Monday, February 8, 2016

TechnOlympos: 2/1/16 - 2/7/16

"You Do Such Damage / How Do You Manage / Trying Back for More?"

(The Mahdi and Al-Hadhih associates)

(Art by Dean Stahl)

* * *
* * *

Monday: 2/1/16

"Alright, then," SPYGOD says, adjusting his sunglasses, looking around the large room Josie's decided to call this meeting in, and wondering if he's going to have to shoot anyone in the damn eyeballs, today.

There's people here he knows, besides Josie, and a lot of people he doesn't. He remembers the old, bearded man they're calling Rakim back from when he was Brainman, but they say he's gone straight, now. And the cute woman nursing the weird-looking, almost-cartoony baby is clearly Gold Standard's kid, all grown up to become her father.

And there's Free Fire, who's both ally and exhibit A, here -- shining in his new, orange armor and no longer pretending he isn't a goddamn android.

Everyone else? AGENTs he's seen, here and there. Support staff. Desk staffers. Maybe the odd hero or two.

(And there's too much !@#$ing glass in this room for his liking. He can see too much of DC, down below. Anyone could be watching, he thinks -- anyone at all.)

"SPYGOD?" Josie asks after he seems like he's going to start talking, and then stops, about half a dozen times.

"Here's the !@#$ing deal, folks," he says, tapping the table and looking each person there in the eye: "A long time ago, we made a big damn mistake. And I'm not talking Ronald Reagan Iran-Contra 'mistakes were made' horse!@#$, here. I'm talking !@#$ing Truman Korea plus Kennedy Bay of Pigs times Nixon Cambodia, with little Watergate sprinkles on the damn top horse!@#$.

"Now, when I say 'we,' I mean the American government, acting through the goddamn CIA. But the COMPANY had a hand in it too, given the nature of the mistake. And when I'm done explaining, I think you'll all understand.

"As for why I have to !@#$ing explain, well, it's because, officially? This !@#$ really never happened at all, as far as anyone was concerned. The files, the witnesses, the whole damn paper trail? They all got !@#$ing burned between then and now. Tossed in the damn shredder, consigned to the !@#$ing BBQ pit, assigned to suicide runs and then shot down on the goddamn way back.

"So, in the end, I'm the only one alive who knows the whole story, anymore. And it aint !@#$ing pretty."

With that, he uncaps the flask he's been avoiding drinking until now, snorts some down, and -- before Josie can scold him -- starts to explain just how unpretty this !@#$ actually is.

* * *

"Well, is it possible that Thomas Samuels healed up and left on his own?" Mr. USA asks the portly and surprisingly-young Medical Examiner, who's looking very uncomfortable right about now, here in his uber-geeky basement office.

"Sir, please believe me when I say that I respect you very highly," the man says, trying to smile.

"I think the action figures clued me in, son," the older hero says, smiling at the mint condition, still-in-the-box replicas of the Liberty Patrol, up on a prized shelf.

"Well, good, because the last thing I want to do is sound condescending, sir," he says, patting his desk: "But please understand me. I performed the autopsy on Thomas Samuels. I removed exactly 159 .50 caliber bullets from every inch of his body from his knees to his sternum. I collected them all as evidence.

"I opened his skull up, and removed a brain that had more complex folds and contusions than I've ever seen. I weighed it, examined it, and put it back into the skull.

"I opened his chest cavity, and observed and weighed his organs. I saw things that looked too healthy to be real, bullet trauma notwithstanding. I saw things that I've never seen before, too, and had no idea how to catalog. Especially since there was so much gross tissue damage.

"And when I was done, I put them all into a bag, put it into the body cavity, zipped it up, and then sewed him back together."

He swallows, and then has a nervous sip of his coffee: "At no time did he ever regain consciousness. At no time did he show the slightest sign of being alive. And I'd love to show you the notes, the video, the voice tapes... but they're all gone."

"Yes," Mr. USA says, nodding: "They all went missing around the same time the body did, along with your nighttime assistant."

The Examiner nods, sadly: "I don't think he'd have done it, though. He's a very special person. Very conscientious and meek. I doubt he'd so much as sneeze on a fly, much less swat one."

"Well, I can think of a few people I'd like to swat," the older hero says, thinking of Martha's mental collapse, and the ugly scene that followed when the Governor just !@#$ing refused to shut up...

* * *

.... now, if Mr. USA was here instead of chasing dead teen heroes, he could roll his !@#$ing eyes and remind me he was there, in the 1950's, too. But since he isn't, I'm the only expert in the room-"

"I was there, too," Rakim weakly interjects.

"True, but you only saw one !@#$ing side of the show. We're the ones who got the whole damn china set. And that's what you need to understand why what happened after actually !@#$ing made sense, at the time.

"Now, we'd won the War, but we'd entered into another one with the !@#$ing commies," he says, using a remote to play a hologram of old Soviet-era super-propaganda in the middle of the long table: "It's just that we didn't dare start !@#$ing shooting at one another. Not with two mighty armies, a ton of allies, supers out the damn wazoo, and later nukes.

"So It was all done with moves and countermoves. Unseen alliances, quiet kills in the dark, and spies every goddamn place you looked.

"And races. Jesus Christ in a spaghetti sauce jar were there races. There was a Supers arms race and a nuclear arms race. Space didn't !@#$ing come into it until a decade later, but you could tell it was coming.

"And then there were !@#$ing proxy wars. Korea was ongoing for a !@#$ing lot of that decade, and that was a big old mess. And Vietnam... well, I don't really !@#$ing remember Vietnam-"

"SPYGOD," Josie says, tapping her watch: "Time is action."

"Who the !@#$ said that?"

"You did, sir," the AGENT in charge of the Middle East desk says: "Repeatedly."

"Well... I don't remember that either. But the important thing is that there was one proxy battle that was really damned important, folks. And that was for resources. Namely, oil."

With that, he activates the remote control again, and a map of the middle east -- circa 1950 -- floats in space where the  the middle of the table.

"For oil rights, we and the British dug in our damn heels and did everything possible to keep the Soviets from making too many friends in the region. And they pretty much did the same, in case you were !@#$ing wondering why so many Ruskies like hanging out in Egypt-"

"Well, Sharm el-Sheikh is pretty damn awesome," the Middle East desk AGENT pipes up, but then falls silent when SPYGOD gives him a look that could blow a rat-trap vacation resort off the damn map. 

* * *

"... yes, my friend," the leader of El-Hadhih says over the phone, speaking in Somali-inflected Arabic: "You have heard me correctly. You will take the bomb aboard the plane, and activate it. But Allah wants you to fail.

"You will not destroy the plane," the Mahdi goes on: "You will instead merely damage it. Not enough to destroy it, but enough to kill yourself. You know how this can be accomplished, and I want you to do it.

"Yes," he continues, after a puzzled but firmly affirmative answer comes back: "We wish to lure them into a false sense of security. We want them to think we have become lax and ineffectual.

"And when the time is right, that complacency will help us destroy them in the name of Allah, most beneficent, most merciful.

"Now go, in the name of the one, true God, and do as he has commanded," the Mahdi says, hanging up.

Then he hands the phone over to the nearest guard, here in this strangely large and shadowy tent, and bids him to crush it with heavy rocks, and put it on the pile of other such phones and communication devices, over in the corner...

* * *

"... was saying before damned travel bureau chipped in its two !@#$ing cents," SPYGOD says, still glaring at the AGENT who interrupted him: "Oil was needed on all fronts. We needed a constant, growing supply of the !@#$. And we didn't have time for the Soviets to be pulling any horse!@#$ in the region.

"Now, we had all kinds of !@#$ on our side. Spycraft, bribes, threats, pressure, you name it. But so did they. We needed a !@#$ing edge to make sure the Commies didn't beat us to the black gold.

"And, well, let's just say that the other Company kind of went off the !@#$ing rails a little. Let me show you..."

He clicks the remote again, and movies of Iran in 1953 start playing: "Operation Ajax. Otherwise known as the !@#$ing Iranian Coup. We and the Brits paid through the damn nose to kick the damn prime minister out of power and let the Shah rule so we got what we wanted.

"After some crazy !@#$, we got it, good and hard. And it stayed that way until the !@#$ing 70's when the Ayatollah showed up. But keep that in mind for later.

"Important thing here? We will do anything to anyone, at any time, anywhere, with any damn ally we need to, just to !@#$ing keep the oil flowing. Revolutions, counter revolutions, assassinations, you name it."

"Now," he clicks again, and this time it's the Cuban revolution: "Here's Fidel !@#$beard Castro. He comes along about 1953, and succeeds in taking the damn island six years later. Then JFK decides he doesn't like commies in his backyard and, as soon as he's in he !@#$ing Oval Office, puts a plan that Eisenhower signed off on into action.

"That was the goddamn Bay of Pigs, by the way. You all know how that !@#$ went down.

"Important thing here? The CIA and the Department of Defense go halfsies on Project Mongoose, not long thereafter. They had 33 !@#$ing flavors of !@#$ to hurl at Castro, some of which might have actually worked if I hadn't been making sure they didn't go anywhere but straight to hell."

There's a gasp or two at that, and he looks at Josie: "I had my reasons. Let's just leave it at that."

* * *

"I appreciate your work for us," the Indonesian Minister of Space says, raising a glass of tea to Director Straffer, who returns the gesture: "This is a marvel, regardless of its origins. And you have truly revealed its potential to us."

"A potential I hope you'll get more of a chance to exploit once the current crisis is over," Straffer replies, looking past his office door as the structure shakes once again -- another car going up as the counter-weight car goes down.

"It may be months until then," the man says, sadly: "But you have trained our people well. I have every confidence they will achieve wonders, both now and in the times to come."

"I wish I could be here to see it," Straffer says, smiling.

The Minister stiffens for a moment, but then relaxes, nodding sadly: "I suspect what I came here to tell you is not a surprise."

"No," the cyborg says: "I've been aware that the Space Service wants me out. I'm also aware that the UN is pressuring ASEAN to make this happen as soon as possible. Trade issues, mostly."

"Then you understand that my hands are tied."

"I do, yes," Straffer says, sipping his tea.

"Did they tell you that we are... required to hand you over to them?" the man asks, very sheepishly: "It seems they are afraid you will escape if we merely let you walk out the front door."

"That I didn't know," the blonde man says, tapping his teacup against his saucer as he considers this: "That's troubling."

"It's horrible is what it is. I've heard what they plan to do. It's monstrous. Cruel!"

"It's the UN," the cyborg shrugs: "I knew what might happen when I told them to stuff it. I've been prepared to take my medicine since. So..."

He stands up and looks out the window, wondering if he's putting on too brave of a face, here.

(Wondering if appearing too blase to his horrible, awaiting fate will ruin his scheme...)

* * *

... so one of the plans that Mongoose came up with, and I !@#$ you not, was that they were going to use !@#$ing Jesus Christ to kick Castro out of power."

There's a couple chuckles and snorts, and an actual laugh or two. SPYGOD nods, looking around, and then clicks over to a picture of a smiling General with a bad mustache and disturbing eyes.

"Meet Major General Edward Lansdale. Cunning mother!@#$er, anti-communist, and nuttier than a can of !@#$ing Planters. His idea was to spread the world on Cuba that Jesus was !@#$ing coming back, and then, at the anointed hour, raise a sub, and blow some star shells to make lights, smoke, and bangs. And then use a movie projector to show Jesus on the clouds.

"And yes," SPYGOD goes on: "That does sound crazy. But you gotta figure, Cuba's a very Catholic country, full of people who were never too damn bright. Some religious mania and a desire to get free might have gone a long way, if only I hadn't convinced a bunch of heroin junkie cyborg dolphins to hump the !@#$ out of that sub.

"Again, long story," he says, shrugging and having another snort from his flask: "And this is turning out to be a long story, too. But it's essential that you !@#$ing understand that this is the !@#$ the CIA had its hands in, all the way up to the damn elbow on the dance floor.

"Because that's the only way the crazy thing they did next makes any damn kind of sense."

* * *

There's yelling outside Myron's room, in the hallway. Bad yelling, this time. The kind that indicates that something terrible is about to happen, most likely to someone.

Several someones, in fact.

He doesn't care. He can't care, anymore.

He lies on the ground, in a curled up ball, trying to get up and face the fear that's been building in his heart, soul, and guts since he learned the awful truth about this place.

The real face of Number One. 

And yet, oddly enough, a small, small piece of his mind is actually glad about this. Mostly because he was terrified it might be right for so damned long, and now it gets to say "Aha! See? You were right. We were right!"

It's just that this isn't a good thing. Not at all.

He'll get up and face this situation. He knows he will. He has no bottle to crawl into, no warm, willing woman to lose himself within. There's nowhere to hide, and no way to stall.

Not for long, anyway.

But for now, as the absence of the leader has turned the Green Dome from a barely-restrained riot into the first, trembling steps towards angry, overdue chaos, he's alright with just lying there.

Just lying there and pretending, for the moment, and they he doesn't have to go down into the bowels of the complex and see that thing again...

* * *

"Now," he says, putting another picture up for all to see: "See this !@#$ing lizard-faced human monster? Anyone know who he is?"

"Yeah," one of the AGENTS says: "That's the old guy we got in that locked room under constant overlapping guard in Bethesda. The john doe in the induced coma from hell."

"Yes," SPYGOD says, snapping his finger and nodding: "Gold star for you, AGENT. Now, forget you even remembered that !@#$, because that john doe is the one and only Gilbert Biggs, otherwise known as the Big Man. The head of the Left-Handed Legion."

There's some gasps, then -- mostly shock, mixed with surprise.

"I understand I !@#$ing put his ass there, a couple years back. The fact that no one knows who he actually is means I must have been damned careful about it, too. So that's good to hear. No one needs to mess with that human monster. We lost too damn much putting his ass in that bed, and if he wouldn't just reappear somewhere else if we blew his damn head off, well, he'd have been dead a long time ago.

"Anyway," he goes on: "Gil here's got a couple other powers, other than not being able to die, which is why he's in that damn coma. Like disappearing the moment you don't look at him.

"But the most important one of all is that he can !@#$ing make you do anything he wants you to. All he has to do is spend some damn time talking to him, and if you're any kind of a decent person, he'll !@#$ing have you eating !@#$, shooting cops, and dancing with the Devil in the pale moonlight.

"Well, courtesy of our need to have a bunch more folks in costume during the War, the CIA's been in bed with the damn Legion since before there was a CIA. Not that anyone outside the Agency knows about it, though. That doesn't happen until a lot later. Like after I can't remember later.

"But in the meantime, the CIA gets the idea that it sure would be nice to have someone like Biggs in their corner. After all, they've got their mindreaders, and suggesters, and hypnotizers, and all these other !@#$ers. But Biggs? Well, he's got them beat. It's like comparing a firecracker to a stick of !@#$ing TNT.

"And then, one day in the early 60's, Lansdale's sitting in his office, which I can only imagine looks like some crazy lady's apartment, only instead of hoarded magazines and cat barf it's full of tacked up photos and ideas on how to kill the people in the photos. Maybe he's drunk, maybe he's sober. Who can !@#$ing tell.

"And he's spitballing more damn ideas on what to do with Castro, as this is, you guessed it, another damn proxy war with Russia.

"And he's also entertaining the issues we're having in the Middle East with oil, which is a proxy war with some real !@#$ing high stakes.

"And he's thinking about how nice it would have been to have someone with some mental powers on their side when dealing with !@#$ing Cuba.

"And then, he gets this crazy idea in his head..." SPYGOD says, turning to look at Josie, who was just about to scold him to get back to the point: "See, Lansdale had made a study of Islam during his time in the Philippines, fighting commies. He knew something about what made them tick, and got them good and !@#$ing ticked off.

"And he knew that, if you really wanted to get the John and Jane Q Publics of the Middle East to do something, or not do something, it helped to mix some religion in there, somewhere."

"Because Muslims are all clearly ignorant savages?" Rakim says, raising an eyebrow.

"No, sir. Because even the most logical, reasonable, and intelligent person will go !@#$ing crazy and do the unthinkable if their goddamn immortal soul is on the line."

* * *

"Please, don't be afraid," the priest/ess of Rosi tells the confused woman s/he's encountered: "Come inside the Singlove. Dance with us. Accept Hir love-"

"No!" the Red Queen moans, stumbling past the tent's entrance, holding her hands to her ears like cups in the hopes of hearing more.

It's too much, this silence. This lack of total sensation.

This disconnection from who she was just a few days ago.

When she looks up the central spire, she sees her new body up there -- red and writhing, watching everything and everyone. And she wants to scream because she should be up there, in it.

And because her failure to use it properly has led her to be cast out from the grace of her God, Satanoth, who has ordered her to find this killer as a human, rather than an arm of an Olympian.

It's just so hard to live like this. To see nothing. To hear nothing. To feel less than nothing.

To be human all over again...

* * *

"Wait, so what the hell is a Mahdi, anyway?" one of the AGENTS asks, looking at SPYGOD: "It sounds familiar."

"Rakim?" Josie asks the old, rehabilitated supervillain with a long, thin beard.

"Well, I'm Sunni, and not Shia," the former Brainman says, nodding to her: "But as it's one of our points of doctrinal difference, I can explain. Basically, to the larger group of Shia, the Mahdi is the Hidden Imam, and God's hand on Earth. He will appear after Jesus returns, and act to redeem Islam before the day of judgment."

The AGENT in charge of the Middle East desk nods in agreement: "It's said he will have a number of fantastic, god-given powers. But he'll have been here for a long time before anyone knows he's even here, ruling in secret. It's taken quite seriously among them, sometimes reaching the same kind of messianic, end-times nonsense we get over here."

"Sounds like the sort of thing someone might try to take advantage of," Antonia says.

"It is, yes," Rakim agrees: "And some have claimed to be him. But in the end it's all just some nut in a cave, preaching to Twelver Shia and maiming the words of the Prophet in the process, Peace be unto Him."

"Well, guess what," SPYGOD says, clicking and showing a picture of the Big Man again: "Turns out that Gilbert was able to give Lansdale his Mahdi, courtesy of Gilbert's tendency to spread his love around town."

"Wait," another AGENT says, shaking her head: "I understood that Gilbert only ever had one child. Xerxes. The one you shot down a few years back, right?"

"Well, as far as we knew at the time, yes," SPYGOD says, coughing into his fist: "Most of us, anyway. And, yes, that includes me. But that's because, even though he had a bunch of kids, Gilbert only ever opened up his world to one of them.

"And that was Xerxes, who was one hell of a piece of work," he says, showing a picture of the leering, evil-looking young man -- somewhere between a young Malcolm McDowell and older Jeffrey Dahmer: "Apparently he thought it would be bad news to just let the little !@#$er live in the world without his guidance, and so he swooped in on the kid's 16th birthday, introduced himself, and let Xerxes amuse himself by having his real dad tell all the party guests what to do.

"Worst murder scene in years, and that's !@#$ing saying something."

* * *

"How long can you two keep going, I wonder?" Helvete asks, watching as his two newest personnel acquisitions continue to fight one another with long, sharp knives: "To the death, really? Or will one of you pull back at the last moment?"

Karl and Jana are too tired and weary to respond to their new master. They are naked, covered in sweat and blood -- bleeding from dozens of shallow, quick cuts.

He's had them knife-fighting for hours, just as a test of loyalty. And it really should have been over by now, except for one thing he isn't aware of yet.

Their mental connection, strong as steel.

Neither one is truly willing to kill the other, no matter how much he might force them to. And though their conscious minds are trying as hard as they can to seal the deal, their subconscious is not letting it happen.

They could go on like this for days, if necessary. Maybe they will have to.

Maybe they'll both die from exhaustion and blood loss before then.

Helvete crosses and uncrosses his legs. He's clearly turned on by this. The almost sexual dance between them. The sweat, the pain.

The blood.

Karl and Jana sneer and go at one another again, wondering if this will be the time one or the other makes some stupid mistake not even their minds can account for, and it all ends at last...

* * *

SPYGOD lets that gruesome thought sink in for a moment, takes another hit of his hooch, and goes on.

"Now, all the other kids? Well, he kept tabs on them. If they turned out to be normal, he left them alone. If they had any kind of powers? He had them killed. Xerxes was the only one who was !@#$ing crazy, so he's the only one who got taken in.

"But this one time? Gilbert was in some kind of damn hurry and left the kill job to amateurs. So this one kid went over the cliff in his parents' car, but managed to crawl away and live. He wandered across the state line, fell in with some !@#$ing weird folks in a UFO cult who just snatched his partially-burned, half-in-shock ass up, and hustled him off somewhere else."

He clicks the remote again, and another photo comes up. It's a young man who looks a little like Gilbert, and a lot like Xerxes, only with some substantial burn scars on the left side of his face: "His birth name was Holder Kane, but his new people called him Canis Star-Son."

There's some snorts and guffaws as that, and he just shrugs: "UFO people. Go !@#$ing figure.

"Anyway, the kid's not a terrible person, by anyone's measure. Got a puckish sense of humor, and a real serious side. Also got some nasty burns he'll carry the rest of his damn life.

"But then he also grew up with a refinement of Gilbert's voice control powers. He can tell anyone to do anything, no matter whether they're good, bad, or indifferent, so long as it's couched within a basis of faith. So if he says 'pick up the gun and shoot yourself,' you'll just laugh. But if he says 'God wants you to pick up the gun and shoot yourself?' Well, don't start reading any long novels.

"And he can do it over electronic mediums, too. So phones, televisions? Any way he can reach you, he can command you."

"That's damned scary," Antonia says: "That means he could potentially broadcast commands to people over the television, or the internet."

"Exactly," SPYGOD says, nodding to her: "And that's why I wanted this to be a small and private meeting, Josie. We don't know who all this guy's got under his thumb. And when he has you, well... you're stuck for life. It does not wear off. Ever."

There's some well-considered, unnerving silence after that revelation.

"Well, the CIA found him when the UFO cult got a little too influential too quickly in the small, Idaho town they holed up in. Thankfully, they had someone they knew who was immune to mind control on board, and that person was able to go in, have a serious talk with the kid, and talk him into giving up the outer space horse!@#$ for God, Country, and !@#$ing apple pie..."

Josie blinks again, and then sighs: "Let me guess. You?"

"Got it in one, again," SPYGOD smiles: "They briefed me, armed me, and sent me into the middle of this hippie love cult full of bored and brainsmashed suburban types, all sitting around smoking bad weed and waiting for the !@#$ing flying saucers to take them the hell away."

* * *

And then, with the closing of a hatch, and the rushing of engines powerful enough to nudge a small transport into orbit, the last refugee ship leaves Mars -- rocketing out of the last safe center within the planet seconds before its gates fall down.

On board is their leader: Speaks with Kindness and Authority of Years. He has refused to leave until now -- until the very last civilian transport ship was gone, and only he and his essential followers were left to go.

He leaves against his will, in many ways. He has no desire to abandon his world. Nor has he any desire to abandon those they had to leave behind -- the sick and the stricken, laid low by the dark poison that falls from the skies.

He thinks he should stay there with them, and render aid and comfort until the very end.

But he cannot. His people need him, now more than ever. His wisdom, his gentleness, his force -- all these things will be needed as his people adapt to their new home.

Especially as so many of the planet's inhabitants do not want them there.

Especially as the God they must bow to, now, seems dangerous to him...

The ship's engines surge again. They have broken through the atmosphere, now. He allows himself one last, sad look back.

What he sees terrifies him.

The red world has now turned mostly black. Seas of red sand and rock are covered in writhing, dark goop that throws forth twisted, viscous forms.

He cries in despair, his tears floating up and back behind him, as he says a prayer for his beautiful world -- killed one time to many by the Decreator. 

* * *

 "So, what the hell did the CIA tell you, then?" Josie asks, shaking her head: "How did they know he was Gilbert Biggs' son? How did you know he became the Mahdi?"

"I didn't know any of that !@#$," SPYGOD says, shaking his head: "Well, at least about Biggs. I didn't know anything about him until 1966, when the whole house of !@#$ing cards rolled down around them, only because the Legion got !@#$ing stupid and sloppy. All I knew was that the kid was powerful, and they wanted to groom him for some work, somewhere.

"Now, once they told me what they had in mind, I was a little skeptical. Especially since the CIA and I have had something of an interesting relationship, to say the least. But I didn't realize what they were actually capable of until 1966, when they !@#$ing used me to..."

"Yes?" Josie asks when he trails off into space.

SPYGOD shakes his head: "Another damn story for another day when I'm really good and drunk-"

"Bingo!' one of the AGENTs shouts, holding up a pad with a grid on it. Everyone just sort of looks at him, and he coughs, puts the pad away, and says "sorry."

"Smartass," SPYGOD snorts: "Anyway, what's relevant now is that they took this kid, trained the living !@#$ out of him, and sent him over to the Middle East to be their johnny on the spot. His job was to do anything needed to keep the oil flowing, which meant either keeping the religious types in check, or else using them make something happen.

"They had him on retainer for decades. He orchestrated !@#$ you would not believe. Made things happen, made them not happen, all based on this notion that he was some kind of religious leader, living in seclusion. One meeting in his tent, one phone call, or a tape in your deck? BOOM, you're a believer and doing what he wants.

"So..." SPYGOD says, looking around the room: "Who can guess where this !@#$ goes right down the damn toilet?"

"The Iranian Revolution?" an AGENT asks, somewhat nervously -- perhaps remembering their former Director's penchant for shooting people who answered incorrectly.

"Very good," SPYGOD says, cracking a wide smile: "If I had a beer I'd sling it your way, son. At some point, the little !@#$er went rogue, or at least native. Hard to be sure which. But he either could have stopped that revolution, or started it, and since it happened against our wishes? Well, clearly he !@#$ed up."

"So what happened?" Rakim asks, genuinely curious.

"Well, that's a damn good question. I can't imagine the CIA would tolerate this kind of !@#$ hanging off the end of their operational asshole, but then it's not like they can go and have a talk with him, either.

"So what I imagine happened is that the CIA gave him a chance to come clean and come home, and he did neither. So they figured out where he was and blew the !@#$ out of it. Cruise missile, suicide charges, who knows?

"But then, what do we know about his father...?"

SPYGOD looks around the room, and another AGENT pipes up: "He can't die."

"And if you don't see him, he's gone," SPYGOD nods: "Consider a zen beer slid your way, AGENT. If you still want to drink it."

And there's silence in the room for a time.

* * *

"(Don't feel like talking, huh?)" Randolph Scott says, hauling the black-leather thug up and slamming him against the bathroom wall of the underground bar, deep in the bowels of Frankfurt: "(What's the matter? Don't you speak German? Can't you speak this country's language?)"

"Bitte..." the thug starts crying, his sudden meekness in total contrast to his badass, racist tattoos.

"(One more time, !@#$face,)" the outlaw reporter hisses: "(Two American kids. Twins. Black hair, glasses. You picked them up from a private plane at the airport. You drove them somewhere. And you're going to tell me where.)"

"(No,)" the guy insists, shaking his head: "(I cannot... I must not... he will kill me. Worse than kill me.)"

"(And you think I won't?)" Randolph all but shouts, pulling out a very small handgun with a very wide barrel, and shoving it into the guy's mouth: "(Or maybe I'll just miss, just by half an inch. Blow the front of your face off, instead. You can be one of those poor !@#$ers they write sad stories about in the paper.

"(Blind and faceless and silent, except for the crying...)"

The thug's pissing himself, now. He's whimpering.

But at long last Randolph thinks he's got what he's come here for.

The Goddamn Truth.

* * *

"So the CIA thought they'd killed him, but really didn't," Josie picks up: "And now he's back, you say. But how do we know this for sure?"

"A couple things," SPYGOD says: "For one thing, the organization he created around him was codenamed Hadhih."

"Are you sure about that?" Rakim asks: "That doesn't make much sense. Hadhih just means 'this.' That would be like calling a group 'in' or 'there.'"

"Exactly," SPYGOD says: "Zen beer... well, no. Zen something else slid your way."

"Well thank you," the former supervillain says, chuckling: "Cream, two sugars while you're at it."

"My pleasure. You want a goddamn donut with that?"

"SPYGOD," Josie sighs.

"All good, Josie. But what's not good? What radical Islamic groups are we having problems with right now, all around the damn world?"

"Other than Al-Qaeda and its various splinter groups?" the AGENT from the Middle East desk asks, sighing.

"Bingo," SPYGOD says: "Islamic State of this, that, or the other damn thing. Also just called IS."

He holds up his hand, and no one gets it: "What? IS? 'This is'"

"That is a stretch," Josie says.

"Yes, but the kid's got a puckish sense of humor. That seems about right."

"That doesn't explain why he sits on his hands from 1977 until now," Antonia says, shifting her baby: "You'd think he'd want revenge, and quick."

"Also a good question, but let's go with the star of the show, here," he says, waving a hand to Free Fire: "How about we ask the only person lucky enough to have heard his voice and not got turned into a goddamn jihadi what happened?"

* * *

"... no surprise the Candidate took the top in Iowa, but what is a surprise is how close Rubio came to second, along with Rand Paul in third. They're almost a half a delegate away from one another."

"Yes, that's very shocking, Megyn. Almost as shocking as Cruz falling down below Ben Carson after his poor showing at the debate."

"Well, that's what happens when you talk tough about an enemy and they show up to call you on it, Ken. I was pretty scared myself, I don't mind saying."

"All the same, our current front runner's got some mixed news, tonight. He made it seem like he was going to sweep the polls, tonight. Instead, he's going to New Hampshire having to fend off Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, either of which might ultimately unseat him."

"Yeah, I think he's got some explaining to do..."

* * *

The android nods, and looks around the table: "Everyone else at the fire base in Anadan was compromised by the Mahdi when we got there. They took us out, one at a time, on what they called Night Patrol, and took us to a place where there was a hidden satellite phone.

"I was told that I needed to receive new, personal orders from the COMPANY. When it rang, I was told to answer it. I did."

The android stops talking for a moment, as if weighing the value of its words: "The voice on the other end told me, first, that in the name of Allah, most beneficent, most merciful, I must listen. Then it told me that a righteous struggle was coming, the Jihad, and that I was to be a soldier of God within that battle. God commanded me to obey my fellows in this struggle, and to keep quiet about it with any who had not been given the word. He also commanded me to kill any that the group decided was too dangerous to bring in.

"Of course, this had no effect on me. But I have been programmed to mimic human behavior in many different states of mental agitation, so I pretended to be as enraptured as they were. And when they told me that Shatter was actually SPYGOD, and that we had to kill him, as they killed New Man before, I volunteered to do it."

"He then came to me, under the guise of killing me, and we fought off the others together," SPYGOD explains: "I suspect they might have suspected he was a little off-"

"I was not," Free Fire insists: "My deception was perfect, up until they heard us talking."

"And then we had to throw down, and kill the others, or be killed," SPYGOD sighs, shaking his head: "Not a pretty sight. Lost a lot of good soldiers that day. Good people."

Rakim and Antonia both nod, sadly -- thinking of Chinmoku and Yanabah (who may be worse than dead, right now)

"So that's where are right now, folks," SPYGOD says, clicking back to the photo of the Mahdi, the last time anyone saw him, and slowly aging him forward to what he might look like now: "The CIA tossed all their info about this !@#$er down the memory hole. You go rooting through their !@#$, you won't find jack. Robert Kennedy, who signed off on this, is dead. So's Jack Kennedy, and Nixon, and any other President who had a hand in it.

"No one alive knows about this !@#$ but me. And all I have to go on after a certain point is bull!@#$ code triple black notes I scrawled down when I was too damn drunk to be !@#$ing legible, which isn't a whole lot of goddamn help.

"But this !@#$er is real," the superspy insists, pointing at the hologram: "He's making moves on a global chessboard. Setting people up to fight and fall. Only thing is, did he go native, and he's believing this !@#$? Or is he following someone else's orders? Or does he have his own plan?"

"If so, what is it?" Josie asks, looking at Antonia: "Gold Standard's got an excellent point. He could have appeared over the airwaves at any time and we'd be powerless to resist him. What's the holdup?"

"Maybe it only works on one person at a time?" an AGENT asks: "Maybe he can do these things over any medium, but it has to be a personalized message?"

People start nodding. SPYGOD nods, and smiles: "I think you got it, son. That might just be it. Clearly he can have multiple people running at once, but he's got to put the whammy on them one on one."

"If so, that gives us some leeway, but not much," Josie says, standing up -- at which point everyone else does the same: "This meeting is code triple black. Fight Club rules, folks. We were never here, we did not talk about this, we will not talk about this.

"Middle East desk? I want to know where this hidden guy is hiding, and I want to know yesterday. Antonia? I want electronic countermeasures, I also want them yesterday. Rakim? I want his next few moves mapped out for me. Also yesterday."

"I'll go warm up the Time Tunnel, then?" Rakim says, smiling, and then frowning when no one else seems to get the reference.

"Should have said 'TARDIS,' Rakim," Josie says: "Dismissed, except for SPYGOD and Free Fire."

"Yes?" Free Fire asks as she walks over to them.

"SPYGOD?" Josie says, just as the last other person leaves the room: "You and Free Fire are going to deal with this bastard once we've smoked him out. Assemble a team-"

"My pleasure," SPYGOD grins, patting the android on the back.

"You won't be leading it, though," she insists: "You'll be taking orders from Peg."

"Peg?" SPYGOD barks: "Who the hell is that?"

"That would be me," a woman with the same voice and general build as Josie says, coming into the room before the doors close on the last straggler. She's a clone, alright -- she just has a lime green faux-hawk as opposed to Josie's pink buzzcut, and no tattoos.

"I see," SPYGOD says, looking between the two of them: "And may I ask why?"

"Because I'm the Director of the COMPANY, and it's my decision to make," Josie says:"But on a more practical note? You're still recovering, (REDACTED). You're just professional enough to avoid being called sloppy, and just careful enough to not be called careless. But your fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants tactics almost caused you to not come back, last time.

"And as for Yanabah-"

"I'll accept everything you want to dish out at me but that, ma'am," he says, snapping to attention: "It was an accident during a fight to the death against several superpowered combatants. If I'd had more time to plan-"

"You used to tell people to have ten plans ready to go, every minute of every day," Josie says: "Now you're lucky to throw one together on the fly? One that almost gets you and Free Fire killed? One that led to the loss of a really good talent, and a current member of the Freedom Force? One that's got a damn werewolf running around Aleppo?"

SPYGOD could say something to that, but chooses not to.

"You gather the troops," Josie insists, putting a very large hand on his shoulder and looking him in the eyes: "Because you know the enemy, and you know who will be the best suited. And you'll fight with them, too, because there's no one I'd rather see skewer this person.

"But it'll be as equals, not their leader. Let Peg shoulder that for you, for now, and you just worry about making this happen.

"We clear, AGENT (REDACTED)?"

"As crystal, ma'am," SPYGOD says, snapping off a salute so smart it could have a damn doctorate at 18.

"Good," she says, looking to the three stragglers: "You're all dismissed, then. Peg, you're to defer to him on team choice unless it's someone you really don't think you can work with."

"Of course," her clone says, saluting as she turns to go: "Consider it done."

"Alright then," SPYGOD says, as soon as the three of them are out of the room: "Free Fire, you're on the team. No question there."

"I didn't think there would be one," the android smirks.

"Who else?" Peg asks.

"Well, that's... now, what should I call you?" SPYGOD asks: "AGENT? Peg?"

"For now, Peg. When we're in the field? Ma'am will be fine."


"I'd prefer 'sir,'" she says, smiling: "It's got a nice ring to it."

"Alright then," SPYGOD says: "Free Fire, Peg, let's go put the !@#$ing band back together."

Tuesday: 2/2/16

"Wait," the young, bald, and skinny man in the Deftones t-shirt says, shaking his head in disbelief: "You're gonna have to run that by me one more damn time. I am seriously confused."

"There's no confusion, son," SPYGOD says, looking down at the former hero -- who made a point of not getting up when he entered his apartment -- "We need a team to deal with a serious threat. I want you on it. And I think, if you're totally !@#$ing honest with yourself, you want to be on it."

"Really?" he says, getting up from the couch so he can look SPYGOD in the eyes: "So what is this? You admitting you were wrong when you !@#$ing dressed me down in front of the Director?"

"I wasn't wrong," SPYGOD insists: "Every single word I said in there about being a hero? About war being a crime, and making hard choices? Those words were !@#$ing gold, son. I hope you stored them for a rainy day."

"So why are you here, then? I made it damn clear I was done being a hero if that's what it meant."

"Because you were right, too," the superspy says, taking a step closer: "There was something wrong at the fire base. The people you were working with were compromised. Another couple of days they might have compromised you, too. Or killed you, like New Man."

The young man blinks at that: "New Man... he's...?"

"Well, we're not sure. Energy beings don't tend to get killed by bombs, even if they are !@#$ing French. The bombs, that is. Not New Man-"

"Shut up," his audience says, shaking his head and holding up a hand: "Just shut up."

He takes a deep breath. Closes his eyes, then screws them shut. When he opens them again they're red, and wet with tears.

"Sorry you had to find out about it like this, son," SPYGOD says: "He was a good man."

"He was, yeah," the former hero says: "He wasn't perfect, and god could he be a bad team leader at times. But he meant well."

"That don't always mean !@#$-"

"No!" the bald man says, shoving a finger in SPYGOD's face: "You do not disrespect him. Not now, not ever. Not in front of me, anyway."

"Alright," SPYGOD says, nodding: "Bottom line? You knew something was wrong, even if you couldn't !@#$ing put your finger on it. That something wrong got your CO killed. And I had to mop up the rest, and it wasn't !@#$ing pretty."

The former hero blinks, and considers what that means: "Yanabah? Chinmoku?"

"Dead, son. Compromised. They tried to kill me. They didn't."

"Oh god," he says, shaking his head and sitting back down: "Oh god."

"Now, way I see it? You got a couple reasons to say 'yes' and come back with me. Call it revenge. Call it proving yourself. Call it doing the !@#$ing right thing-"

"Why," the hero sighs: "Man, I've got a girlfriend, now. I've got... well, I work from home. But I got friends. A new life. We play Settlers and Dominion every Sunday night. How the hell am I going to explain all this?"

SPYGOD laughs: "!@#$, son. I thought you were supposed to be smart. Didn't you figure it out?"

"Figure out what?"

"This apartment building? It's all talents who either washed out or quit," the super spy grins: "Your girlfriend used to wear a cape and tights."

"Wait, what?"

"Well, no one's supposed to talk about it, so glad to hear no one !@#$ing does," SPYGOD says, extending a hand: "But we need you, son. Now more than ever."

"If I do this, then no more war zones," the bald man insists, getting back up again but not taking the hand just yet: "I'll defend this country, but I won't be bombing civilians. Not again. Never ever. Do we have a deal?"

"Yes," SPYGOD says, extending the hand a little further out: "You got my !@#$ing word on it. I'll make sure it sticks all the way up."

"Alright, then," the no-longer-former hero says, shaking the hand: "I'll need my fire controls back."

"Brought it with," SPYGOD says, producing it with the other hand. The kid takes it, and, smiling, allows the armor band around his chest to accept it.

"Anything I need to know?" Shining Guardsman says, almost giddy to extend his suit once more.

"Yeah," SPYGOD says, looking the hero in the eyes: "Say goodbye to the good life and hello to hell, kid. This one's a doozy."

Wednesday: 2/3/16

"It's broken," Martha Clutch says as she looks out the car window, watching a seemingly-deserted Detroit go by: "Can't you feel it?"

"I think so, yes," Mr. USA says, sitting on the other side of the back seat. He's out of uniform, for the first time in ages, and he feels positively naked without it.

"It's just something in the air," the Owl goes on, patting her very pregnant stomach as she does: "Like ozone after a lightning strike."

"Or the riot, before all hell breaks loose," her husband, Mark, says, driving very carefully. There's a car on fire, just before an intersection. It's been burning a while, now, but no one has come to put it out.

"Maybe they know he's gone, somehow," she says, trying not to cry: "Maybe all the things he kept at bay are coming back."

"Maybe," Mr. USA says, not liking the look of the people he does see: overly-armored security guards putting up more cameras.

It feels like a police state, only without the usually-corresponding drop in crime.

* * *

Neither the Mayor nor the Chief of Police were happy to have the heroes in town for this long. And the Governor was furious -- especially after the scene the other day, in the police morgue. 

But the Feds were playing hardball, here: so long as the body of Thomas Samuels could not be accounted for, they were to allow them to conduct reasonable searches and investigation throughout the state. 

And that state of affairs would last until either the Federal emergency in Flint was over -- which it wouldn't be for quite some time -- or until the body was found. 

The Chief assured Mr. USA, personally, that everything they could do was being done. The older hero wanted to take the octogenarian at his word, but something about how the man shook his hand, yet refused to look him in the eyes, led him to believe there was something else going on here. 

The old man was afraid of something, or someone. The kind of fear that makes a good man do bad things.

And Mr. USA knew that kind of fear far all too well. 

So here they were, out of uniform, combing Detroit looking for clues with no backup from law enforcement. They couldn't use obvious powers, or do anything that would draw the attention of the press. 

All they could do was track down the very slim leads they had, and hope one of them panned out. 

* * *

"This is it, then," Mark said, pulling up to a small, run-down house on a tightly-packed block: "Last known residence of one Orenthal Caster. The night guy at the morgue."

"So they think what was on the sheet was his handwriting?" Martha asks, leaning forward to look at the place: "That 'he is risen' thing?"

"That's what the Examiner said. He also said he was the dictionary definition of 'meek.'"

"Hopefully so," Mark says, getting ready to get out of the car: "I don't want to have to be a jerk about this."

"No," Martha says, getting out before her husband does: "You stay here. (REDACTED), you come with me."

"Martha-" Mark tries to protest.

"I'll be fine," she says, trying to smile: "It's just twenty feet to the door. I can walk that."

And she can -- however unsteadily. Mr. USA walks right beside her, ready to catch her if she falls. But she doesn't.

The porch has seen better days. So has the inside of the house, from what they can see through the grimy windows. Both of them just know that something is wrong, in there. 

"Mr. Caster?" Martha asks, knocking at the door and hoping he's able to talk: "If you're in there, I'd like to talk to you."

No answer. Mr. USA cocks his ears and listens, and then shakes his head at her.

She sighs, nods, and then -- with a swiftness that a seriously-pregnant woman maybe shouldn't have -- kicks the door right at the knob. It splinters into matchsticks, and she's into the house before her husband can call out to protest. 

Mr. USA looks back at the poor man and shrugs, smiling weakly.

But then he hears Martha gasp, and he hustles inside, afraid of what they'll find. 

Rightly so, as it turns out.

Thursday: 2/4/16

"You gotta be !@#$ing kidding me," the raggedy old man stammers, flopped over a filthy mattress with a sweaty sheet just barely covering up the essentials, and doing nothing at all for the three Thai boys he's been with all night.

(Outside, Bangkok goes on -- noisy and aromatic.)

"No, I'm not, Steven," SPYGOD says, looking around the run-down hovel and not liking what he sees. Junk, half-rotting street food, and signs of illegal drug use.

"You gotta be... wouldn't come if you knew..."

"Oh, I know. I know you !@#$ed up. I even think I know why."

"Then why..."

"Because I need your help. This is a bad one. Maybe the worst yet."

"You always say.... say that !@#$ to me," he says, too weak to get up: "Hey, Swiftfoot. Put your suit on and save me. Save the country. Save the day."

"Was I ever lying?"

"No, but you..." the speedster starts to say, and then nods off.

SPYGOD sighs, pulls out one of his smaller handguns, and shoots it into the mattress, not too far from the old, disgraced hero's head.

"AhJesusWhatThe!@#$DidYouDoThatFor?" the old man shouts as he leaps out of bed almost too fast to see. The three boys he wore out all but !@$ themselves and clear out, heading for the other room as naked as jaybirds.

"So you'd stop sputtering and start remembering," the super spy growls, putting the gun away: "You're a hero, you dumb !@#$. This is what you live for. You're never better than when you're in uniform, following orders."


"I'm right and you know it, you dumbass. It's just your stupid pride !@#$ing with you again. And that's what gets you into trouble every time. You think you can coast. You think you're better. 

"And then, when you think you know enough to give orders instead of take them? You slide, you !@#$ up, and then you go feel !@#$ing sorry for yourself for a couple months."

The speedster doesn't have anything to say to that. He stands there, looking stupid and confused -- each twitchy movement a weird, supersonic blur.

"Well, it's been four months, pal," SPYGOD goes on: "Time to get back on the damn wagon. So clean yourself up, put on your suit, and-"

There's a whoosh and a blur of motion, and then Swiftfoot is clean shaven, less stinky, has his long hair back in a braided ponytail, and dressed in what be the only clean clothes in the place.

"I kind of lost my suit," he admits, scratching at his pits.

"!@#$ it. The observation team's had one on standby on months."

The speedster blinks: "What?"

SPYGOD grins: "It's a pattern, Steven. You go off the rails, you zip over to Bangkok. We just follow the weird stories to your den of shame, and then we keep an eye on you until you either !@#$ing shake it off, or we need you."

"Oh," Swiftfoot shakes his head, heading out into the humid morning: "Okay then. Am I really that predictable?"

"It's like you don't remember you're the one who got me into Ladyboys in the first place," the super spy chuckles, leaving a large wad of Baht for the occupants to find: "Now what's say we clean you up proper, get you something to eat that won't cause the screaming !@#$s, and then bring your ass up to speed. We got work to do.

"And I'm going to need your help finding the next volunteer..."

Friday: 2/5/16

"Look, man," the last person standing in the church basement says, holding up his hands: "We don't know nothing, okay? We just squatting here-"

"Is that what you're calling this?" Mr. USA asks, raising an eyebrow and waving a hand to the crates of firearms, over in the corner: "Because the way I see it, this is a whole lot more than just staying warm and dry."

"I've got ten knuckles, and you've still got most of your teeth," Martha hisses, dropping the unconscious body of the last person who refused to tell her what she wanted: "You want to avoid losing one to the other, you tell us what we want to know!"

"I can't tell you what I don't know!" the scruffy-dressed man insists, backing into a corner as the rage-eyed, crazy pregnant lady stalks towards him: "I ain't seen no Orenthal, alright? I don't even know who the !@#$ he is!"

"He goes to this church," Mr. USA says.

"Man, this place ain't been open in years. Why you think we here?"

"I didn't say he attended it," the older hero says, wondering at what point he should step in to keep Martha from stopping this man from talking, too: "I mean he comes here a couple times a week. Cleans up the sanctuary? Does minor repairs? Keeps it from falling down?"

"He's a sick man, we have to find him," Martha insists, all but growling: "And we come here and find you, instead, holding onto clearly stolen AK-47s, still in the damn crates. Tell me I shouldn't think the worst."

"Okay, yeah," the man admits: "I know who you talking about, now. We just call him the priest. He comes in, works upstairs. Sings, mostly. Sometimes he leaves us some food. I think he thinks we homeless."

"Are you?" Mr. USA says.

"No, man. We entrepreneurs. We get paid to look after !@#$. Don't touch it, don't play with it. Just store it for people, you know?"

"What kind of people?" Martha asks, raising her fists again.

"Kind of people you don't want to say 'no' to, lady," the man admits, holding up his hands in a weak defensive move: "Game is changing around here. Crazy bad is here, now. You gots to get with it or get jacked up. Simple as that."

"We're wasting our time," Mr. USA says: "He doesn't know anything."

"Then I can beat on him for not saying 'no' to crime and drugs?" Martha asks, grinning like something just broke inside her brain.

"Well, unless he knows where we can find the preacher-"

"Look! Wait!" the man shouts, putting his hands together to beg: "Maybe I do know something. Okay? Sometimes he talks about a mission, over on Woodward. He tells us we ought to go there and get some help. Or volunteer to help or some !@#$."

"Well, why didn't you just say so?" Mr. USA asks: "Martha, maybe we should let this helpful gentleman look after his friends while we go check the mission out."

"Yeah," she says, looking around: "But..."

"Oh! Right," he says, looking at the crates of guns. He coughs, makes a fist, and then slams his hand down into the crates -- breaking both wood and gun like they were cheap plastic toys.

"Oh man," the entrepreneur  gasps: "You didn't."

"We did," the older hero says, smiling: "Might want to find a new line of work, young man. I don't think Detroit's going to tolerate crazy bad much longer."

And then they both leave the church, hoping this last lead helps them find the man who -- as they are now extremely certain -- saw a lot more that night in the morgue than was healthy for anyone. 

Saturday: 2/6/16

"Okay then," SPYGOD says, raising an eyebrow: "I have officially !@#$ing seen everything."

"Oh blow it our your ass," Gosheven sighs, weakly trying to change his form but unable to do so. 

"NiceToSeeYouAgain," Swiftfoot chuckles, dropping the zapped shapeshifter onto the ground of his tent.

"You blow it out your ass, too!" Gosheven shouts: "All of you just... blow it. Out your asses!"

"It's like poetry," Peg says, crossing her arms. She looks rather intimidating in her heavy coat and fur hat.

"John Leaping Deer," SPYGOD says, sitting down and calling up the man's file on a pad: "Former villain, then rehabilitated through the COMPANY. Member in good standing with the Freedom Force, then put on special, Triple-Black infiltration duties."

"And then you went rogue with Randolph Scott, last year," Peg grumbles: "And boy did we have some fun with that."

"So it appears we sicced Swiftfoot on you both," SPYGOD goes on, "And then tossed your goofy ass into Mister Freedom's safekeeping after that, until we could figure out what to do with you."

"Only now we learn you've been masquerading as an elephant for a two-bit Russian circus, here in Yakutsk," Peg says.

"When you're not hitting the bars and cruising for a different kind of trunk," Swiftfoot chuckles.

"If I wasn't..." the shapeshifter growls.

"Well, you are," SPYGOD says, pointing to the shock collar around his neck: "You even try to shift forms, that thing'll light up your brains like a damn Hanukkah bush. So don't even try."

"What do you want," Gosheven says, after a moment or two: "I was looking for Red Queen, damn it. I was trying to save her ass! Or don't you care about that?"

"What I care about is people following orders," SPYGOD says: "Something you're apparently not very !@#$ing good at."

"I thought we were square," the shapeshifter says, looking at SPYGOD: "After everything that happened in Florida, and Cuba-"

"Oh, we're square," SPYGOD says, holding up a hand: "Problem is, I'm not in charge of the show, anymore. I'm just a regular dogface in a suit, now. Just like you."

"He's just assembling the team," Peg explains: "And we want you on it."

"Or else we toss your ass back to Mister Freedom," SPYGOD smiles: "Who might be wondering where the hell you've been all this time."

The shapeshifer just smirks at that: "Worst prison ever, by the way. For someone who claims to be the best escape artist in the world he's crap at making an escape-proof prison."

"What do you mean?" Peg asks.

"I mean all the jailers take bribes," Gosheven says, and then laughs himself hoarse.

* * *

"Well," Peg says as the COMPANY transport takes off: "So far the roster is filling up nicely, if you like a challenge."

"Doesn't everyone?" SPYGOD chuckles, looking back at Gosheven, who is clearly not happy at this turn of events. 

"A shapeshifter we can't count on, a speedster we can't trust, a tech hero with something to prove, a smart-mouthed android-"

"And me," SPYGOD says, grinning: "Who, incidentally, knows how to handle all of them."

"One might almost suspect you're making the team impossible to lead without your direct input."

"One might," the super spy says, no longer smiling: "But since I'll be telling you everything you need to know about the team, before we get into the field? I'd hope you won't feel that way for long."

Peg looks at him, nods, and takes her fur hat off: "So who's next?"

"That would be telling," SPYGOD says, looking at his pad: "But damn it, I wish we knew where this Myron is. He sounds like he'd be perfect for this kind of work."

"We've got Antonia doing tech solutions. She's good."

"Yeah, she's good. Hell, she's amazing. But this guy?" he taps the pad and holds it up: "This guy, from everything I've read, is !@#$ing phenomenal. A one man miracle worker. And we had to go and lose him."

"They're still searching."

"Do us all a favor, Peg?" SPYGOD says, looking back at the pad: "Tell them to search harder. Talent like this doesn't grow on trees."

Sunday: 2/7/17

He comes out of his room only when the screaming has stopped, and he's reasonably sure he won't get killed on sight.

Myron looks down the hallway. There's blood in both directions. Signs of a number of nasty fights.

Broken teeth on the floor, like loose change.

He walks down the hall towards his office. On the way he sees no less than three dead bodies, beaten to a pulp. He thinks he knows who they are.

He's not entirely sure he has the luxury of caring, right now.

* * *

"Yeah, you just choke on that," Randolph says, letting the guard try to breathe through what's left of his throat.

One good punch to the neck and the man went down, quiet as a stone, except for the sludgy, wet noises. He's probably going to choke on his broken larynx before long if he doesn't stop panicking.

A bad way to go, but it's his fault for having been the odd man out. The one who went off to smoke alone.

The one whose urban camouflage suit is almost exactly Randolph's size.

After securing one last precaution he slips it off the man, and onto himself, hoping he's got enough time to get into Odal's hidden headquarters, south of Frankfurt.

And enough time to get what he's looking for -- and who.

* * *

"Of course we know Orenthal," the large, matronly woman behind the desk in the Motor City Mission's business office says: "He's one of the most tireless and giving volunteers we have."

"Have you seen him lately?" Martha asks, trying not to plead too hard: "It's very important we find him and talk to him."

"Well, he hasn't been here for a while," the woman says, tapping her desk: "I think he had some trouble-"

"Ma'am, no offense, but you're lying," Mr. USA says, leaning forward: "And before you ask, it's because I can hear your heartbeat. And because you don't find it easy to lie. In fact, I guess the only reason you're lying is because you're trying to protect him.

"We're here to help him," the older hero goes on, putting a hand on Martha's shoulder: "And believe me, if we're right? He needs the kind of help you can't give him."

* * *

The office has been untouched, oddly enough. He thought they'd hole up in here, or at least vandalize it.

Maybe they felt it was sacred space, somehow -- it might as well be.

He looks at the ball chair, hating it. Hating how small it makes him feel. How weak.

A good, swift kick is all it takes. It falls over, and rolls somewhat lazily across the circular chamber.

Underneath it is a large, heavy box with a handle. He takes it in his arms and leaves the room.

* * *

Too easy, Randolph thinks as he all but walks into the complex: Much too easy. 

There's guards, milling about the main area behind the front doors. They just nod and wave him through. 

(Good thing, too. He's in no way suited for conversation, right now.)

There's stairs, leading down. He goes down them, using the man's key card to let himself in. 

No retinal scanners. No guards beyond the door when it opens. 

Too easy, he tells himself as he walks down the long, dark hall. He keeps walking, anyway.

* * *

"You have to understand," the woman says, leading the two heroes to the man's room: "He's been a rock, but he's also been very steadfast in his belief in God's hand at work in the world. He would tell us of signs and portents he saw on his way to work, or here."

"God's always sending signs," Martha says, holding her belly. The baby kicked, just now. 

"Well, yes, but not like the ones he talked about," she says, as they turn a corner and see a room at the far end: "He said he saw angels, sometimes. Beautiful beings, bathed in light. He saw demons, too. Sometimes at the same time."

"He's not wrong there," Mr. USA says, thinking about the city he's seen so far. 

"So when he came here, this Monday, telling us he'd seen something? Well, we wanted to take it in stride. But he wouldn't stop talking, or stop drawing what he'd seen.

"And now..." she opens the door, and lets them see what has become of the room they've let him have.

* * *
A goddamn, bloody mess -- that's the only way to describe his trip to the sick bay.

The halls from the office to there are littered with the raw, savage leftovers of murder, torture, and rape -- some with their deceased victims, some not. The spoor of the incidents he heard, but never really wanted to see.

The signs of what happens when a society decides its done being civilized and falls apart, one scream at a time.

He can smell what's happened in the sick bay before he even sets foot in it. The horsey, grey-haired doctor is dead, and it looks like her assassins took their time with her. There isn't a scalpel or blunt medical instrument in there that doesn't have her blood on it.

"Sorry," he says to her head, which is quite some distance from her body. They carved Xs on her eyes, either before or after her death, and that and the Glasgow smile makes her look somewhat comical.

Undaunted, he keeps going -- looking for who he came here to see.

* * *

"You look like a man with a story to tell," Scott says, shoving his gun into the rotten mouth of the wormy, pale man he found inside the door of this overly-opulent room: "But I don't want to hear it."

He backs the man up against the wall, glaring at him the whole time. He tries to whimper around the barrel of the gun, losing teeth with each word, but Scott isn't wanting to hear it. 

He points to a far door, and gives the man a questioning look. 

The man looks at it, then at him. He nods, slowly. 

Scott nods back, retracts the gun. Then he flips it around and then clocks the man in the temple with its butt. 

And then he's onto the room in question, not entirely certain he'll welcome what he sees.

* * *

 "Orenthal?" the woman says to the large, wide-eyed man on the cot to the right side of the door. He's wearing a nice sweater -- the kind a parent might have knit with love over the course of a year or so -- and old shoes.

"Oh my god," Mr. USA says, looking around the room, and seeing what's been done with the walls.

It's just like they found back at his house, only more pronounced. A multi-media diorama of divinity, using paint, tearings from newspapers and magazines, and anything else.

"Angels," Martha says, running her hands along one tableau in the corner where divine figures are taking a sick man up to what might be Heaven.

"He is risen," the large man says, his eyes lost to ecstasy: "She took him up. I saw. I saw!"

And he holds out one last, torn piece of a photo to them, to show who 'she' was...

* * *

The mortuary is bedlam. Someone went razy with the bodies in there, especially the woman from the improvement committee. He doesn't even want to think about what happened to her, or how.

But Number Two is still there, and still mostly intact.

"Right or left?" Myron tries to remember. He settles on right, eventually, and carefully forces the dead man's hand open. It still reeks of his own !@#$.

Then he closes the hand around the handle on the case. There's a hissing noise, then a sliding.

Then, the box is open. Inside is a weird, black mechanism.

On the top is a red button.

"Alright, you !@#$ing !@#$," Myron says, looking around: "I know you can hear me. I know you know what this is.

"You got ten minutes to come out and play, and then I blow it all down.

"Game. !@#$ing. Over!"

* * *

"I was wondering when you might pay us a visit, Herr Scott," Helvete says, leaning over Randolph, who's not in any position to argue.

Karl has him in a choke hold. Jana has a gun to his face.

Both of them look terrible -- pale and weak in their new, black uniforms. They also seem to have fresh cuts on their faces and hands.

But they are both quite ready to kill him. Of this he is certain.

"So, it seems you wanted to come to our operation?" the pale man says, turning to return to his desk, perhaps to pour himself a glass of schnapps from the bottle on the corner: "Perhaps rescue your missing children? Blow this story open for once and for all?

"Well, I have a further surprise for you," the man says, reaching for a remote control and turning on a viewscreen "One I think you will find most exquisitely painful..."

* * *

"Martha, wait," Mr. USA says, chasing after his fellow hero as she books it down the hall and to the stairs: "We have to think about this-"

"Think? About what?" the woman shrieks, holding the torn picture Orenthal gave her up like it was the answer to everything: "They have my son! They took his body! God only knows what they're doing-"

"And that's why we have to be careful," he says, giving up the pretense and swooshing down the hall, just ahead of her: "You know what they're like, hon. You've gone toe to toe with them before. With her."

"Well, I'm up for a damn rematch," she hisses: "Right now. There's a temple in town. I say we go pay her a visit."
He looks at her, gripping the picture like death. He sees she won't be dissuaded. 

And he can't !@#$ing blame her -- not one bit.

"Let me call for some help, first," he says, getting on his Freedom Force communicator: "I think we're going to need it."

* * *

"There's no need to shout, Myron," the Chess Master says, stepping from seemingly nowhere -- gun in hand: "I've known you were going to do this all along."

"And I know you knew," he says, his finger on the button: "So is that check or mate?"

"The first thing I did when I went missing was disable the destruct switches. That button is useless. So.. checkmate."

"But then you wouldn't have come here in the first place," he says, smirking: "You'd just let me stand here thinking I was going mad. So... checkmate."

"Do you think I need you mad?" she asks, pointing the gun: "What I needed was time. That and as few witnesses as possible. I took the one, and you've unwittingly handed me the other. 

"And now I just need you to do what you were brought here to do all along."


"Eventually? Yes," she says: "But for now, I need you to fix what's broken. 

"I need you to get me home..."

* * *

...Velma. It's Velma. 

She's walking from work to her favorite coffee place. She's wearing a nice coat and a cute knit hat. It's cold in San Francisco, this time of night. 

The crosshairs don't diminish her beauty. 

"So," Helvete says, indicating the live screen feed from his sniper: "Thanks to my new friends? I know how to hurt you. 

"And while I could simply command you to kill her? Well, I need you humbled, but not broken. So I think this is best..."

And he goes to give the order...

 * * *

... and the picture from the business magazine falls to the floor of the Motor City Mission. 

It's of Syphon, bragging about how her temple will change the city's future... 

* * *

... and Myron spits in the woman's face.

And presses the button...

(SPYGOD is listening to What Kind of Man (Florence + The Machine) and having a Boom)

Monday, February 1, 2016

TechnOlympos: 1/25/16 - 1/31/16

"Complication's my claim to fame..."

Rahmaa protecting her new children

(Art by Dean Stahl)

* * *
* * *

Monday: 1/25/88

"So," the real estate mogul with big hair says, shaking the hand of the man who's come to see him in his office: "I understand we have some interests in common?"

"We might," the grey-haired, older man with the crisp mustache says, smiling as he returns the handshake with a firm, self-confident grip: "And I do appreciate your taking the time to see me. I know you are a very busy man."

"Hey, business and busy have the same three first letters," the man laughs, gesturing to a well-padded seat across from the desk, and gesturing his assistant out of the luxurious room: "I figure there's a reason, right?"

"That must lead to a tiring schedule," his visitor says, sitting down with a decidedly military bearing.

"Sometimes. But then, it's not like I can't take a day off to make up for it if I have to. Leave the details to someone else. Subject to my review."

"Quite right," the older fellow says, running a finger along his mustache: "Wealth makes its own reality, as I'm sure you know."

"You got that right," the mogul says, snapping his fingers: "It's a superpower. I keep telling people that."

"An interesting conjecture."

"You read comic books?"

"They were never quite my thing, no."

"Well, you know, here in New York? We got Marvel and DC here. So it pays to keep up on it. Never know when you're going to run into Stan Lee somewhere."

"I never considered that," the older man says, wondering where this tiring man is going with this.

"Well, anyway? People go on about how Iron Man and Batman don't have superpowers? How they're just ordinary people who trained, or got all the cool toys?

"Well, the way I see it? Being rich? That's their superpower. It's what pays for the training and the toys. Without that? They're ordinary people."

"A valid point," his guest says: "And who would be an ordinary person?"

"Exactly," the mogul says: "I mean, don't get me wrong. I love people. But I want to see them achieve their potential and succeed. Nothing makes me angrier than someone who just doesn't try."

"And if they try and fail?"

"Try again. Keep trying. Never give up."

"Are some types of people more disposed to giving up or failing than others, do you think?"

"Nope, not really," the mogul says, shaking his head: "I mean, sure. Some people are dumb. Some people are smart. And maybe genetics and environment play a hand in it. But you can overcome that with education and training. That and perseverance."

"That's a rather naive view of the world," the older man says: "Surely you've noticed that certain groups are more prone to sloth and failure than others. There are reasons why Europe became the jewel of civilization, while other, darker corners of the world remain locked in less impressive patterns."

"Well, some people might feel like that," the mogul says, suddenly no longer sure why he's here with this man: "Me, I try to consider people to be equal. Maybe they aren't really, maybe they are. But I figure everyone deserves a fair shake-"

"That is a foolish and self-destructive notion, and you will never believe it again," Wilhelm Keitel says, leaning forward and looking the man in the eyes: "Say it to me."

"That's a foolish notion, and I'll never believe it again," the mogul says, not sure why the words are leaving his lips.

"You should know better, anyway," the ABWEHR man continues, shaking his head: "Am I really talking to the strong boy that others were afraid of? The boy who became a man in military school? Surely you should know that the strong must always rule over the weak. Surely you must know that some will always be weak."

He tuts, and then looks out the window at the city: "You are correct, though. Money is a superpower. The power to make your own reality. The power to shape the world, to have influence over others. In that sense, you and I are alike."

"What do you want from me?" the mogul asks.

"For now, nothing," Keitel says, getting to his feet, but bidding his host to remain seated: "We will talk more, of course. In fact we will talk every night from now on. You will tell no one of these conversations. And you will take what I have to say to heart, though you will not utter these things to others... at least not yet.

"And in the future, when I have more need of you, I or someone very much like me will come to see you. And you will do whatever they need of you, without question or complaint.

"This is understood, yes?"

"Yes," the mogul says, sitting at his desk with a look like a slapped puppy.

"Good," the supernazi says, looking out at the city he both loves and hates in equal measure: "We will have such a great future, you and I. So long as you do as I tell you.

"And I do not intend to give you any choice in the matter..."

Tuesday: 1/26/16

"... you will stop this at once, or suffer the consequences."


"... world still in shock at these images taken at the space elevator, as the woman claiming to be the goddess of the sun entered the conflict between the United Nations and its rogue Space Service director on the side of the director-"


"... this unprovoked attack on American forces will not stand. Tonight I am asking Congress to stand ready in case we must declare war on these self-styled, so-called Gods-"


"... amazing footage, taken from a news helicopter that had come to watch the dogfight between the Space Service and American warplanes from the US-"


"... Detroit police are finally confirming that the vigilante known as The Raven, who has been causing controversy in that city due to its complicated past with superheroes, was shot and killed last sunday-"


"... she just raised her hands and the planes melted. They exploded. No one could eject. It was horrible-"


"... armed standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge came to a grisly end today as Federal law enforcement agents stormed the compound at around four in the morning, reportedly killing or wounding most of the occupiers-"


"... Carson said, quote, 'this nation is a Christian nation, one nation under one god. We will not bow to tyrants who claim divine right to do as they please-"


"... as of now, the long line of refugee ships from Mars are being allowed to dock and unload, and the Martians are being sent from Indonesia directly to Mexico by some unseen means-"


"... had just averted an armed robbery at Qalat Jewelers, a family-owned business, by what were reported to be masked criminals, when the store was practically leveled by sustained heavy machinegun fire-"


"... astounding footage of Rahmaa holding her own against the mysterious, golden spaceship the Space Service has used to defend the Earth. We're being told it was actually engaging on behalf of the UN, against the Space Service, at the time. And here you see-" 


"There is no official death toll yet, though an anonymous source has informed CNN that the agents were ordered not to accept the surrender of any ranchers seen to be armed-"


"... well, what do you expect, Megan? These people call themselves Gods, and these Martians apparently worship the sun. So if we say, well, you can't come here after all, even if your planet is about to die, what did you think their god would say?-"


"... the Candidate has announced he will not be participating in FOX News' latest debate unless they change the moderator-"


"... as of now, the Space Elevator is clear and safe, protected by deadly forces invisible to the human eye. Anyone who approaches from the outside is burned to a cinder within moments-"


"... word that The Raven was formerly the Talon of the famous Owl crime-fighting dynasty in Chicago. How he came to be in Detroit, and changed his name, is a mystery at this point-"


" ... Congressional leaders were united in condemning the attack on the planes, but seemed strangely cool to the idea of actually declaring war on the city-state of Olympos-"


"... He’s got the guts to wear the issues that need to be spoken about and debate on his sleeve, where the rest of some of these establishment candidates, they just wanted to duck and hide. They didn’t want to talk about these issues until he brought ’em up. In fact, they’ve been wearing a, this, political correctness kind of like a suicide vest-”


"... one thing is for certain, Joe. This is the point of no return. These Olympians have finally flexed their muscles and shown us that they won't be bullied, and that they're very capable of returning fire-"


"... understand that the Owl is currently engaged in talks with the Mayor of Detroit to get her son's body back. We have been told that there is some issue about her even setting foot into the city, stemming from an incident that happened almost twenty years ago-"


"No word from the White House about the Freedom Force, whose current roster includes one of the Olympians. Mister Freedom, sometimes known as... Restreet? Ristreet? I'm not sure how to pronounce this-"


"... remember what the doormouse said / feed your head / feed your head..." 

Wednesday: 1/27/16

"Is that the only !@$#ing music you got on board, Free Fire?" SPYGOD asks after what seems to be the third repeat of Surrealistic Pillow, wincing at the burns and cuts that cover most of his front side.

"I am afraid so," the man in badly-battered and cracked orange armor says, looking over the edge of the hole in the sand they've been hunkered down in since Sunday.

"No. I actually kind of like it. I'm just wondering if you could play something else for a damn change."

"Do you like Fleetwood Mac?"


"I have some Who, yes."

"No, who's Fleetwood Mac?" SPYGOD says, somewhat exasperated.

"The drummer and guitarist," Free Fire says, smiling a little.

"You're !@#$ing with me, aren't you?' the superspy groans: "Of course you are."

"There's been no sign of the COMPANY," the orange-armored man says, perhaps in an attempt to change the subject: "This is rather disturbing."

"I told you, I might have lost my damn transponder when the !@#$ hit the fan," SPYGOD says.

"They should have put down in our last position."

"And I told you we wouldn't see them put down, too," SPYGOD sighs, tired of this argument: "Thieves in the !@#$ing night, man. Invisible suits and cloaked aircraft. Didn't you !@#$ing learn anything when they inducted you as a Strategic Talent?"

"They taught me that I couldn't rely on backup. I had to be ready to stand up for myself. Life doesn't come with a panic button."

For some reason that really bothers SPYGOD. He sits up to try and yell at his ally, but the injuries he's been healing from for the last couple days decide to remind him that they're there -- with a vengeance, this time.

"You shouldn't get so worked up," Free Fire says when he comes around: "You're lucky to be alive."

"I ain't the only one," the spy says, gritting his teeth and wishing they had proper booze, a lot more water, and something approaching an exit plan.

Right now, all they've got is the desperate need to stay low.

Especially at night.

* * *

Upon reflection, they were damned lucky to be alive -- either of them.

They were outnumbered and outgunned. They had no time to plan or prepare. And, as they'd just spent a few precious minutes seriously pretending to fight one another while discussing what was really going on, they were more than a little winded.

So when the long-range fighters launched their weapons at Free Fire and SPYGOD -- bombs and swords and very large bullets, along with a lightning bolt or two -- it should have been the end of the battle.

Should have been, that is.

Luckily, those few minutes they'd spent sparring had sharpened their reflexes. And, more importantly, they'd learned something about how one another thought.

So when SPYGOD shouted "go low and fire high!" Free Fire knew to kneel down and start blasting away with the fire missiles he had on board.

What he didn't know was that SPYGOD would turn one of his swords into a long, large, and very thick shield -- one that curved around them both.

The blasts, bullets, and bolts were deflected. However, the shockwaves from them still knocked them both back on their asses, right into the ragged, burning ruins of SPYGOD's tent.

But by the time they got to their feet, a few mind-scrambling seconds later, the orange-armored hero's missiles had done their work. Tonnerre Bleu was out of the game -- flailing on the ground as he burned, foolishly trying to put out the fire with his cyclone powers -- Zephyr was calling down the rain to try and soak her pursuers, and Epee Rouge was weaving and dodging the burning rockets he'd sent after her.

That just left the ground fighters, but there were three of them, too. And they were running right for the two of them -- Bouclier Blanc and his deadly, towering shield at the head of the pack, followed closely by Russian Steel and Arachnoid.

(But no sign of Chinmoku or Yanabah, which was very troubling)

Free Fire and SPYGOD looked at one another. Somehow they just knew.

So they both got to their feet somewhat simultaneously, ran past one another in front of the white-armored French hero, and did hit-and-run attacks on the two closest combatants behind him.

Russian Steel never knew what hit him. The fire wheel was white-hot and cut through his face like soft cheese.

He took three more steps, screaming at the deep, thin gash that ran from his left cheek to his right eye. And then he fell down, bleeding and in shock. 

Arachnoid was luckier; SPYGOD decided to just warp his blade into a large, nasty gauntlet and smack the six-armed hero right in the face. His multi-eyed helmet shattered into pieces, revealing his all too human face beneath, and he fell down with blood trickling from his nose and ears.

That just left Bouclier Blanc, who wheeled on a dime -- seemingly not concerned by the fate of his fellows -- and, after drawing a sword, rushed them both.

SPYGOD and Free Fire wheeled and sparred with their white-clad former ally, amazed at his skill. Somehow he was able to hold them both off with what seemed contemptuous ease -- parrying their best strikes as though they were mere novices.

"You will die! Both of you!" he shouted between strikes of his long sword and sparkling shield: "You will die to serve our master!"

"Not today, you snail-eating mother!@#$er," SPYGOD muttered, rapidly tiring of this state of affairs.

(And somehow knowing that their flying opponents would be coming back for them in due course...)

That's when it happened: he saw Free Fire stiffen and fall down -- a massive, fist-shaped hole in his back, right where his heart should be.

A split-second later there was the terrible CRACK of a large-caliber rifle.

"Oh great," SPYGOD snorted, realizing he'd ignored Yanabah's threat a second too long.

Luckily for him, Bouclier Blanc picked that very moment to charge at SPYGOD. So the super-spy did the only sensible thing he could -- he leaped right over the top of the white-armored hero's shield, strode across the man's helmet, and landed right behind him.

Another CRACK rang out, but this time the bullet that went along with it had merely exploded across the Frenchman's white force shield.

But now Bouclier Blanc was between him and the sniper. And so long as SPYGOD kept the battle a linear thing, rather than a circling duel, he'd keep it that way.

"Coward," the Frenchman sneered, pressing his attack. And SPYGOD could barely keep up with the rain of twinned blows the man was unleashing -- sword after shield after sword after shield, over and over until it was all he could do to keep both hands up and filled.

And over the man's hulking, armored shoulders he could see a very angry Epee Rouge and Zephyr flying back for another go...

* * *

"... wake up," Free Fire was saying, shaking him ever so gently: "Do you know how long you've been asleep?"

SPYGOD looks up at the sky. It's dark, with only stars and the moon to provide a glow -- other than the explosions, off in the distance. 

"Please tell me I wasn't out all the rest of the !@#$ing day," he mutters, rather weakly, as his orange-clad ally gives him some water to drink.

"Ever since I let you listen to 'Rumours.'" Free Fire says. He looks like he's made some significant repairs to the massive hole in his armor -- at least in the front.

"Great," the super spy grunts, forcing himself to get out of the prone position and sit up. The pain is actually manageable now -- he must be healing faster than he thought he was.

(His skin definitely feels a lot less crispy...)

"Just to be certain," Free Fire says, standing to look over the wall of their makeshift hideout in the sand: "You don't have any way to contact our superiors in the COMPANY?"

"No," SPYGOD sighs: "I !@#$ing told you, man. They were all in my stuff in my tent, along with just about every other damn trick I needed."

"Not everything," the armored man says, reaching into a half-burned bag and handing over something that looks like a flashlight: "I found this. I thought you might need it."

"Oh thank God," SPYGOD says, taking the fleshlight and making sure it still worked: "Is that all you could salvage?"

"Water and a few nutrient bars. Also a bottle of that beer you seem to like."

"Great," the superspy snorts, his hair and features changing as he slowly moves the device from one side of his face to the other: "If we can't call home, at least one of us can get !@#$ing buzzed."

"I gathered some of the broken things as well," Free Fire says, seemingly unconcerned by the revelation of SPYGOD's true appearance: "Some of them could be repaired, if we had time and equipment."

"If," SPYGOD says, tossing the fleshlight into the bag, in case they need it again: "And if I was !@#$ing Dorothy I could tap my red shoes together and we'd be home."

"I didn't find them in the tent," the man says, looking up to peer around the darkened landscape:: "So I guess that means we have to walk, when you're up to it."

"Yeah," SPYGOD sighs, wondering if his ally actually understood the joke or not: "And then we have to get to a town and make a !@#$ing call home. We have to tell them what you saw. And quick-"

Just then, a terrible howl splits the night. The sound of something that SPYGOD only remembers hearing once before, and never wanting to ever hear again. 

He shivers, but Free Fire does not -- even when the howling is soon accompanied by horrible screaming.

"Are you sure you do not want me to kill-"

"Positive," SPYGOD says, finally giving into his need and -- after making a bottle opener appear in his hand -- opening the beer: "If nothing else, it'll keep the bastards off of us for the night."

"I'm more worried about it finding us."

SPYGOD nods, and takes a pull off the beer: "If that !@#$ing happens, just do what we did last time, and then get me the !@#$ out of here. I'm probably good enough to move at this point."

"And if what we did before doesn't work?" Free Fire asks, looking back down.

The spy shrugs: "Then we do what anyone else does when we fall into the !@#$, my friend."

"And what would that be?"

"Learn to !@#$ing swim," SPYGOD smiles, having another pull off the beer as he imagines the fresh, bloody hell the owner of that howl must be bringing to the conflict, tonight.

And hoping that hell doesn't make its way to their hole, tonight...

Thursday: 1/28/16

Megyn Kelly: "... thank you all for coming to this FOX News debate. I know some of you are rather relieved that a certain someone decided not to attend."


Carly Fiorina: "Funny how he's willing to stand up to every belligerent the world has to offer but you, Megyn."


Megyn Kelly: "Well, no comment. No comment. But to get started on a more serious note. The last few days have been fairly ominous ones. After the events of this last Sunday, with an attack on American planes, acting in concert with the United Nations, there is a movement to enter into hostilities with the new superpower to our south, in Olympos.

"As you know, Interim President Quayle has asked Congress to consider a declaration of war against the Olympians for this act. In spite of their blanket condemnation of this act, the Republican-led Congress has seemed very reluctant to commit to this course of action. As someone who might be the next President, what course of action do you wish to see us take, both now and when you may be President?

"Senator Paul? I know you had some very strong opinions on this matter."

Rand Paul: "I surely do, Megyn. I do. And that is that, if we hadn't been letting a body like the United Nations use our military as their lapdogs in the first place, we wouldn't have this problem now..."


Rand Paul: "Look, it's bad enough that the world's only working space elevator isn't American. It's a leftover from the last time the world was taken over. And now it's in the hands of another body that would like to take over the world. Why are we letting them use our ships to launch our planes to fight their own wars with themselves?

"It's just a mess, folks. A terrible mess. And this is why our Founders told us to avoid international entanglements."

Megyn Kelly: "Senator Cruz? You represent Texas, which, as I understand it, lives in the shadow of the White City, now. Are you thinking of war, peace, or some kind of reconciliation with these beings?"

Ted Cruz: "War, Megyn."


Ted Cruz: "Look, we have to make it clear to these people that there is a line. And they crossed it, the other day, when they attacked our military. They sent our pilots, our brave men and women in uniform, to their graves. And it doesn't matter if they were acting with the UN, anymore than it matters if we were acting alone, or in a coalition. If we are attacked, we need to attack back. And we need to do so with such force and swiftness that no one gets any idea about us being weak."


Megyn Kelly: "Being weak, Governor Bush?"

Jeb Bush: "Well, as I'm sure we all remember, we have a long standing pattern. If we send in our forces when we're attacked, we secure peace for a time. If we just send missiles, or sanctions? Well, that just emboldens our enemies. So I'll agree with that.

"But we need to be careful, here. This isn't some banana republic, down in Mexicali. This isn't some religious fanatic hiding in a cave in Afghanistan, either. This is a collection of some of the most powerful beings in the world, and all the people, many of them American citizens, who've gone down to join them-"

Ted Cruz: "If they've joined the enemy, they are the enemy, Mr. Governor."


Jeb Bush:  "Including sick kids and the mentally ill, Mr. Senator? Including everyone else who lives in Mexicali, around that tower? I don't know that I'm comfortable sending armed forces against the weak and the broken. Especially when we don't know how powerful these beings are."


Ted Cruz: "And that, right there, is why I should be the next President of the United States of America."


Ted Cruz: "Because I know the value of our military, and our security. And I know that, no matter who is in our line of fire-"

Megyn Kelly: "Senator Cruz, it's still the Governor's time-"

Ted Cruz: "no matter about civilians, we will not rest until America's enemies are defeated. We didn't tell ordinary Germans to get out of town when we bombed Germany. We didn't worry about Japanese casualties when we bombed Hiroshima.

"And if that means I have to turn the sands of Northern Mexico into glow in the dark glass to repay these so-called Gods for their act of war against America, then I will do it."


Megyn Kelly: "Governor Bush, any further comment?"

Jeb Bush: "Well, if I can get a word in... owww... who turned up the lights?"

Megyn Kelly: "Hey, can we turn down the lights? What's...."


Seranu: "Please forgive this intrusion into your political cycle. We thought perhaps it was best to come and explain our actions, given the tragic loss of life involved."

Megyn Kelly: "Um... okay. Are you-"

Ben Carson: "Do not give into these people, Megyn. Do not give into these deceivers. These demons."

Rahmaa "We are not the demons, here. We are not the ones who denied shelter to helpless beings whose world is dying. Beings who are my worshipers, and therefore subject to my protection."

Megyn: "So, you were protecting them by attacking us? Is that what you're saying?"

Rahmaa: "I would think it was obvious, woman, but yes. You chose to ally yourselves with those who would deny them their place at my side. You chose poorly."

Seranu: "All the same, we bear you no ill will, and no enmity. This was a tragic misfortune, one that we will gladly make restitution for."

Ted Cruz: "And what if we don't want your so-called restitution for this war crime against us, sir? What if the American people demand action?"

Seranu: "For doing what you do on a fairly regular basis, from what we have seen? Attacking those who attack your allies? Your people? Do you truly not see the contradiction, here?"

Ted Cruz: "I see what any sensible person does. You're bullies. You think you can whatever you want because you're powerful. Well, we're powerful too. And you know that. And you will pay for what you have done."

Seranu: "What is it you truly seek, sir? Justice, or vengeance? We freely offer the former, if you will have it. But vengeance... that is another matter entirely."

Megyn Kelly: "Um, sir? Who is this new person you've brought with you?"

Seranu: "This is our sister Nemesis, Goddess of Retribution."

Nemesis: "(Growls through fangs)"

Seranu: "I will leave this matter entirely up to you, sir. You seem to be the most keen amongst your fellow candidates to challenge my offer, and demand not my hand, but my head. To say no to contrite apology and yes to atomic holocaust. 

"At my side is the most dangerous weapon you could ever imagine. Our sister is vengeance. Once unleashed, she will punish anyone she sees to be guilty of the crime that has invoked her. And if you feel that what our sister Rahmaa has done is, indeed, a war crime? Well, then it will start with her.

"But you must know that she will not stop with her. 

"She will deal with our sister first, yes. But then she will turn and deal with all others that are also guilty of this crime. Other groups, other leaders. Possibly entire nations. 

"Any who have fought and killed to protect those they consider to be allies, or their own, will fall before her. And she will not stop until she is satisfied that vengeance has been done, and to the extent needed to impress upon you that such behavior must never be allowed again, lest her dread hand come back to the world."


Seranu: "Sir, I would  have your answer. Will you empower our Sister Nemesis to punish our Sister Rahmaa for the charges you have laid out?"

Ted Cruz: "I... um..."

Rand Paul: "No! No, please, no. This has been a mistake from start to finish-"

Seranu: "I agree, but it is not your decision, but his. Your answer, Senator Cruz?"

Ted Cruz: "Well, it's..."

Carly Fiorina: "For god's sakes, shut your damn mouth!"

Ted Cruz: "...."

Seranu: "I consider that to be 'no.'"


Seranu: "Very well. We will take our leave. When next we speak, it will be with those who are more sensible. Perhaps those in your Congress will be willing to listen to notions of atonement. 

"But we shall be clear. We will act to protect our own, just as you do. Just as any nation on this Earth does. And this is good for you, for we also consider you to be our own, even if you will not acknowledge it. 

"We shall protect this world and its people, now and forever. But please do not make us have to protect you from yourselves."

Megyn Kelly: "Okay. Well, I think they've left the building. Does anyone care to make a comment on that? Anyone at all?"

Ted Cruz: "I have to go to the bathroom."

Friday: 1/29/16

"Man, I hate sand-!@#$ing," SPYGOD sighs, limping away from the other edge of the dune: "Especially with no damn paper."

"It's a struggle," Free Fire says, looking around the horizon as they regroup.

"Anything new?"

"Anadan has been completely taken by loyalist forces," the orange-armored man announces, peering through his helmet as if there were long range telescopes in there: "But I think I see the opposition regrouping to the south."

"And IS is probably !@#$ing waiting for them to tear each other to pieces and then move the !@#$ in," the superspy grouses.

"Provided our new problem doesn't tear them all to pieces in the meantime."

"Yes," SPYGOD says, not wanting to think about that, right now.

* * *

The problem was because of an accident, committed during the heat of frenzied battle. But diminished responsibility didn't make SPYGOD feel any better. 

Still, there was really no other way it could have gone down -- especially when Free Fire shocked everyone by not being dead. 

Zephyr and Epee Rouge found out the hard way when he shot them both out of the sky at point-blank range with his fire missiles. 

Zephyr was set aflame, and crashed into a nearby building, screaming all the way. She might have died, then -- in fact, SPYGOD hoped that's what happened.

And while the red-armored Frenchwoman was more protected from the blast, it caused her to completely lose control over her storm of eponymous swords.

One of which unfortunately came between her and the hard surface she splattered into. 

If Bouclier Blanc had any issues about seeing two more teammates go down, he didn't show it. He kept hammering at SPYGOD with his sword and his shield -- screaming with a rage so loud and powerful it could be heard over the fight. 

But so long as he was in front of him, hacking and bashing away, Yanabah couldn't get a bead on him. 

Unfortunately, that was when Chinmoku entered the fray -- dashing out of nearby cover and heading straight for Free Fire, who was trying to get up.

And the martial artist had his most powerful Ghost Fist up and running, ready to send its victim straight to the deepest and darkest of hells...

* * *

"How's the repairs going?" SPYGOD asked, looking out the window of the small, shattered house they'd managed to hole up in for the afternoon. 

"Not ideally," the orange-armored man says, making a strange face as he considers the ruin in the center left of his chest: "I need parts we don't have."

"Well, at least your juke box !@#$ing works."


"Whatever," the superspy mutters: "And that's going to be really damn conspicuous when we get to Idlib."

"The holes in my armor?"

"The armor, period," SPYGOD says, turning and pointing at it: "I'd chuck it."

"Well, that might be inconvenient. What if we run into a battle between here and there?"

"It's not like you really !@#$ing need it."

"I might draw attention."

"Well, we cover the hell up, and neither of us will look too damn conspicuous."

"I don't know-"

"Oh !@#$ing come off it. I can change my damn looks if people don't accept my appearance, and you... well..."

SPYGOD shrugs. Free Fire nods.

And, standing up, begins to divest himself of the badly-damaged, orange armor that's the only thing keeping people from knowing the truth...

* * *

... which was something that Chinmoku, for all his mystical arts, hadn't realized -- up until he punched Free Fire with a move that should have done far, far worse than kill him. 

And he did do a lot of damage. His opponent's already-damaged armor cracked and shattered in places. Pieces went flying every which way. 

But the martial artist's fist did not phase through the man's chest, as it should. It merely impacted, right under the hole Yanabah's bullet had left -- leaving a fist-shaped imprint in the metal. 

"No soul," Chinmoku said, clearly taken aback. 

"They forgot to program one into me," the android replied.

And then he brought the fire wheel up into Chinmoku's chest -- and through the other side.

"Forgive me," Free Fire said, holding his smoking weapon up through the large, cauterized hole in the man's chest: "I know this was not your fault. I'm sorry."

"Thank you," Chinmoku said, closing his eyes as he died. 

The moment he died, there was a sound like the world ending. A thousand million ghosts shrieked and howled in rage -- melting Free Fire's hand weapon in his hand as a form of vengeance.

Bouclier Blanc was distracted by the noise for just a second, and in that moment SPYGOD decided he'd had enough of this cat and mouse !@#$.

"I'm not sorry, mother!@#$er," he announced, changing the sword in his left hand into a short weapon with long, jagged prongs -- the sort of thing a child might use to go jigging for frogs -- and jamming it into the man's crusader helmet. 

Right into his eyes. 

The white-armored Frenchman screamed, dropping his sword and shield as he brought his hands up to his face.

SPYGOD grabbed the man's shield and turned it around, rushing to cover both himself and Free Fire.

And a second later Yanabah came running from her sniper's perch -- a timeless and terrifying rage writ large across her face as she hoisted that long, large knife of hers up.

A face that seemed more wolf than woman, just then...

* * *

"So, if we can head for Idlib, traveling during the day, we can get shelter in a friendly area," Free Fire says, inspecting the robes they found in the ruined bedroom.

"And if we can stay the !@#$ away at night, we'll be clear of our little mistake," SPYGOD says, looking at the half-burned stash of things Free Fire found in the tent.

"I am sorry about that."

SPYGOD shakes his head: "That's not your fault, man. !@#$, I didn't even know about that. It wasn't on her damn dossier, that's for sure."

"But you knew her grandfather?"

"I did, yes. Wayfinder was a hell of a man."

"And he never told you about her?"

SPYGOD looks askance, and then back: "If he did, I don't remember it."

"Are you certain?"

"Oh yeah, man. I think I would have !@#$ing remembered that..."

* * * 

In retrospect, it should have been !@#$ing obvious. The silver jewelry. The wolflike eyes.

The way she was always growling.

But SPYGOD wasn't thinking, just then. He was reacting.

And his idea of dealing with her rage was to bring Bouclier Blanc's shield up and slam it into Yanabah, between steps.

It was overkill -- he knew that. It might have killed her.

(He might not have had any choice, sadly.)

But the zap didn't kill her. It melted her knife, scorched her face and clothes, and hurled her back.

And as she flew back, bits and pieces of her jewelry flew up and alongside her -- the cord having caught fire along with her clothes.

The change was almost instantaneous. She grew three times her size. Her clothes ripped and tore as she developed new clusters of muscles where they didn't belong.

She became hairy -- furry, even. It was the color of silver snow.

Her eyes became large and yellow, with thin, accusing slits.

And her mouth was full of sharp fangs, long as fingers and just as curved.

"Oh !@#$ing !@#$ !@#$," SPYGOD cursed, getting the shield up again as the creature that was Yanabah reared up and howled -- showering them with froth.

"This is bad," Free Fire agreed, shaking the last, melted pieces of his fire wheel from his gauntlet: "Do we have a contingency for this?"

SPYGOD was about to say 'take turns kissing our asses goodbye' when a very large explosion came from right behind them.

It was the burning building that Zephyr fell into. Her mini-missiles must have finally ignited in their housing, setting off a chain reaction.

The beast before them growled and retreated a few steps, clearly unhappy at the heat.

"How many more fire missiles you got?" SPYGOD shouted at the android.

"Several," Free Fire said, targeting the ground between them: "But this will be dangerous-"

"Do it!" SPYGOD ordered.

The android obeyed.

And the resulting blast knocked SPYGOD senseless...

* * *

"... of course, we don't have the missiles, anymore," Free Fire observes, looking at the neatly-arranged pieces of his broken, orange armor, over on the floor: "Their targeting and firing is dependent on-"

"Never mind that," SPYGOD says: "We move during the day and hide at night? We should be !@#$ing fine."

"But you don't know that for certain. You don't know anything about her."

"I know enough, dammit," the superspy snaps: "I know she's smart enough not to hunt during the !@#$ing day when any asshole with a rocket launcher can take a shot at her."

"And if she isn't smart?"

"Then she's a damn werewolf, and she'll lay low during the day and hunt at night, anyway," SPYGOD says: "And I wish I had better answer for you, man. For both our !@#$ing sakes. But..."


"But I just feel that's the right answer, even if I don't know for sure. Okay?"

"That must be difficult, having such a long gap in your memories."

"How the !@#$ do you know about that?" the superspy asks, narrowing his eyes: "Did the others tell you?"

"Josie did," the android confesses: "When she sent me to look after you."

SPYGOD drops the thing he's working on: "You're kidding me."


"You are !@#$ing kidding me!"


"Well..." SPYGOD says, and then falls silent for a time.

"It wasn't that she didn't trust you. But she knew it had been a while since you had been in the field-"

"Not for me," the superspy says: "I may have lost over 50 !@#$ing years of my damn memory, but I spent a lot of that time sitting behind a !@#$ing desk, drinking and !@#$ing damn ladyboys and making asinine records of how damn cool I was. So I don't remember that? Good.

"But my time in the field?" he goes on, raising a finger: "!@#$, man. It's like it was yesterday to me. I can still clearly remember slogging through the other side of the Iron Curtain, looking for !@#$ing commie spies. I can still smell Africa on my hands and the Middle East on my damn feet.

"All the missions, all the ops, all the nasty jobs... they're here," tapping his head: "I got them. I got it. I got this."

"And yet you didn't know I was an android," Free Fire observes: "Or that Yanabah was a werewolf."

"Well, you didn't know what you got shown on !@#$ing Night Patrol, either, did you?" SPYGOD says, grinning: "I guess we're all going to learn something this time around.

"Case in point. You are going to !@#$ing tell me everything that Josie told you about this mission, and what your objectives were. Or I swear to !@#$ing God I will finish the job Yanabah started.

"And since all your weapons are kaput, or on the damn floor over there...?"

He makes a very large, heavy sword appear in his hand and points the business end at the android's face. Then he raises a very arched eyebrow.

And Free Fire, without missing a beat, does exactly as he is told -- telling his less-than-amused ally everything he knows...

Saturday: 1/30/16

"... that's great," Randolph Scott says, looking out of Director Straffer's office at the sea around the space elevator: "Thank you. I'll send the cash immediately. Yes, same as always. Thanks."

"Good news?" Straffer asks, offering the outlaw reporter a frosty glass of cendol.

"Very," Scott says -- initially unsure of the weird-looking drink, but willing to have a careful sip -- "They tracked my two missing kids to Frankfurt. They were seen alive and well."

"Oh good," the Director says, getting a glass of cendol for himself.

"It's even better than that. They got taken by private plane, which means it'll be a lot easier to figure out who's pulling the strings than if they'd just taken a commuter flight."

"Excellent," Straffer says, having a sip of the jelly drink and standing by the window: "Good luck with that, man. Bring 'em back alive and stop this !@#$ before it gets any worse."

"I'll drink to that," Scott says, and they clink glasses: "This is interesting stuff."

"Yes, well, since I got a new, local second in command, I'm being brought up to speed on local cuisine."


"Yes. Yanti is wonderful, and proving to be very capable. But she's deathly allergic to coffee, so I've decided not to drink it in my office. And she's provided some alternatives."

"Does this help?"

"Well, there's no caffeine, but between the jelly noodles and the coconut milk there's so much sugar in this thing that I might as well be mainlining rocket fuel."

They both laugh at that.

"Speaking of rockets..." Randolph says, raising an eyebrow: "You need to talk to me."

"I know, I know," the Director says, sitting down in his chair and offering another one to the reporter: "And I would say that I did what I knew to be right, above the objection of a supposedly-worldly body that's proven to be strangely inhospitable to our stricken allies in their time of dire need."

"Is that all?" Scott asks, making shorthand notes while the whole thing is recorded on his cybernetic eye.

"Hell no," Straffer says, shaking his head: "I will say that I regret the loss of all lives. But I don't regret making the decision to risk them."

"Even though you're about as popular back home as someone else's dog turds on your lawn?"

"It's not about popularity. It's about doing what needed doing. And, unlike so many people who claim that, I'm pretty darn sure this was a thing that needed doing."

Scott purses his lips and gently nods, glad the eye's camera remains totally steady within his socket: "So what happens now?"

"Now, I remain here as Director, but only of the Space Elevator, itself, which is now under the control of Indonesia, itself. It was placed on their land without their permission, so it only makes sense that they should have control and reap the benefits. It also makes up for their having to play host to the first few waves of Martian refugees, which wasn't good for their economy."

"Who made that decision?"

"Officially? The United Nations. But the fact is that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations put pressure on the other member nations to give them something. That something was the space elevator, which the Space Service now rents, rather than owns."

"And the elevator personnel are the ones who see to the incoming Martians."

"Yes," Straffer nods, having another sip: "And the personnel are mostly Indonesian and other ASEAN members. I'm being kept on because I understand the system better than anyone, but I suspect I'll be expected to step down before long."

"And then what?" Scott asks, tapping his pad with his pen: "Will you go back to America?"

"Well, the moment I set foot outside the elevator, the Space Service wants me to meet for a long-overdue exit interview. And they've made some rather disturbing suggestions about my quality of life after that."


"Yes, well, they quite literally own my ass, Randolph. This was supposed to be a lifetime gig. Once I retired or was fired, all property has to be handed back. And most of my body is their property."

"That's... !@#$ing insane," the outlaw reporter says, flabbergasted.

The Director shrugs: "Yes, it is. But I knew the risk the moment I told them I wouldn't be turning those Martians away. If I have to be a head in a box for the rest of my life to save an entire planet? Well, I'll accept that. Not eagerly, obviously. But there's worse things."

"Like what?"

Straffer smiles, somewhat ruefully, and Scott turns his camera off: "Like what?"

"Off the record?"

"You know it.

"Like what happened to my previous second in command," Straffer replies: "And that's all I'm saying about Captain Charleston."

"Never mind him. What the hell happened to the Chakram?"

Straffer looks out the window: "I don't really know. Rahmaa waved her hand at it, and it went away. I don't think she destroyed it, but..."

"But it's not here, and neither is the Colonel," the outlaw reporter says: "And that scares you."

"Very much. I've never felt fully at ease around the Olympians. And now that I have them to thank for saving my cyborg ass? Well... I've never felt more worried."

"But you've got a plan, don't you?

"I got fifty," the Director winks: "My fiancee taught me that one."

"And where is he?" Scott asks, leaning back in his chair and having some more of the drink, which is growing on him: "Do you have any idea?"

"Not a one," Straffer says, sadly: "I was kind of hoping you could tell me."

* * *

"You can see her, now," the grey-haired doctor says, walking into the hallway outside the patient's room: "But if you can try to avoid agitating her, that would be a good thing."

"How bad?" Myron asks, afraid of the answer.

"You know what happened to her-"

"I don't know what happened to her," he says, stepping into her space: "That's the problem. Three went down, one came back, and she was badly burned and babbling. She'd clearly been crawling away from whatever happened for a few days before the next team found her."

"Yes, so burns, exhaustion..."

"That's not an answer, that's a mystery."

"So you're really asking me how long does she have?"

Myron nods, not wanting to use those words.

"She might recover," the woman says, very hesitantly: "But she suffered third degree burns over fifty percent of her body. Mostly her back and sides. She's in terrible shape..."

"She may not want to survive, you're saying," Myron finishes her sentence.

"It's possible-"

"!@#$ you," Myron snorts, and goes on in.

The smell is what gets him first. He's been around people who've been badly burned, before, and the combination of that unpleasant, meaty stink and the creams and they use to stop infection and heal is enough to make someone hurl.

And then he sees her, lying in bed. A sheet has been drawn around it, supposedly to keep down the risk of infection, but really to keep people from seeing what happened.

"Hi," the woman from the improvement committee says -- her words weak through a blacked, almost unrecognizable mouth. Her body is wrapped loosely in white bandages, but through cracks he can see the ruin below.

"Hey," he says, pulling up a chair to sit down beside her: "I heard you woke up, today."

"Yes," she says: "No pain. Medicine. Also nerves. Mostly gone."

"I'm sorry," he says, shaking his head: "I had no idea-"

"Could be anyone," she interrupts: "Whole point."

"What happened?"

"Went down," she says, looking at him with eyes that are filmy: "Explored. Path changed. Twice. Maybe three times. Walls moved silently. Got confused."

He nods, listening.

"Found large tube. Transparent. Marked ORBIT. Seemed alive. Heartbeat."

"I know those," Myron says, nodding: "They were in the original show. They used them to get around to different levels."

She nods: "86 leaned against glass. Glass vanished. Fell in. Went down. 629 and I. We followed."

She stops talking and closes her eyes. She breathes shallow for a time. Trying to calm herself, he thinks. Smart -- very smart.

"Came up. Metal cave. Machines. Strange noise. Didn't see much."

"That's in the show, too-"

"Heard scream. Fire. Turned around and..."

She closes her eyes tighter. Shudders and gasps.

"86, there. Burning. Screaming. In cage."

"What?" Myron asked, amazed.

"Then cage. Saw more. Burning. Hating. Fireball."

Myron stopped being amazed, then. Instead he was horrified.

It couldn't be...

"I ran. 629. Burned. I caught blast." 

It couldn't. It COULDN'T.

"Cage came. Burning. Spoke. Said it would spare me. Said to talk to you. Said..."

She gasps, then. Her voice shudders in her throat.

"What?" Myron says, needing to know: "What? What?"

"Said... 'be seeing you.'"

She looks at Myron, then, and there is finally an emotion in her eyes. It is fear.

And then, nothing. Her eyes slowly go glassy and still. It's a full minute before he realizes she's stopped breathing.

He gets up and leaves. He doesn't bother closing her eyes. He doesn't want to talk to the doctor, or anyone.

He just goes back to his room, closes the door, and only then allows himself to turn into a frightened, fetal ball on the floor.

Sunday: 1/31/16

"Ma'am, are you sure you wouldn't like a wheelchair?" the whey-faced, fairly young Officer who's escorted Martha Clutch this far into Detroit's central police building asks, trying to be as polite as possible.

"I'm certain," she says, glaring at the man as they pass yet another steel door down the long concrete hall: "I'm pregnant, sir. Not crippled."

"I wasn't suggesting-"

"I was out kicking down doors and hauling people twice your size off to jail while you were still watching cartoons."

"I'm sure you were-"

"And if my good friend could give birth to a toon-human hybrid with no problems, in spite of her busy schedule, I think I can do this."

"Well, congratulations to your friend-"

"And I am not going to see my son lying dead in your morgue in a chair," she seethes at him: "Do you understand me, sir?"

"I think I do," the man says, nodding: "I apologize for bringing it up. It was clearly a bad move."

"Then make a good one," she says, pointing down the hall: "Run ahead and tell whoever's waiting for me that I'm here. Tell them I came alone, as agreed, and out of costume. And tell them I don't have any time for nonsense."

The officer all but runs down the hall, and past yet another bend -- clearly glad to be away from her.

* * *

"Worthless!' Satanoth rages as Red Queen writhes on the floor below him, wracked by the most pain she's ever felt in her life: "Useless! Incompetent!"

"Stop this," Seranu commands, and his skull-faced brother has no choice but to obey: "This is unseemly behavior. She has come to admit failure and beg our forgiveness. That should be punishment enough."

"We should remember that several of our people have been killed so far," Pontus snorts: "I don't see any reason to lay off the punishment just because she crawled up here to report on her failure."

"I do, my brother," their King says: "And I think the reason is obvious."

"She can't see the killer for the same reasons I cannot," Synchro intones, looking around: "The same ones we all cannot."

"And what is that, brother?"

"We have met our Nemesis," Rosi announces, holding hirself tightly: "As I am your opposite, Satanoth, this killer is ours."

"Which would explain how the killer got in, unseen," Hoosk says, looking around the room: "And why your deranged experimental guard dog can't see her. So long as she has your power, she is subject to your limitations."

"Then there is only one thing to do," Satanoth announces, and holds out his hand...

* * *

 "Mrs. Samuels," the Governor says, extending a hand to shake.

"It's Clutch, now," Martha says, taking the man's hand and trying to be polite: "I thought I would be meeting the Mayor?"

"Yes, well, he got called away."

"You called him away," she surmises, continuing to walk down the hall.

"Yes," he says, quickly catching up to her: "After our conversations regarding this matter, I thought it would be best to clear the air a bit."

"Don't you have a crisis to handle?" she asked, rather venomously: "Something about children drinking water full of lead?"

"That's being handled. In fact, the President has given his approval to call this a natural disaster. And that opens up all kinds of help."

"And you wanted to see me cry over my son."

"No," he says, putting his hands together: "I'm going to let you have the room. What I really want to do is discuss the releasing of the body."

She stops in her stride. She blinks, and turns to look at him.

"Excuse me?" she says, incredulous: "I'm here to take charge of him. That was the agreement."

"That was the agreement with the Mayor," he says, smiling: "But you still need to talk to me. And I have some different ideas on things."

* * *

"You heard me, Director," the Interim President says: "I want him off the team. Now."

"Sir, with all due respect, that is not fair," Josie says, her hands behind her back as she addresses the man from the Flier bridge: "He had nothing to do with what happened. He doesn't really have anything to do with what goes on in the White City. He's something of an exile, to hear him say it-"

"I don't care, Director."

"And if that's true, having him on board gives us a distinct advantage if this should go bad. Surely you can see that."

"All I can see is the Director of the COMPANY, who completely ruined my attempt to bring that situation in Idaho to a quiet and non-lethal halt, not doing what I tell her," Quayle says, leaning closer to the camera. As he does, she can see how bad he looks. Red-eyed, not well-shaven. 

"I would be a poor Director if I didn't make certain you knew all the angles on something like this, sir," she says, standing her ground: "That's why I counseled caution in dealing with those ranchers. That's why I'm saying kicking Mister Freedom off the team is a bad idea."

"I want him gone, now," the President insists, pounding his desk: "By the end of today. If he's not, then you will be gone. And then your replacement will remove him before getting your !@#$ out of your office. Is that clear, Director?"

"Very clear, sir," she says: "He's out with the team, now. I'll recall him."

The Interim President hangs up. Josie sighs and looks around, seeing helpless faces on the AGENTS around her. 

"Mother!@#$er is cracking up," she mutters, wondering what crazy thing he'll want next. 

* * *

"And I think a substantial public apology would be nice," the Governor is saying to Martha as they slowly walk down the hall: "It would be twice as meaningful coming from you, as you were also involved in that embarrassing fracas in Detroit with that one villain. Who was that... the Green Arrow?"

"You have to be kidding me," she hisses, not wanting to hear that brought up at all, much less by this nerdy Governor with a bad haircut: "All those people poisoned by your administration's appointed emergency managers, and you're obsessed with that?"

"Well, you really have no room to talk about appointments," the man says: "You're self-appointed protectors, answerable to no one. My emergency managers are accountable to me, and I'm accountable to the voters."

"Good," Martha says: "Hopefully this time they'll do the right thing and show you to the door."

"For extra emphasis, I think it should happen in Detroit, rather than the Capitol steps," he goes on, not seeming to have heard that taunt: "Probably the same place the Chief of Police gave that excellent speech about the problems your son was causing."

"The problems my son was causing?" she all but shouts, turning to stare at the man: "He saved people, Mr. Governor. He stopped crime. He stopped costumed villains who were breaking the law. Hell, he died saving people from some moron in a funny suit-"

"Mrs. Clutch, please," the man says, interrupting her: "You're an intelligent woman. You have to be to do what you do. I acknowledge that, even if I don't agree with your career choices."

"Well thank you."

"So when I say to you that Detroit hasn't had a problem with costumed villains for years, since we ended masked vigilantism in our cities? Then you should consider that, when your son put on a mask and started a war on crime in Detroit, the masked villains came back. 

"And when you consider that, you have to realize that this is not a coincidence. This is a pattern. And your son's actions, however well-meaning, have proven that we were right to take the steps that we did."

"Sure," she snorts: "It just meant that the crooks went from wearing their hearts on their sleeves to hiding them. It just meant they went from flashy gimmick robberies and capers to less colorful things. Drugs and prostitution. Racketeering and loan sharking. Ripping off ordinary people and selling political influence."

"Mrs. Clutch, please-"

"You know what the only difference between that last Mayor you had, here, and the sort of people we put away is?" she presses, pointing her finger in his face: "The one who's in jail, right now? It's that if he was in Chicago he'd have called himself something self-aggrandizing, and had a mob of thugs following him around from crime to crime. He'd rob banks or steal diamonds or something, and live large like a king until we slung his butt in jail.

"But here, in Detroit? He just ran for Mayor, Mr. Governor. Because it was the only game in town

"And look what he did for you. Look what he did to you. And then tell me you're really better off for not having people like me there."

"Well, that's a fascinating viewpoint on the situation," the Governor says, rubbing his hands together: "If I've got you right, you're saying we need costumed heroes so that violent, mentally-ill criminals will become supervillains instead of ordinary crooks. But they're still crooks, so that doesn't really help us. And that's not a great argument."

"Tell me, Mr. Governor," she says, glaring at him: "Would you rather be tied up with silly string by some goofball with a toy fetish, or given a box job by the Jamaican mob? Because that's my argument. And I'm sticking with it."

And he just looks at her, and says...

* * *

"... no, look, I really don't !@#$ing have time for this horse!@#$, asshole. Put Josie on the line, now.

"Yes, this is SPYGOD. I am calling in from the field. 

"Yes, we are on a goddamn secured line. I got one of my gadgets taking care of that...

"How do I know it works? Well, I !@#$ing don't, son. So that's why I'm keeping this brief. Or I would be if you would just...

"Oh, wait. Hold on.

"What? What? Tell him... look, we need the phone for another ten minutes, okay?

"I don't give a !@#$, Free Fire! Offer him a !@#$ing handjob if it'll make him leave us alone! Jesus.

"Sorry about that. Had to barge into the internet cafe. Got a lot of pissed-off press corps out there.

"Look, it's about Anadan. We got problems, and we need to talk to her...

"What the !@#$ do you mean she's not !@#$ing available? I need to know if she got my damn report. 

"What report? Jesus !@#$ing Christ, son. Do not tell me my messages did not get through.

"Alright, fine. Here's my goddamn report. Take good notes, son. 

"Anadan? It's !@#$ed. The situation was a !@#$-show. Our people were compromised by outside forces. Turned into goddamn soldiers for a forgotten war. 

"No son, I'm not turning this into a goddamn movie trailer. I'm telling the truth. 

"You tell Josie that they found a way to get to us. You tell her that there was a satellite phone outside of town that the ones who got !@#$ing whammied had the new meat answer. You tell them that they didn't try to put the whammy on New Man because they didn't think it would work, and so they !@#$ing killed him. 

"You tell Josie that El-Hadhih is still in operation, after all these years. You tell her the Hidden Imam is still out there, turning people into !@#$ing slaves. 

"You tell her that damn mistake we made has come back to bite us in the damn ass.

"And you tell her we're !@#$ing exfiltrating out of Samra Beach, !@#$ing tonight. Send a goddamn boat packed with proper !@#$ing beer.

"And if we aren't out of there before Midnight? We !@#$ing riot, son. Beach party, Samra.

"Got all that, son? Good.

"Be seeing you.

"Goddamn stupid mother!@#$er phone monkey..."


* * *

"I am not going to apologize for my son's actions," Martha says, standing her ground before the last bend on the way to the morgue: "I am going to take charge of his body. I am going to make arrangements to take it out of here, bring him home, and bury him."

"No," the Governor says: "You are going to do what I ask of you. Otherwise, we'll consider your son's body to be evidence and just keep it here for as long as we need to. And there's nothing you can do about that."

"Oh, I can do something-"

"What?" he asks, crossing his arms: "Just because you put on a mask and go dancing around the buildings in Chicago, flaunting their laws, does not mean you can come to Detroit and do the same thing."

"Oh God," Martha howls, doing her best to not cry: "Show a little decency, can't you?"

"I am. I'm not having you arrested for what you and that villain did here all those years ago. The statute on those types of crimes doesn't run out."

"You have to be kidding me," she hisses, wondering if she could just hit this asshole a little...

"No, I'm not. Again, I figure you don't care about the law, given how often you flaunt it. But we run things differently here. And I am being nice, here, because I'm taking your grief and your pregnancy into account.

"But, you know, if you want to push it..." he says, holding up a cell phone: "I can have several well-armed and armored officers here to take you away to jail, right now.

"So... what will it be?"

"That won't be necessary," a voice says, and suddenly Mr. USA is standing there.

"Oh thank God," Martha says, running and hugging the older hero, who returns the hug as strongly as he dares: "Thank you, thank you..."

"Um, excuse me," the Governor says, blinking: "I'm having a private conversation here... and..."

"Yes, well, that's over," the older hero says, gently breaking out of the hug and putting a hand on her shoulder: "Mrs. Clutch will be taking charge of her son's remains. She will be taking them from here, as is lawful. And she will not be threatened or bullied."

Martha nods, and, as quick as she can, heads down the hallway. She doesn't give the Governor the dignity of looking back.

"Can you explain this to me?" the Governor says, holding his phone up: "I can make a call-"

"Save it," Mr. USA says, crossing his arms and looking down at the nerd: "When you accepted federal disaster aid, the President sent the Freedom Force in to help. Most of my team's in Flint, passing out water and helping with relief efforts. I just came here to make sure the transfer went smoothly."

"Because you suspected something might go wrong?"

"Because one of my team's from Jackson, and knows all about you," the hero says, glaring: "And, just for the record? The only difference between you and a supervillain is that when you poisoned a town, you weren't wearing a funny costume.

"Just a suit and a tie, and a really bad haircut."

"Now see here," the Governor starts to say. But then there's a horrible scream from down the hall.

And as Mr. USA flies down that way, leaving the Governor in the dust as ...

* * *

... the Red Queen staggers through the White City, whole and human once more. 

She wants to feel good about this, but cannot. She feels only loss, and a terrible fear. 

She no longer has her powers. She is only what she was, what now seems a lifetime ago.

And if she fails in her mission, she will have even less than that...

* * *

... Mister Freedom sees the look on the AGENT's face as he takes the call, and looks over at him. 

He knows what's about to happen. He's known it would happen for at least a week. 

But he smiles, because he knows this is not a bad thing. In fact, it's a miracle. 

Because this, too, is just part of a greater puzzle he has to solve...

* * *

... The Candidate sits by the phone, weeping as he listens to the news on the television. 

Iowa will be his -- it's a foregone conclusion. Especially after the poor debate the other night, and his vicious, very popular twitter rebuttals to his opponents' cowardice.

He can't stop this. He can't even kill himself. He will be President, and then his mentor will use him. 

And then the nation he's promised to save really will be crippled...

 * * *

... the monster sits in a dusty crater in Aleppo, eating men like they were snacks. 

It's been too long since it was let out. Too long since it was stopped by silver and magic. 

But now the floodgates are open, and no one can stop it. No one can even harm it.

And there's so many delicious things to eat...

* * *

... and as Mr. USA stops before the guarded morgue doors, he can already tell what's gone wrong. 

It's the refrigerated slabs on the other side. One of them should contain the body of Thomas Samuels.

None of them do. 

Martha is kneeling and howling, asking God how he could let this happen. 

The Governor is running down the hallway, out of breath -- insisting that nothing should be wrong, and everything's in order, and there's no way that woman has anything to complain about. 

("Hysterical," he says, over and over, like some kind of mantra.)

And Mr. USA, knowing he's telling the truth, walks into the morgue to take hold of Martha and hold her -- rocking her gently as he decides what he's going to tell Josie about this. 

And noticing that someone has written something on the records that have been attached to Thomas' empty slab. Three simple words, written in a large, crazed hand. 

He iS RisEN

(SPYGOD is listening to Chaos (Mutemath) and having a Retribution)