And, up until a few second ago, their plan was to come here, do away with him as quickly as possible, and then replace him with a psionic of equal power.

Except now they don't have to do all that, apparently.

"Okay, this is !@#$ing weird," the purple-clad teleporter known as Klute says, pointing to what's left of the triangular, floor-to-ceiling window that used to make up the wall of this loft: "Someone shot him through this."

"That's hardly weird, Klute," the Organ Grinder sighs, wrapping his white smock around his knees as he evaluates the body for digestion.

"Well, how about this," Klute says, pointing to the wall across from the window, and the gore-strewn floor before it: "I know from splatter patterns. He was standing about... here, and then they shot him at a downward angle, which is why the spray goes over there, rather than up against the wall."

"And that's weird because... wait," the Commander says, figuring it out: "There's nothing out there for someone to shoot from, is there?"

"No there is not," the Klute says, gesturing to the clear, wide vista, and the hill that slopes down for as far as the eye can see: "And I can't see what else they might have done, except maybe made a trick shot from a plane."

"Maybe they did," the Organ Grinder says, thinking he's found the right end to start from: "But do we really give a !@#$? We're kind of on a time crunch, here."

"I guess we are," Commander sighs, leaning down to take a DNA sample from the cooling corpse, and then feed it into the curious, transparent mask and gloves he's wearing: "I guess someone did us the favor of nailing his !@#$. I wonder who we have to thank?"

"Who cares," the Organ Grinder says, pulling off one of the nearly-headless corpse's shoes and getting ready to chow down: "Can I have a moment here?"

"Sure," Klute says, taking Commander -- now looking a lot like the late Mr. Mental, thanks to the mask and gloves -- and teleporting him well out of range of the anthropophage's rather loud and messy eating.

They may be supervillains, but even they have some limits.

(SPYGOD is listening to Metamorphosis (Pet Shop Boys) and having a Kill 'Em All)

Sunday, February 8, 2015

1/12/13 - Seven Days of the Con Job - Pt. 1.5

Mr. USA, The President, Henri
(Art by Dean Stahl)
* * *

It's strange, here in the grey zone, amongst the dead.

The physical world seems hazy and insubstantial. Buildings are seen as though through gauze. Letters and signs are somehow impossible to read, as though they were written in slowly swirling gibberish. The noises are inconsistent, conversations are muddled unless you're standing right next to the person, the smells are all bad.

And the Sun is always setting, off in the west -- its blood-red light casting everything that's actually here with an unhealthy, crimson pallor.

What is actually here? Not much, anymore. An occasional kingly chariot connected to long-dead horses, wrapped in bandages that flap in the constant, uncomfortably-warm breeze. Long wooden ships that crashed to the ground, their funerary majesty stripped by unknown hands over the centuries.

That and piles of bandages, all flapping along like tumbleweeds in the dusty breeze -- their occupants long since gone to their waiting reward.

Or something far, far worse...

The only other things that seem real, here, are souls. On this side of the barrier they shine like diamonds -- their colors ever-changing with their emotional states. Stand close and you can hear their heart's desires, repeating with every beat of that organ.

And if you say their name, then wherever you are, here, you will find them -- wherever they are -- with only a few steps.

Knowing that, it's only a few strides to take a pair of living ghosts from Neo York City to Rockford, Illinois, to the mansion where Ben Franklin hangs his rather florid collection of hats.

Right now the genius polymath turned seemingly-immortal sex god is upstairs, one of his more impressive bedrooms, doing his "morning exercises." Watching him go at it from this side of things might be an interesting diversion -- if only to see what everyone in, on, and around that bed is really thinking and feeling. But that's not why they're here.

They're really here to talk to the hired help: specifically Jess Friend, who's something of a bouncer / scheduler / wrangler / voice of sanity to America's last living founding father.

That voice of sanity is downstairs, now, arranging some semblance of a daily schedule, and fielding what's become a veritable avalanche of email. Thanks to the Terre Unifee's having made him an official government adviser, the secret of his longevity is well out of the bag, and any number of people want a piece of him.

Especially the historians, who are now tripping over themselves to get in an interview, or ten.

He's just about to tell that Walter Isaacson fellow -- for the tenth. !@#$. time. -- that Mr. Franklin is booked solid for at least the next month when he hears someone whisper into his ear.

Two someones, in fact.

He looks around, nods, and smiles: "We are alone, here, yes. And off camera. I fixed those spy things they installed when they thought we weren't looking."

There's a question asked, which is answered with: "No, he doesn't have any idea I'm talking to you."

Another question: "We're good to go on that end. He just needs the word and a timeframe."

A command, and he nods: "Alright then. I'll do that now."

A salutation: "And good luck to you two, too. Let's do this thing."

With that, they depart, and he rustles around in his desk for a special, small communicator he's had for some time. He's gone between wanting to press it every day and not wanting to be awkward, but now it has an entirely different significance.


That done, he presses the DESTRUCT switch on the small thing's back, and tosses it into a nearby trashcan. There's a sound like something going zap in a microwave, and, as the device very quickly turns into mulched plastic and melted solder, he wonders if this is treason or revolution.

But then, knowing what his employer would say to that, he decides he doesn't care.

Jess then regards the thankfully-brief, funky smell from the can, and goes back to thinking of the most delicate and professional way to say "Go !@#$ yourself" to someone who, for all his professional and academic achievements, has apparently not learned to take a !@#$ hint.

He wouldn't be the only one, really.

* * *

"I'm sorry," the grieving widow says, dabbing at her eyes with tissue: "I'm sorry I can't be more help. I just don't know anything more than what I've said, a thousand times before..."

"It's alright, ma'am," the blonde, young woman across from her says, leaning forward and smiling as kindly as she can, her black vinyl jumpsuit squeaking as she does: "I know this is difficult."

"But anything you can think of would be very helpful," the similarly-attired, equally-blonde young man to her left says -- so identical they could almost be brother and sister. 

And Karl and Jana are -- after a rather grotesque, Super-Nazi fashion

"I'm not sure there is anything. He was just so..."

"So what?" Jana pushes: "Happy? Sad? Elated? Scared?"

"Look, the lady's really tired," the widow's clearly-flustered assistant sighs, gesturing her portly hand towards her office door, beyond which a barely-restrained press corps barks and bays like dogs waiting to be fed: "Maybe we could do this another day?"

"Maybe not," the young man insists, leaning forward a bit: "Time is of the essence."

"They haven't even buried the man, for god's sake," the assistant says.

"Look," Karl continues, pointing to his notes: "For months, Australia and New Zealand resisted joining the Terre Unifee, They made promises. They made threats. They sent dignitaries and celebrities. But your two nations refused to budge..."

"... And then, suddenly, they both change their minds, fly to Paris, and sign on?" Jana finishes: "Which is strange enough, but then, not a day after getting back from there, your husband commits suicide in a rather... unique fashion..."

"Which the Prime Minister of New Zealand also does..." Karl continues, as if they were sharing the conversation.

".. around the same time..." Jana elaborates.

"... in almost exactly the same way?" Karl ends, at which point the two blondes look intently at the woman, who's gone white as a sheet.

"I thought... I didn't know," she stammers.

"No one does," Jana says: "There's been a complete press blackout on the details."

"I don't even think your government or the police know," Karl says: "Fortunately?"

"We do," they say in unison. 

"But you're not with the police?" the widow asks, pinching the bridge of her nose.

"No, ma'am," Jana explains: "We're better than that."

"We're Outlaw Journalists, ma'am," Karl announces, tapping his notes.

"Oh, well that's just the end of this, then," the assistant scowls, heading for the door to show them out: "When you showed me those TU passes, I thought-"

"Sit. Down." Karl commands, pulling a small but mean-looking handgun from his notepad and gesturing between the assistant and a chair by the door: "We are not leaving."

"I... I beg your pardon?"

"We don't have time for it," he insists, gesturing once more with such implied force that the assistant can't help but obey: "In just one day, we forget half of what happened to us. A day later, we remember even less than that. If there's anything to be remembered that might be helpful, it's now."

"So, again?" Jana asks, gently as possible: "Anything you can remember that you have not said?"

The woman goes from white to red, and then to pink as she regains her composure. And then, looking askance, she nods: "There was something he said... maybe a day before he left for Paris."

"What was it?" Karl asks, keeping his eyes -- like the gun -- aimed right at the assistant, who is clearly going nowhere.

"I went into his office, and he was talking with someone. I don't know who. It might have been the Kiwi Minister. Anyway, he saw I was in the room and then the conversation... well, it changed."

"How did it change?" Jana asks, raising an eyebrow.

"It was like he didn't want me hearing. And yet I didn't think it was a bad thing. Not like he was hiding something bad from me. More like... well, like I'd come in and caught him arranging a surprise party."

"What happened then?"

"Well, he made his apologies and hung up, and when I asked what all that was about, he just smiled and said 'The egrets, my dear. We need to see about the egrets.' But I thought it was a joke..."

Karl and Jana look at each other. Some decision is made between them. A split second later, she's leaned in to console her, and he's gotten up, strode across the room to the waiting assistant, and leaned in to whisper: "You and I are going to go to his office. You are going to give me complete access to his files, bank accounts, emails... everything. And then you're going to see us out and tell no one we were here."

"You can't threaten me," the assistant says, some measure of steel coming back into her eyes.

"No, but I can promise," he says, going back to a whisper: "And I promise you that, if you do all that, I won't tell her that you and her late husband have been having it off twice a week, in her bed, while she's off having her !@#$hole bleached."

The assistant looks up at him. He looks down at her. Seconds later, they're both up and heading for the Prime Minister's office. 

The unseen wink the twins give each other is both sweet and predatory. At long last, they have the story they've been hunting for, all this time. 

And they are not going to stop until they've ripped it open for the world to see -- guts and all.

* * *

"Oh, Mon Dieu," Lt. Vipond curses, wiping some of the red, stringy matter that used to be a d-grade supervillain off of his otherwise-spotless boots: "Did you have to kill them all?"

"We didn't kill them all," Yanabah sighs, helping Red Wrecker to toss another body onto the pile: "Maybe about half."

"More than half, Flower," Gosheven corrects her, stretching his head and neck all the way over from where he's actually standing to do so: "Six out of ten."

"I !@#$ing said 'about half,' deer-boy," she snorts, walking away: "Jesus !@#$ing Christ."

"The exact numbers are not important," the Lt. hisses. not impressed by their weird argument: "The police could have just shot them up. Why did you not use your powers?"

"If I'd used my powers, the capitol would be in pieces," Blastman shrugs: "Not that I wouldn't !@#$ing mind seeing that-"

"I used my powers," Myron smiles ruefully, hefting a hand weapon that looks like it came from H.G. Wells' gun rack: "I put a hole right in the !@#$ floor for America, Lt."

"And I sure as !@#$ used mine," Yanabah lies, tapping her guns: "One shot, one kill. Bang bang bang bang."

"So who gives the speech?" Shining Guardsman says, looking down at the four, motley-clad and badly-beaten villains they've collected -- all of whom are secured with his high-tech hand and foot clamps: "If Gold Standard was here, she'd be all over that."

"Got it from her old man," Blastman says, adjusting his pyramidal helmet and wondering when he can just go crack a beer: "He used to give this long !@#$ schpiel about justice and stuff when we captured folks."

"Wow," Red Wrecker says, carefully getting the blood and yuck off her uniform: "That's pretty stirring."

"Always sent a shiver up my back," Myron agrees, smiling at her. 

"Okay, folks, we got incoming," Night Phantom says as he reappears, stepping from the shadow of a police barricade: "Bunch of press, right down Michigan Avenue. We ready?"

"I think we are," Gosheven says, holding up a hand before Vipond can say anything: "Everyone line up in front of these !@#$ing idiots, so they're between us and the cameras. Let me do the talking."

"I think we should have the Mayor say a few words?" the LT says, gesturing to the dopey-looking fellow who's lurking nearby, still messed-up from his short reign as King of Michigan: "How grateful he is that you have saved the day-"

"Oh !@#$, no," Blastman howls: "I wouldn't want that publicity-mugging jack!@#$ eulogizing a dead dog in the road."

"Me neither," Gosheven says, snapping his fingers at the mayor and indicating he should be elsewhere, now: "Giscard? You and the pilot get the dead on the transport and lift the !@#$ off before they get here. No bodies for the press to see."

"I beg your pardon-" the Lt says, but steps off as soon as Yanabah gets in his face.

"We do the fighting, we do the talking," she says, pointing him where he needs to go: "No bodies for the press to see, got it?"

He stammers, and nods, and goes to do what he's told. But something about the look in his eyes was clear: they would be paying for this. 

And soon.

"And you four?" Shining Guardsman says, looking down at his captives: "You shut your !@#$ mouths and be grateful we didn't let loose on you."

"We're not going to say anything, sir," one of them stammers, about an inch from peeing what's left of his costume: "We're going to cooperate fully. No trouble. Honest."

"Anarchists these days," Myron sighs, resisting the urge to kick the !@#$er in the !@#$.

"And, um, we all know what happens after all this, right?" Gosheven whispers.

"Totally," Red Wrecker says, smiling a little. And everyone nods and smiles right along with her -- determined and true.

"Okay, then, folks," Gosheven says as the cameras get within range of their big !@#$ smiles: "It's showtime..."

* * *

"... top story of the hour," the vacuous blonde on the television says as the the Team Alpha logo appears on the screen behind her, replacing the Le Monde 24 logo: "Team Alpha was involved in a fracas in the Michigan Statehouse, today. Apparently, a group of superpowered anarchists had moved in, and used mind control to get the politicians assembled there to battle for supremacy, no doubt to make some kind of deluded point. Within a half an hour, they had been curtailed and captured, and order was once again restored.

"However, the leader of Team Alpha, the Native American hero known as Gosheven, had this to say..."

The screen cuts to Gosheven's big, stretched-out grin as he mugs for the camera: "I got one thing to say to all you no-good folks out there. Criminals, anarchists, supercreeps... I don't care who you are, or what you can do. You make trouble of any kind on our watch, and it's Game (BLEEP)ing On, mother(BLEEP)ers!"

The other heroes laugh at that, and in the distance one can see some short, over-decorated fellow come rushing towards the camera to try and stop them from shooting any more. But before he can get there, it's shifted back to the blonde, who smiles just a little:

"Here now to talk about superheroes and public responsibility is noted social critic Elodie-Martine Gravois, whose most recent book, "Why We Should Do What We Are Told," has become an international bestseller-"

That's about all that Martha Samuels can handle of that, though, and quickly turns the television off, suddenly and strangely wistful for the late FOX News.

(Though, thankfully, not for long. Not even French state television news is that bad.)

She heads to the door of her apartment, picking up a pair of bags she's had waiting for some time. She puts them onto a table, makes sure she has everything, and then calls up her niece, who's out with John, right now.

"Hey Kaitlyn," she says: "How's it going out there?"

"Oh, fine," she says: "We're currently grocery shopping. Sale on oranges this week. You want any?"

"I think we're good," she smiles, knowing what she actually means: "I'm heading out, now."

"Oh!" she says: "So are you going to see Thomas?"

"I just might," she says: "Is John busy?"

"Well..." she starts to say, and then there's the sound of something breaking over someone's head: "Not now. Hold on..."

John -- aka Green Fury -- comes on the line, panting a little: "Hey Martha."

"How's the shopping?"

"Great. I think we're about done," he says, trailing off as more crunching noises are heard, along with some drug dealer gurgling back a scream as Kaitlyn takes him down: "Okay, we are done. Need us to pick you anything up?"

"No. I just wanted you to know I'm on my way to Neo York."

"Ah," he says: "Going to see Mark?"

"Well, technically it's business," she replies: "But hey, it's the Big Apple. Anything could happen."

"I'm sure," he says: "God bless, Martha. We'll hold down the fort."

"I know you will," she says, and lets it go at that.

She grabs her bags off the table. She looks in a mirror by the door and makes sure she looks like she needs to: just another suburban mother getting into her car to drive out of town, across state lines, and into Neo York City to see a lover, and a son.

Just that, and nothing more.

"Jesus, please let me do the right thing, here," she prays, thinking of why she's really going: "I want to trust him. And I do love him. But this is heavy stuff. Heavier than I've ever done before."

She stops at that, wondering if she's being cowardly, or just careful. Or maybe -- as her dad would have said -- the time for both have long since passed, and only action remains.

"So please," she begs: "Let me be your instrument, here. And tell me if I'm straying, okay? You know I'll obey you. I always do, even if I don't... you know what I mean, right?"

There's no real answer, as usual. But somehow she feels as though something's lifting her up as she walks out, locks the door for what might be the last time, and gets into the car. An unseen wind that lifts her spirits, bringing her from the cliffs of doubt into the path of certainty. 

She says Thank You to it as she drives away, not knowing quite why she's crying.

* * *

Some time before dinner, SPYGOD and Straffer both blink -- almost in unison -- and begin to move again. 

"Well, that was some awful !@#$," SPYGOD laughs, throwing a box of tissues at the television: "Next time I get to !@#$ing pick the shows, okay?"

"I thought you did?" Straffer playfully teases him.

"No, I distinctly said no !@#$ing cornball game shows."

"Are there any that aren't?"


"You love it."

"I love yours."

"I love you."

And they snuggle and kiss, pretending for a moment they're just another couple, watching television on a weekday. No guards outside the door. No protestors outside the window. No looming threat of death, or worse.

(No cat from Hades striding around the room, bombed out of its gourd on satanic catnip and wondering where its favorite AK-47 has gone.)

The mysterious box is moved back where it was found, as surreptitiously as it was picked up, and they go into the next room to work on dinner. Maybe there's some touching involved as it takes shape. Some sly innuendos about cutlery and measuring, portions and ingredients.

Thai-Italian? Sure, it works. Just make sure the sweetness of the tomatoes doesn't overpower the coconut milk. Be certain the spices of two different continents mesh and blend instead of fight each other for dominance. Learn to love how the small, green eggplant takes the place of the large, purple one one normally uses for parmigiana, or how eagerly the noodles take the tomato curry.

How luscious the pineapple, how fragrant the aniseed. The blending of separate strengths, brought together to make an amazing whole.

Somehow dinner gets made in spite of the desire growing between them -- the slow savor that forms a countdown to the time after the meal when other appetites will be sated. Every passing minute makes it all the more sweet. Each motion and sideways look makes them all the hungrier for it. 

Eventually, it's there. The table is set, and the meal presented. Wine poured, bread sliced. The howling and cries from outside the sound of a wistful violin in a European cafe, mixed with foreign talk from just up the block.

They dine staring into each others' eyes, all the while. Each look a thousand words. Each bite a thousand suggestions. Sometimes they feed each other, sometimes only themselves.

And when they are done, and each and every crumb disposed of, they give each other one final look. 

"I love you," they say, one after the other. Then they all but hurl the plates from the table -- not caring where they land, or in how many pieces -- so they can make love on and around it with such force and fury that it shames the air around them.

Gunshots made of sex, their overlapping sensual echoes making the walls shake and boom. 

* * *

It's late night in Paris, now, and there are explosions coming from the President's office. 

Sometimes they're single. Sometimes controlled bursts. Sometimes there's some time between them, and sometimes they happen in long, unevenly-spaced eruptions.

At times like this, Henri knows not to ask or interrupt. He just puts on his headphones, listens to some more of that quirky, American jazz-rock he's recently discovered, and lets his leader's stress relief go unspoken. 

At some point he gets up from his desk and strides through the President's cluster of offices. It's well after everyone else has gone home, and the strange, heavy atmosphere here seems to loom over all. 

"Close your eyes and you'll be there..." he sings along as he heads for the front door: "It's everything they say... the end of a perfect day..."

"You know, I had that album," someone says -- a voice loud enough to cut through his headphones.

"Sir!" Henri says, stepping back from the doorway, clearly not having expected the President of the United States of America to have appeared there -- domino mask and all.

"Hello, Henri," Mr. USA says, extending his hand for a firm shake: "I'm sorry to drop in on you like this. I need to speak with the President."

"I see," Henri replies, taking his headphones off and then looking around, somewhat nervously: "He is in his office-"

"I know. I saw when I flew past."

"Oh," the secretary says: "Well, then, you probably saw-"


"I did," Mr. USA says, seemingly not phased by the noise: "And... I do need to speak with him. If he asks, tell him its about our mutual problem."

"I will," Henri replies, and, nodding, heads off, wondering if he'll be shot for his pains. 

At some point he re-appears, indicating that Mr. USA should come down and join him. He does, and, as soon as he's in the President's long office, he sees that he hadn't been imagining that the man had, indeed, turned his office into something of a rifle range. Pictures of SPYGOD are all over the wall with the door in it -- shot to pieces, with flattened slugs lying on the ground below them.

"Evening, (REDACTED)," the President says, putting more shells into the massive rifle he's cradling like a baby.

"Good evening, Mr. President," Mr. USA says, noticing that the screen on his desk is full of holes: "Everything alright?"

"Well, it occurred to me that this room is supposed to be everything-proof," the President explains, putting the gun down: "If they get the shutters up in time, I might even be able to ride out a small nuclear explosion. Can you believe that?"

"I can, yes," the President of the United States of America says, walking up to the desk: "We just got the same security system installed in the White House."

"You think you'll need it?"

"Maybe not," he says, shrugging: "But I think anyone there with me might appreciate the protection."

"Good point," the President says, looking away, and then up: "So, this is my executive firing range. I figure if Nixon could have a bowling alley put into the White House, well, why the !@#$ not?"

"Rank has its privileges, Mr. President."

"Agreed. Speaking of which, I see you've got your mask on?"

"Yes," Mr. USA says, tapping it: "It's got my GPS. Last time I tried flying over here I wound up in Portugal, instead."

"Must have been embarrassing."

"You have no idea," the hero chuckles, nodding to Henri, who's walked around the other end of the desk and is looking somewhat worried: "Mr. President, I have something I need to tell you. And I need to tell you, right from the start, it's not good news."

"You could have called."

"I don't know who I can trust, right now," Mr. USA sighs, looking around: "We've been so badly compromised... man, I feel like a !@#$ idiot."

"Well, let's talk about it, then," the President says, gesturing to a chair: "Henri? Bring us some beer."

The human worm scoots away quickly, and the men go back to their conversation: "What's happened, (REDACTED)?"

"It's SPYGOD," the hero says, sighing: "I have reason to believe he's planning a prison break."

"You do," the President replies, not sounding at all surprised.

"Yes," Mr. USA replies, clearly surprised at the lack of surprise: "It's a genuine plot. I'm not sure of all the pieces, yet, but I do know that Eclat being shot was the first part. Maybe a signal of some kind, maybe not."

"Alright," the President says, nodding: "That I hadn't considered. I figured he was killed for other reasons."

"Well, maybe, but that's not the worst thing," the hero says, leaning in: "He's got help."


"More help than just a sniper, Mr. President. The heroes are on his side."

"Which ones?"

"All of Team Alpha," Mr. USA says, leaning back and shaking his head: "Most of them, anyway. I think they didn't try to bring The Owl on board because she's been angry with him since the trial. And Gold Standard... well, she's busy. Let's put it that way."

"But everyone who was on that transport, this morning, is involved?"

"That and Brainman."

"I see," the President says, still not sounding too surprised.

"You knew?"

"I did, yes," the President admits, grabbing the beer that Henri's brought him right off the tray: "And I was going to bring you in on this before I did anything."

"How did you know?"

"I have an unimpeachable source," the man says, patting his gun: "Let's just leave it at that."

"Alright then," Mr. USA says, nodding as he takes a sip of what he's been brought: "So what do you think we should do about it, Mr. President?"

"I say we stop them," the President says, extending a hand for him to shake: "I'll send the muscle. You cut them off. We move tomorrow morning. Capture if possible, kill if we have to."

"Agreed," the hero says as he takes the hand, not happy to hear these words said out loud: "It's sad, but..."

"But it's treason, and they know it," the President says, his handshake suddenly much more firm than it needs to be: "And we have to be as one on this, (REDACTED). We can't commit and then back down or off. They give up or they get put down. No second chances. Agreed?"

"Agreed," Mr. USA says, standing to go: "I'll go and give the orders. What about SPYGOD?"

"You leave him to me," the President says, grinning like a skull: "Welcome to Operation Zarathustra, (REDACTED)."

"Zarathustra?" the hero asks as the President picks up his rifle and points it at the far wall.

"That's right," the man explains, taking aim at one of the less shot-up targets: "Because this God is about to be !@#$ing dead-


* * *

After that, there's just the warmth -- the long and sweet time spent in each other's arms, sweat cooling in the air.

No words, now. None are needed. Just the simple language of one body against another. Two heartbeats, one purpose.

One life, enjoined at the hips.

They lie at that just long enough to wonder if they're being indolent, and then get up, get dressed -- for the third or fourth time today -- and head to the window, just to see what their chorus of haters are up to now.

"Three have been here all day," Straffer notes.

"I think one of them went !@#$ing home, earlier."


"I heard him go," SPYGOD winks, and they laugh.

At some point, they both notice an older fellow, down there. Long coat, warm hat, thick gloves, carrying a nice cane. He's holding up a sign that says Scheissegott! much to the amusement of his fellows.

As he holds it up, he throws them a pointed look. One that says a lot, if you know what it might mean.

SPYGOD smiles and nods, ever so subtly, and makes the Vitarka Mudra with his right hand by his right eye: Be seeing you.

"Soon?" Straffer says, knowing what it means, especially as the old man departs the crowd.

"Soon," SPYGOD answers.

And they kiss once more as the night erupts in hate. 

* * * 

(SPYGOD is listening to Discoteca (Pet Shop Boys - Remix) and having a Founders Dark Penance)

Sunday, February 1, 2015

1/12/13 - Seven Days of the Con Job - Pt. 1.0

Team Alpha: Blastman, Yanabah, Underman, Gosheven,
Shining Guardsman, Red Wrecker, Night Phantom
(Art by Dean Stahl)

 * * * 

The first thing they do, upon waking, is to put on bathrobes, make some coffee, go to the floor-to-ceiling window in the living room of their high-rise apartment-cum-prison cell, and look down at the group of protesters. 

They're still there, and that's no surprise. There are always anywhere from twenty to a hundred or more of them. All with their signs and slogans: "Murderer of children!" "House the Homeless, Not Super-Assassins!" "War Criminal!" "Bastard!"

(Their personal favorite is "BBQ the SPY-HOG!" -- being hoisted by a fellow who looks like he's been to a more than a few such culinary events.)

Night and day. Day and Night. Good weather or bad. Fair news or foul. They are always there: faces from all over Neo York City, and some from well outside. All races, genders, and nationalities, all makes and models, all walks of life.

All united in their utter and total hate of them.

"A good day for it," Straffer says, sipping at his coffee. 

"You got that right," SPYGOD says, draping an arm around his lover: "Supposed to be !@#$ nice, today."

"Pity we can't go out and join them."

"Yeah. Maybe help some of them with their !@#$ing spelling."

"You think we'll see the "Honk If You Hate Beer Tax" guy back?"

"What, that !@#$hole?" SPYGOD laughs: "After the beating that !@#$ Thai lady gave him? I think he's in the !@#$ing hospital."

"He seemed to walk out okay."

"That was !@#$ing adrenalin, hon. I bet he collapsed all over himself after a block or two."

They laugh at that, and then sigh in unison. SPYGOD pulls him a little closer, wondering if they should make out and give them a show, today, or just let them stew in the hate they already brought. 

"Soon," SPYGOD promises, winking. 

"Yes," Straffer says, grinning and making the make out decision for both of them: "Soon."

Bee-Bee rolls over on a nearby couch, stretches, yawns, and farts. Someone throws a rotten tomato at the couple as they kiss before their jeer-leaders. The chorus of insults and chants begins anew, and if SPYGOD cocks his ears just so he can hear the rude comments of the people watching them on their apartment's supposedly-hidden spy cameras. 

Let the day begin. 

* * *

"Alright, then," Lt. Giscard Vipond says as he observes the heroes on Team Alpha, all settled into the hover-transport as they take off for the morning's job -- bang on at 8 in the !@#$ AM: "Are we all sitting comfortably?"

The transport picks that moment to roll heavily to the left, making the uniformed -- and over-decorated -- shrew of a man have to make a mad dash for the nearest support pole, much to the amusement of his charges. Once they stop laughing he gives them a stern stare, takes out his clipboard, and begins to look down the lists.

"Where is Brainman?" he asks, looking over the small, costumed group.

"Oh, he's not here," Gosheven says, his body adjusting to the weird, whipping motions the transport is making.

"And why not?"

"Because Rakim's never here," Yanabah snorts, really unimpressed by their new, Terre Unifee overseer: "He's our support person."

"I see," Vipond sneers: "And where would he be, then?"

"Back at home, support us," Shining Guardsman offers, glad he can't see him rolling his eyes behind his helmet's visor: "Jack!@#$."

"Well, if he is not going on the missions, he will not be paid for them!" the Lt. announces, making a rather large and florid slash through his name on the roster.

"Wait, we get paid for this !@#$?" Blastman asks, which prompts another round of laughs. 

"You think I'm here for my health?" Myron -- now properly arrayed as Underman -- sighs. Red Wrecker playfully thumps him in the upper arm and grins, and there's more laughter. 

"In all seriousness, what are we doing?" Night Phantom asks, raising his hand as he floats in the back: "All they said was it was an armed robbery. Maybe some Secessionist leftovers?"

"One moment," Vipond says, raising an over-officious finger: "Where is The Owl?"

"Oh, she took some personal time," Gosheven says, grinning wider than his face should allow.

"Personal time?" the man spits out: "Whatever for?"

"Well, not that it's any of your business, honey, but... girl got herself some."

"You're !@#$ing kidding me," Blastman coughs out, just before a chorus of hoots and hollers issues forth, along with the occasional "yay" and "good for her."

"Well, we will just have to find a way to dock her pay if she did not fill out the appropriate forms."

"God forbid a hero take a day off," Shining Guardsman mutters. 

"And where is Gold Standard?" the Lt. continues: "We could use some of her skills this day."

"On sick leave," Gosheven says: "Meningitis. You want to see her medical chart?"

"In time, yes. What of New Man?"

"He's in France, you dumb !@#$," Yanabah snorts, wondering if she could just say the gun she's cleaning went off in her hand: "Hanging with Le Compagnie, remember?"

"I mean his son!" Vipond shouts: "And you had best watch your language-"

"He's been off the !@#$ team for a while, now," Blastman says: "Might want to make a note of that in your records, Giscard."

"Well, I shall," Vipond scowls and makes another, overly-florid note on his checklist.

Shining Guardsman ahems: "Anyway, if we're done with roll call, we have a question on the floor."

"What question?"

"Who are we fighting?" Night Phantom says, his hand still raised like a patient first grader trying to go to the bathroom.

"Oh, some small outfit of crazy people," Vipond shrugs, looking at his mission briefing: "It would appear that... oh, that can't be right."

"What?" Red Wrecker asks.

"Jeux Sans Frontiers?" the Frenchman sniffs: "Is that what they've called themselves?"

Gosheven raises an eyebrow and looks over at Myron, who nods and explains: "We've heard of them. Super pranksters? A tendency to use their powers to disrupt normal life?"

"Really bad costumes?" Shining Guardsman chuckles.

"Well, they're in Lansing, Michigan, and are apparently set on turning the Capitol building into a gladiatorial ring," Vipond notes: "Apparently the Governor's been beaten into a coma by the Secretary of State, and the Mayor is about to challenge her."

"I'd pay to see that," Blastman says: "I grew up in Jackson, and I can't stand any of those bastards."

Lt. Vipond scowls at that, turns his back, and heads to the front to take his seat. As he leaves Gosheven looks at each other hero in the transport, just to be sure they know what's going on. 

And they clearly do. 

* * *

"I really don't give a good god!@#$, Lt." Josie says, looking at the screen with his scowling face for just a second before going back to the three other screens she's focused on: "You got Team Alpha. You got your orders. Get them on the ground, step back, and let them do what they do."

"But this is most irregular," he protests: "All these absences! I should have known about them-"

"Well, now you do," she says, smiling and waving her hand around her office, as though the answer was written on its walls: "New New Man is off the team due to prior commitments, Gold Standard's in the hospital with a serious disease, Owl put in for some much-needed downtime, and..."

She stops for a moment, realizing she's just heard something. Something very important.  

"And what of this Brainman?" Vipond asks, not noticing her distraction: "How can he be paid for his work if he is not here?"

"He does offsite coordination and logistical support, Lt." she continues: "And he's entitled to full pay and benefits for them. He can't handle a fight and doesn't care to hurt anyone."

"Well, I cannot say-"

"I say that's normal. Perfectly normal. And I also think you should be coordinating with him, right now, rather than wasting my time with these chicken!@#$ complaints."

"I must protest!"

"Heptagon out," Josie says, turning his screen off. Then she activates a program on another screen -- one that makes it seem as though she's there, giving orders, when in fact she won't be for some time. 

After that, she presses the button under the Director's desk, makes the door to the forgotten hallway slide open, and walks all the way down its cobwebbed length to answer the black telephone

"What do you have for me?" she asks, knowing it can be only one person.

"We have our target," the person on the other end says: "Shot is acquired. Exit is prepped. Do we go?"

"The word is given," Josie says: "Game on."

And then she hangs up the phone, leaves the hallway, and gets ready to sound as surprised as anyone when the news comes in.

* * *

It's two in the afternoon in Monte Carlo, and Eclat has decided to get the party started early.

He's dressed to the nines, already, and walking through the wide, open spaces of Monte Carlo Bay -- his favorite hotel, here. It's just modern enough to not be too stuffy, and yet stuffy enough to not be too cheap. The perfect place to come back to after an evening of fun.

Especially if his fun runs a little strange, as it often does.

Somewhere in the voluminous contract the TU made him sign, after they sprung him from that horrible superslam in Korhogo, was the rest and relaxation clause. Just before any major operation, he's duly entitled to three days of expense-account, no-strings fun anywhere he would like to go. And to a young street rat from Paris -- who grew up dreaming of the Riviera and the wondrous goings-on there -- well, who could blame him for wanting to jump in?

True, the casinos aren't happy to see him. He's been politely requested to not gamble on anything involving so much as a diode, given his tendencies. But he can still try his hand at cards, and there's nothing as incredibly sexy to unattached ladies as the man who knows when to hold, when to fold, and when to walk away -- preferably before one has to run.

(That was a song, wasn't it? Sometimes he isn't sure.)

Speaking of ladies, his eyes catch sight of some particular beauties out by the pool, walking along the iron fence that overlooks the sea. So he follows their near-naked curves, not caring to mask his stare, and decides that maybe he should romance first, and gamble second. 

Or maybe a meal? Who can say? That's one of the wonderful things about this place -- so many options. So much freedom. 

Freedom he could only dream of in that prison, down in the Ivory Coast...

As he leaves the hotel, getting his strut on, he smiles. Three days down here, enjoying the surf and sun, as well as more than a little sin. Then he goes back up to Paris and gets ready for the score that will make his career. He will help the TU bring down the Nthernaut, and then help oversee Neo York City for the duration of SPYGOD's rather speedy trial. 

And then, who knows? He sees himself as the king of Neo York City after that. Undisputed lord of its electronic secrets. Who knows what all he will learn, there? And who knows where that might take him. 

"Know when to hold 'em," he mumbles, thinking maybe that was a song, after all, as he makes eye contact with one of the women he's been following: "Know when to fold em... know when to walk away... know when to-"

Then there's a crack, and a sploosh, and the woman screams as everything north of Eclat's nose disappears into a red, gooey splatter that defies gravity, and then gives in. A rain of electropathic brains falls onto the ground around him, and he falls to his knees, and then onto what's left of his face. 

(A stream of !@#$ flies from his pants, too, adding yet more insult to one !@#$ of an injury.)

And then it's all over but the screaming, which goes on and on for quite some time...

* * *

After the energetic sex they engaged in, Straffer and SPYGOD showered, took in more coffee, and had something approaching a healthy breakfast. Then they dressed, puttered around, went to the bathroom, and sat down on the couch for another day of watching television. 

SPYGOD sits on one side. Straffer on the other. They look at each other and smile, and then playfully argue over what to kill their brain cells with on a Tuesday morning. So many channels, so few intelligent choices, and so much ridiculous garbage...

While they pretend to argue, Straffer surreptitiously pulls a box from the coffee table over to the couch, and gently places it between them. It's a small, subtly ornate affair: deep blue and heavy, with gold hieroglyphics running along its side in intricate bands. 

At a certain point, the decision is made. They kiss and make up, and, as they do, they both put their hands on the box. And then they lean back to watch the tube in blissful silence, at least as far as their hidden onlookers are concerned. 

Shows. Commercials. Newsbreaks. Public service announcements. They sit and stare, as if enraptured, but that's only because they aren't really watching. In truth, they're not really there,anymore.

Though where they might actually be is anyone's guess. 

* * *

"... our Agents are completely baffled, Mssr. President," the waddling, mustachioed tumor of a man says, looking through the notes on his pad as he stands in his superior's well-appointed and airy office: "The shot clearly came from the Mediterranean, but there were no boats or aircraft within a reasonable distance for the angle that it traveled."

"What do you mean by reasonable distance?" the President asks, only sort-of looking away from the screen in the middle of his long, wooden desk -- the one with SPYGOD and Straffer on it. 

"Well, he was clearly killed with a high power rifle. So, just under 1100 meters?"

"Just over two-thirds of a mile," his bespectacled secretary, Henri, adds, smiling as he tries to be helpful. 

"Did they find the bullet?"

"No, not yet," Jean-Jacques Excephir Geraud admits: "So perhaps our estimate is not correct. But we have a trace going on all registered aircraft and watercraft within a five mile radius, so it will only be a matter of time-"

"So long as it was registered," the President sighs, resting his head in his hands: "And I'm sure you'll tell me about what the satellites saw, except we both know they aren't worth a !@#$ for something like this."

"So, where does this leave us?" Henri asks: "With Eclat gone, are we still in good shape for our plan?"

"I should hope so," the fat man says: "We only ever needed him to supervise, or so I have been told. That is provided the device our friends in Les Trois Grands are bringing us will do what they've promised..."

The two men go around and around at that, and the President tunes them out. They are not important, right now. Most of the time they really aren't.

So he thinks about what is important. His wife, sitting at home and crying, and having nothing to do with him when he returns. His daughter playing in silence, jumping at every small sound, and being terrified to sleep, when darkness comes. 

The sad and sorry absence he has instead of a family.

All of this could have been avoided -- all of this. He could have a wife who still loves and respects him. He could have two daughters, whole and happy. He could still feel good about himself. 

And there's only one reason why he doesn't have that anymore -- SPYGOD, with with all his !@#$ plans and hubris. 

Which is why it's going to be so ironic that he'll be the one to nail him to the wall, given that training him to think, act, and plan just like him was one of his goals all along...

At some point the President realizes his secretary is actually arguing with his Minister of Justice over whether to move now or later. So he bangs his hand down on the deck, attracting their attention with all the subtlety of a gunshot. 

"Gentlemen, please," he says, reaching for the long, slim decanter of whiskey he's been refilling a lot more these days: "I know this seems like a setback, and it is. But don't forget that he was probably killed by SPYGOD's people for exactly that reason, just to keep the Nthernaut safe. And he probably did it to see if he could make us panic and act faster, which we are not going to do."

"Mssr. President, we have any number of contingencies," Henri says: "We also have... well, there are no others exactly like Eclat, but-"

"But we don't have the device we were promised, yet," the President says: "And I have my contingencies, too. Which is why I say we wait a week, as planned."

With that, the conversation is clearly over. The Minister waddles out, triumphant, leaving Henri to sulk a little and see if the President needs anything else.

"Soon, Henri," he promises, taking a thirsty gulp of what he's poured, and then getting another: "Just a week, and then he's ours." 

Henri goes off to his office to sulk, file paperwork, and listen to more Steely Dan. And the President pours himself another drink, leans back in his chair, and goes back to watching the object of his disaffection -- still apparently brainwashed by bad American TV.

"Soon, you !@#$er," he mutters, thinking of the hate in his wife's eyes: "Soon."

* * *

"See, it's really simple," one of the two supervillains -- both disguised as janitors -- tells the burly, uniformed man they've cornered, deep in the bowels of the Palace: "You'll be working for us now, Annihilator-"

"Jesus Christ, mate, don't say that name," L'homme Nucleaire hisses, looking this way and that, as if the shadows might hear them: "I've still got bloody warrants out for things they never got to try me on-"

"Well, that's your tough luck," the other says, grinning behind his purple, high-tech sunglasses: "I bet Belgium would really like to have you gift-wrapped on their front lawn, no matter what kind of deal you made with the TU."

"Look, please," the guy says: "I was stupid when I teenager, okay? London kid gets powers, gets greedy. End of story."

"You forgot the bodycount," Sir Smashalot says: "All those people dying of cancer..."

"Look, I didn't know I radiated, alright? I didn't mean to hurt anyone."

"I think he's trying to make us cry, man," Sir Smashalot winks at the Violet Demon: "What you got for that?"

"I got a better deal," the man says: "All they've offered you is a clean slate and a paycheck. We can do you better."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean we can make you !@#$ing rich," Sir Smashalot says, tapping the man's left epaulet: "We can also guarantee that when the !@#$ goes down, you'll be on top of the wave with the winning team."

"We can also fix that problem with your powers," Violet Demon explains: "You're still just eating Uranium to maintain levels, right?"

"Well, yeah," the man who was The Annihilator stammers, clearly thinking things over: "That's how it works."

"We can get you heavier !@#$ man," Smashalot says, and starts rattling off the exotic elements they could feed him, instead. 

As the sales pitch goes on, and the light comes on in their mark's eyes, Violet Demon -- aka the new New Man -- mentally moves this guy from "dispose of" to "sign on." The offer of more money was clearly tempting, but the fact that he's so haunted by the mistakes of his past, and so desperate for a new, stronger, and safer start, means that he'll take what they're offering. 

And this is good. He's quickly become tired of all this duplicity -- the bloody, nasty disposal of TU's essential supercreeps, just to replace them clever doppelgangers from their seemingly never-ending roster of loose ends and eager hands. 

He looks in the desperate eyes of the man they've just propositioned. He can see from their wetness that they've got him on board. He smiles -- mostly from relief -- and taps a message off to the Scarlet Factotum, back in the States. 

And he thinks soon, and prays it comes even sooner than that.    

* * *

"Well, how about that," the Scarlet Factotum -- aka METALMAID -- says as the Violet Demon's report comes in: "We've got The Annihilator {quote}on board{endquote}."

With that, she snaps her fingers, and one of her many underlings nods, and goes over to the big, digital board that covers most of the wall in this dank, stone room. There, the prison photo of the Annihilator -- up along with so many others -- gets moved from INTERVIEW to ON BOARD, as opposed to REPLACED.  

Up there, the future is taking shape. All the essential superhuman pieces the Terre Unifee uses to keep its massive, international machine going: the bulk teleporters and human transmitters; every last ultra-guardian and super-defender; all those food producers and infrastructure providers -- all will be replaced or suborned within days.

And once this is done, the world can be taken over as simply as moving a hand into a glove. 

She's laughing as she realizes they're well past the halfway mark, and moving exponentially faster. It's not a pleasant laugh to see or hear, as it often means she might go off the rails and eviscerate someone for not moving fast enough. 

But as she wonders whether she'll be kissing or killing, this instant, she fails to notice that some of her higher underlings are observing from nearby. There in those shadows, they realize what she's just figured out -- that after a certain point, fairly soon, the plan will run itself.

And once that threshold is reached, they won't need her, anymore. 

The Pusher nods to the Emperor of Pain: "Soon," he whispers, sealing the deal with a million dollar handshake. 

And just like that, it's game on.    

(SPYGOD is listening to Discoteca (Pet Shop Boys) and having a Black Tuesday)