Monday, August 24, 2015

Dis-Integration: 8/17/15 to 8/23/15

"I want to peer over the edge and see in death / If we are always the same"
Abdullah Ismail, Mister Freedom (Restriit), Foudre Blanc (RIP)
(Art by Dean Stahl)

 
* * *
50
* * *

Monday: 8/17/15

O'REILLY: "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to a special edition of the O'Reilly Factor.

"Tonight, I don't have any talking point memos, or mail, or anything of the sort. Tonight, I just have a live interview. Possibly the strangest I have ever done. Possibly the most important.

"Tonight, live in the studio, I have a man who says that he is a God. A man who says he is actually the King of the Gods, in fact.

"And, as we've seen over the last couple years, this is a claim that cannot be dismissed out of hand.

"His name is Seranu. Up until mid-2013, he was simply one of the wealthiest men in America. One the wealthiest in the world, in fact. 

"He is the power behind S-Corp, which runs S-Mart, S-Food, and S-Industries. And if you've never heard of him, before, well, it's because he's wanted it that way.

"Not anymore, though. Not once the so-called Supergods began to appear on the scene, back then. They arrived not long after we learned the truth about the Terre Unifee, and that the Decreator was coming. They helped us rebuild, they kept us safe, and all they asked for in return was that they be acknowledged for what they were.

"Not mere superheroes. Not strategic talents, or aliens, or anything of the sort. But gods.

"Now, your humble reporter calls himself a Christian. I'd love to meet my god, or his son, before I die. But I know that's not very likely.

"So when someone tells me that he's a god, come to Earth? Well, I start to get skeptical.

"And while I might be one of the few people in the media who are willing to be so skeptical, I might point out that, had people been a little more skeptical when the Imago first showed up, a lot of very ugly things may have been avoided.

"Let's not forget that they claimed to be here to help, too.

"So, having said all that-"

SERANU: "And that was quite a lot to say."

O'REILLY: "Well, maybe you're not sure how we do things here. But this is my show, so I get to say something before you do."

SERANU: "Of course. And I am very glad that you have invited me onto your show."

O'REILLY: "You are most welcome, sir. Now, let's just get this out of the way. You say you are a god."

SERANU: "I do. And I am."

O'REILLY: "The god of what, exactly?"

SERANU: "The sky, in the most general sense. But I am also the brother and king of the others. That gives me some additional abilities."

O'REILLY: "Such as...?"

SERANU: "Well, a full list would take up my entire allotted time, and some of the abilities would require another night to explain. Suffice it to say that just as I am the sky, I also am leadership, and also am command."

O'REILLY: "Which sounds very confusing."

SERANU: "Well, I can understand that. You were never well-schooled in what you would call Classical myth."

O'REILLY: "Well, I might have to disagree with you, sir-"

SERANU: "Then you can understand how someone can be both an entity and a concept? And sometimes a place as well?"

O'REILLY: "Yes. I think I remember some of that."

SERANU: "Then, to quote the son of your god, you are not far from the kingdom."

O'REILLY: "Well... alright then. While we're on that subject, where does my god fit in with you?"

SERANU: "In what sense?"

O'REILLY: "Are you claiming to be him? Is one of your... brothers? Are one of them my god?"

SERANU: "Oh no. He is entirely separate from us. We have really nothing to do with one another."

O'REILLY: "Now, how can that be possible? He says he is the only god."

SERANU: "Yes, but he also says you shall have no gods before him, which indicates there are others out there. We were some of them."

O'REILLY: "Oh, and are there more gods out there, somewhere?"

SERANU: "It is strange that you should ask that. That is actually something I do not have a good answer for, right now. The best way to explain it would be to say that, from what I can see, we are the only pantheon that has chosen to return, or at least to do so in a benevolent fashion. That does not mean there are no others out there, but either they are hiding or, perhaps, they have elected to remain away from you."

O'REILLY: "Why? Why would they?"

SERANU: "Well, consider your own reaction. Here we are, trying to help you. In return, some accept us, and some scorn us, and some question our motives. In fact, while most people do not realize this, we have been here before-"

O'REILLY: "What, here?"

SERANU: "Oh yes. In fact, we were here in your lifetime. But you do not remember it. Things changed, for want of a better word. And we were bound up in that change for many years."

O'REILLY: "Which is why you became a reclusive successful businessman?"

SERANU: "Yes. One day I was a god, here to help you and your people. The next I was a man who sometimes became a god by speaking words of magic. Then I was a superhero who pretended to be a god. And then, after some confusing years, I came to, sitting at a desk piled with reports of how much wealth my companies were making-"

O'REILLY: "Wait, you lost me. You mean reality was changed around you?"

SERANU: "Yes, it was. When I sat at that desk, it was as though I had always been there. It was as though all those years I had been here, doing something else, had never happened, or maybe they happened to someone else. But it was me, all along, even if it was not."

O'REILLY: "That's... that's just crazy."

SERANU: "Yes, but that is how life often is. We are your parents and your children. Your rulers and your ruled. We are you, and you are we. Now and forever, even unto the end of time."

O'REILLY: "Our rulers? How do you figure that?"

SERANU: "In the large sense? We did not create your reality, but we alter it to suit your needs. However, you do not always know your needs. You know your desires, sometimes, and possibly all your wants. But your needs, your true needs? Those are a mystery to all. And so we carefully sift through those..."

O'REILLY: "Sir?"

SERANU: "I... do pardon me."

O'REILLY: "Sir, are you okay?"

SERANU: "Yes, but I am being told I have said too much. And I must go. I apologize."

O'REILLY: "Told? By whom, sir?"

SERANU: "My sister-wife, Kanaan, who must be obeyed. Good day to you, sir. Perhaps I can come back at another time."

O'REILLY: "Well... hey, he just vanished. Did you get him vanishing? Can you slow that down, somehow? See how he does it?"

(noise from off-camera)

O'REILLY: "Oh my God. Well, that was...

"Alright, let's take a break. When we come back, we'll talk more about what we know about these so-called Supergods, which is what I was going to ask our guest about before his wife told him to come home.

"Which just goes to show you, that man or god, there are apparently a few things we all have in common. Most notably, it doesn't matter who's wearing the crown, the Queen still rules the kingdom.

"We'll be right back, on the O'Reilly Factor-"

* * *

"!@#$hole," the former President sighs, turning the TV in his safehouse's den off and shaking his head. 

He really shouldn't watch that channel. But he was curious to see what this guy might be like, in spite of the boobytrap he was clearly walking into on that show. 

Something reminds him of something. He's just not sure what. So he has another sip of the tall beer he's poured for himself, and tries to think of what it might be. 

Just then, the front door's tumblers turn and thump against themselves. Jess Friend walks in a second later, quickly closing the door behind him. 

"Did you get it?" the President asks, getting out of his chair so quickly he almost spills his beer.

"I did," the man says, holding out a small, metal box: "He was... wow, sir. He was right where you said he'd be. How did you-"

"Let's not talk about that," his boss says, quickly opening the box to see that what he thought would be in there is: "Good. This is it."

"So what do we do with it?" Jess asks, looking down at the weird, silvery thing in the box. If he didn't know any better he'd say it was a scope of some kind for a high-tech rifle. 

But it seems to be moving...

"We aren't doing anything, Jess," the President says, snapping the box shut: "There's a letter on the table. You know that dead drop in Queens I told you about?"

"Oh god, hers?" Jess gulps: "We're getting her involved in this?"

"We are," the man says, quickly pouring his aide/chef/bodyguard a short beer: "He says he knows where I am? I bet he's not !@#$ing looking at her. And that's going to be his big mistake."

"Alright then," the former Secret Service Agent says, quickly quaffing the beer and then taking the letter in his hands: "Anything else?"

"Yeah. Stop at the Bangkok Eight and bring me back some chicken basil curry," the former President says, smiling a little: "And a bowl of the hot and sour, too. We're celebrating."

"What's the occasion?"

"Victory," the man says, smiling as widely as he's done in a while: "Tonight, we're finally on the right track to get that !@#$er. And all it cost me was my god!@#$ soul."

Something about how his boss smiles genuinely unnerves Jess -- even more so than the person he met with to get that box. But he knows better than to ask questions, or seek clarification. 

He just knows to get on about his business and hope it works better than anything else they've done before.

Tuesday: 8/18/15

"Alright then," New Man says to the conference room, looking around the big table he's standing in front of: "Let's try and put this together, again. Maybe there's something we've missed."

"I can't see what, sir," one of the senior Agents says, looking at the sprawl of printouts and pads they've got strewn across the table, and the photos up on the wall screens: "This is... what, the tenth time we've been over the same information?"

"We're going up to twenty if we need to, Caltrider," Josie says, turning the images on the boards back to the familiar, rather hideous crime scene photos they've been dissecting for a couple days, now: "So, to start off?"

"The French hero known as Disparatre was killed on or around Tuesday the 8th," Agent Caltrider starts, doing her best to stay focused: "He was apparently surprised in his own apartment, and paralyzed with Stoy, which is a fast-acting nerve agent of Russian manufacture. SQUASH used to use it a lot back in the day, and the current regime hasn't felt the need to improve upon it."

"Once you get hit with it, you're paralyzed but perfectly conscious until you get the antidote," another Agent, Yeardley, pipes up: "It also keeps you from going into shock, which makes it a perfect thing if you're going to do this kind of work. His victim could have been conscious throughout all of it if he was careful."

"Which he probably was," Agent Ruiz says, holding up an autopsy report: "He, like the former First Lady of the Terre Unifee, strategic talent Wayfinder, and vampire hunter Doctor Krwi, was killed in keeping with the MO of a murderer whose work spans several decades and quite a few continents. He likes to paralyze people, sexually abuse them before, during, and after mutilation, keep them alive as long as possible throughout the whole process, and then leave their bodies arranged in a very gruesome and shocking manner for people to find. Scotland Yard called him the Horrorist, and Interpol couldn't think of a better name."

"And we're operating under the assumption that this is SPYGOD's Alter-Earth counterpart," Agent Nome quickly interjects, patting his own, special pile: "Just as we're operating under the assumption that he was using old COMPANY technology to masquerade as the former First Lady for months, right under the TU's nose, slip mind-altering drugs to the President through his seriously-bent aid, Henri, and-"

"Right, but let's get to that in a minute," Josie says, holds up her hand.

"Can we get confirmation on that?" New Man asks: "Can't Satanoth help us there? He does rule the dead, after all."

"Every time we try to get in touch with his people for this kind of work they pretty much blow us off, sir," Yeardley says: "Something about his being too busy to help us do our jobs, essentially. We shouldn't call him in unless there's ultra-spooky death !@#$ going down."

"Was that an exact quote?" New Man asks, chuckling a little.

"More or less, sir."

"So much for cooperation," Josie snorts: "Caltrider? Go with what we got on Disparatre."

"Okay, he was killed on Tuesday," the Agent continues: "That's according to the NEU's medical examiner. He was kept alive for hours, and they think he was abused, based on semen samples collected from various parts of the body. But that could have happened postmortem. It's hard to tell, given the extent of his dissection."

"And that's an important term, here," Ruiz jumps in: "This man was literally pulled apart with surgical precision. This took time and expertise. In some ways, it's the best job this guy's ever done."

"Does it represent an escalation?" New Man asks.

"Probably more a case of him bragging," Ruiz replies, after a moment: "This is also his most daring work to date, which I admit seems like gilding the lily given what he did in the Palace, or to Wayfinder. But he managed to get into a NEU-guarded apartment building, with some of the most sophisticated security and top surveillance, and do something like this."

"He also did it twice," Caltrider points out: "Once the day the man was killed. And then, on the 9th, when he came back, took all the parts out of the refrigerator, and assembled them in the manner in which they were found."

"Which..." Yeardley says, shaking her head: "There's something about that arrangement. It looks familiar, somehow..."

"It's not unlike the job he did in South Africa, back in 2010," Nome says, pulling out the report: "Totally took this kid to pieces and put him on a tile floor, part by part. !@#$hole to ear bones, all neat and tidy."

"Not that," she says, shaking her head some more: "Just something..."

"Well, to go on," Josie says, gesturing to Caltrider: "He actually got back in, took the careful time to arrange the man in the way he was found."

"And then the former President breaks into the place, finds the man, and gets sick, which is how we know he was there," Caltrider says: "We're also assuming he's the one who called it in to FAUST, less than ten minutes later. Burn phone, and he used a vocal scrambler."

"!@#$ embarrassing," New Man mutters: "No less than two different people defeat their security in the same week, twice in the same day."

"Well, he did learn from SPYGOD," Ruiz says: "And he was that good."

Everyone just nods for a moment. New Man's about to say something when Yeardly gasps.

"Sir, I've got it," she says, almost standing out of her chair: "That second photo of Disparatre's crime scene. Can we put it through 3D rendering?"

"Already done," Caltrider says, calling it up and displaying it larger on the board: "What do you need?"

"Tilt it towards us, as though we were seeing it from a height of... oh, how tall was the President?"

"6'1," Ruiz says, getting where she's going: "Same as me."

Caltrider does as she's instructed. Seconds later, they're all gasping as they realize the same thing.

The dead man's remains were arranged to look more than a little like the Seal of the President of the United States of America, if you looked at it just right.

"He knew the President was coming," Ruiz says: "Somehow he knew, and he cut this man apart, stored the remains, and assembled them exactly how they needed to be seen on the day he came in."

"And probably just in time," New Man says, astounded: "I bet that !@#$er jumped out the other way the second before the President came into the room."

"So he knows what he's up to," Josie says: "How can that even be possible?"

A single thought goes through everyone's head, just then. Something SPYGOD used to tell people, just to get under their skin and keep them on their toes -- SPYGOD sees all.

And this thought takes them in a direction they really did not want to go...

Wednesday: 8/19/15

"Merci," Abdullah Ismail says to the taxi driver as the man drops him off on the Rue Saint Antoine. The fellow waves him away without saying a word, which could be considered rude, but could also be a warning of sorts.

What business does a Beur have in this part of town, anyway?

That said, as soon as he gets onto the sidewalk and starts walking along, he's given friendly greetings by people who know of him. A few "Salaam"s and the like from ill-dressed teenage Beurs, which he politely returns with nods and smiles, hoping none of them try to strike up a conversation.

He really doesn't need that, today. He's here on other, stranger business.

Still, he took precautions. He wore a suit and tie instead of the sweats he normally wears. He's got a nice watch on. And he picked out his fancy cane -- the one his Abu used -- rather than the cheap one he got from his physical therapist.

It's just after two in the afternoon. The streets are busy with people taking their lunch break, or heading to work for a nightly shift. As such, he blends right in -- the right wardrobe for the right place and the right time, just to make sure he doesn't stand out any more than he has to.

He passes a man putting up posters for a Sing-Love at the Théâtre antique d'Orange a few days from now, and wonders if there will be enough room for everyone who'll want to go.

(He also wonders if S/He will be there, and what might happen as a result...)

He turns the corner to go down Rue Saint-Paul, and then regards what he's come to see. It's a small, red entryway leading to stairs, going down. A sign above the alcove proclaims ACADEMIE DE MAGIE.

Le Musee de la Magie -- right where he was told to go by that weird cube he "solved" last Sunday.

"Alright, then," he says, leading with his cane and hoping the stairs aren't too problematic.

Down at the bottom, there's a line. 7 Euros to get in, and he's told to take his time and see everything. He's also informed there's a special magic exhibition today, in an hour.

"What's the show?" he asks the lady in a red tophat and fishnets taking tickets at the bottom.

"Escape," she says: "We have a very famous escapologist here, today. One day only!"

He smiles at her, wondering if the person he's here to meet is going to be in the audience, or somewhere in the museum. For a moment he thinks to ask, but he knows that she'll be no help.

After all, he has no idea who it might be -- only that he or she answers to "R" or some such.

The hour he spends wandering around the red-lined, catacomb-like museum is at first interesting, but then tedious. He never had much interest in magic shows as a young boy, and walking amongst the exhibits doesn't change that fact. The overenthusiastic astonishment and joy of the other attendees does little to improve his mood -- especially the fat man in the ill-fitting suit who insists on reading each placard aloud to his friends.

Why is he so uptight? Maybe it's nervousness? After all, it isn't every day a magic box just appears on one's table, daring one to solve it, and then delivering instructions for a rendezvous.

(And maybe it's trust -- which is, as of now, in very short supply.)

Still, he's here. And he's willing to at least listen, though he promises himself that if this "R" fails to deliver anything but another suspicious job offer, he's going to leave him in a cloud of dust.

Eventually, they part the curtain and Abdullah walks down into a recessed theater, stumbling over steps that he soon realizes are also seats. He sits down on the right front, looking around and hoping that whomever "R" is, he will soon come to meet him.

Just his luck, the fat, bald man who can't be quiet sits down next to him. He does not even even look at Abdullah, though -- his eyes are fixated upon the area ahead, where the performer is about to appear.

At first, there's no sign of him. Then, after a few tense moments, one of the museum's staff comes out, all smiles, and begins to speak:

"Ladies and gentlemen, the Museum of Magic is proud to present to you, for one day only, one of the greatest escape artists of the age! A man whose work is so good, so exquisite, that he refuses to work large stages or spectacles! A man who believes that the best magic is done intimately, with small groups, and very close-up, so that all can see, and marvel, and believe!

"Ladies and gentlemen, I give you... Mssr. Liberte!"

He waves his hands once, then twice. And then, in a spot where no one and nothing was just a moment before, a very tall, older man is suddenly standing.

He's dressed in a somber, black tabard, with silver buttons going down past his waist, and black pants and boots. His hair is long and white -- secured every so often with multicolored silvery rings. His eyes seem black and endless. He wears a short, dignified beard and mustache.

And his hands are chained together by some strange, overly-complicated system of manacles.

"I am imprisoned," he announces, a sad smile playing at his lips as he looks each person in the eye: "And yet, I am also free."

There's some puzzlement there, but he continues, walking along the front row so each person can test the chains that bind him: "A paradox, you say? And yes, it is. But only in paradox do we ultimately find truth.

"And the truth is that to be confined is to know, once and for all, one's limits. Yet within the knowledge of those limits is freedom -- perhaps the only true freedom we know."

He smiles, then. And, once he's satisfied everyone there has tested his chains, and found them to be unbreakable, he kneels down, and leans forward, looping his chains around his knees.

And then, without warning -- and with a strength he doesn't seem to possess -- he throws his shoulders back so swiftly that every bone in his arm detaches itself from its neighbors with a horrible CRACK!

The crowd screams in unison -- some in shock, some in pain. The old man smiles at them, his eyes still deep and black as he slowly rises to one foot, then the other.

He stands, perhaps unsteady. After a few seconds, he twists this way and that, as though swaying in some alien breeze, and slips out of the manacles and chains like a snake shedding his skin.

The crowd gasps, astounded. He regains his composure and smiles, though he must be in incredible pain. His arms dangle as limp as dead fish at his side.

But then, with equally swift motions, he jerks his torso back and forth until his arms gain the same speed. He goes faster and faster, until a noise like a reverse popping comes from each arm.

And then he stops the rapid movement -- balling his fists and flexing each muscle, showing that he has control over them once more.

There is applause, then, and it is like thunder. He merely smiles and holds up his hands.

"Why are you cheering?" he asks, almost innocently: "I was free, and now I am back in a prison, again."

There's some incredulity, and then someone decides it was a joke and laughs. Others do the same.

But somehow Abdullah knows he's not supposed to laugh. The old man is speaking truly.

And with that, the man looks directly at him, winks, and makes a curious sign with his right hand. He crosses his index and middle finger, and puts his thumb over the other two.

"R" in French Sign Language -- a means of communicating that Abdullah knows only too well.

And if that man knows that he knows it, and why it's so important to him? Then he knows a lot more than he really should...

The show goes on for an hour, but seems faster than that. This "R" silently defeats every kind of lock, restraint, and trap the museum has to offer. And as soon as the show's over, he bows deeply and with gratitude, and then simply vanishes -- much the same way he appeared -- leaving the audience stunned.

Later, after Abdullah leaves -- astounded and amazed at what he's seen -- he realizes there's two things in his pocket that weren't there before: a bus ticket to Orange for this Saturday, and another ticket for the Sing-Love there.

I will meet you inside, but we need not stay the one ticket says, signed with R.

"Alright, then," he says, putting them back in his pocket and deciding he's willing to go at least a little further with this...

Thursday: 8/20/15

"Well, I guess it's like anything else, Antonia," Martha Clutch says over her communicator, patting her growing belly as she walks around the Eyes of the Owl's Nest: "One day at a time, and don't panic every time something weird happens."

"I know," Gold Standard says on the other end: "But you have to admit, this is pretty different."

"That's for darn sure," the Owl says, sitting down in a padded chair and wondering if the twinge she felt was a kick or not.

It's been six months since she and Mark got married, right on the steps of the newly-rebuilt Samuels Mansion in Glennview, North of Chicago. And three months since a missed period -- and subsequent home pregnancy test -- confirmed what she'd just felt to be true: she was pregnant, again.

And gloriously happy, truth be told.

Yes, she was worried. She was over 40, which brought all kinds of worries about Down's Syndrome and the like. But on the other hand she was so in love with Mark, and so happy to have come together with him, that she liked the idea of giving him another child.

(In soppier moments she thought that she loved him so much she was going to get to give that love a name in six months, but she never said that out loud.)

But whatever concerns she might be having for their baby, they had to be dwarfed by what Antonia was going through. She was five months along into the world's first Toon-Human hybrid pregancy -- one that, while it had been facilitated by no less than Syphon, Herself, was still fraught with possible issues every step of the way.

As a result, she'd given up being Gold Standard for the time being, and had joined Rakim -- the former Brainman -- on support duty for Freedom Force, directly overseeing All-Star Security. There was word that she might take a longer leave of absence if the child proved to be a real handful, or if something went seriously wrong, but Fred, to his credit, was constantly telling her to go suit back up if she needed to.

Whether she wanted to was a better question. In some ways she'd taken over the mantle just to keep her father's dream alive, or at least prove that his technology was viable. Now that she had, she wasn't sure if she was really cut out for superheroics.

In fact, she'd told Martha that, truthfully, she never felt better than when she was in her lab, screwing around with three projects and once, and getting it all to work better than she'd ever hoped...

Martha comes back to Earth, just then. Her friend's asking her a question she really doesn't have an answer to, yet.

"How's Thomas?" she repeats back to her, getting up to wander over to the nearest walkway and look down at her son as he performs gymnastic maneuvers below, being spotted by Kaitlyn all the while.

It's him. There's no question of that. He moves like he did, before. He smiles and laughs the same way. He does everything just as he did that day, before their whole world crumbled apart.

And yet...

"Well, he's... a work in progress," she says as quietly as she can: "Every so often he stops and stares into space for minutes. He'll say something strange, or something horrible, and then fall all over himself apologizing and saying he doesn't know where it came from."

"You said he said some weird things before, right?" Antonia asks, going into analytical mode: "When he was first coming to, back in the mainframe?"

"Yes, that's putting it mildly," Martha admits, going to sit back down: "He was rude, uncaring, insulting, fairly vulgar. And I don't think he meant to be, but something about how he was perceiving the world was just... off. He couldn't relate to people the same way, anymore."

"You know what that reminds me of?"

"What?"

"When kids get onto the internet, and learn they can say whatever they want to whoever they want and suffer no consequences?"

"You mean Thomas was being a troll the whole time he was the Nthernaut?"

"Well, if it fits," Antonia chuckles, and then laughs. And Martha can't help but laugh along with her.

It does explain so much.

"I'm so glad I've got him back again," she sighs: "How's his replacement doing?"

"Oh, Machinehead? He's fine. A little spaced-out at times, but I guess Myron had a do a lot of work on him."

"Yeah," Martha says, saying a silent prayer for their fellow traveler, now fallen far down the hole.

Friday: 8/21/15

"So how'd it go out there today?" Rakim asks, and really does not like the silence he's met with. No one on the transporter looks particularly happy.

(And Mr. USA looks really bad...)

"It was... insane," Shining Guardsman sighs: "That's the best way to put it."

"What happened?"

"Was the radio interference that bad?" Hanami asks.

"Was that what that was? I thought you just decided to go radio silent while you were near the DMZ."

"There were two of the !@#$ing things operating, this time," Yanabah curses: "One on each side of the !@#$ border."

"Oh dear," Rakim says, offering up a small prayer of thanks that North and South Korea didn't just go to war with one another, tonight: "Did you manage to get them cleared?"

"Completely," Blastman says: "And I think we owe ourselves some kudos for dealing with them so well, don't you?"

"That was good teamwork, yes," Hanami admits: "But we need to get better about getting these machines' CPUs in our hands before we completely destroy them."

"Yeah, about that," Rakim says, looking over at Antonia: "My dear? I think this is your show, now."

"Yeah, hi," she says, waving from her workstation, looking a little green: "Sorry. Bad stomach day."

"Your report?" Hanami grunts.

"These machines aren't going to give up their secrets too easily," she says, holding up a container that's full of what looks like melted plastic: "Less than an hour after the boards are out of the machine, they begin to self-destruct. This is what you brought me yesterday from Bakersfield."

"Oh great," Red Wrecker sighs: "So what do we do instead?"

"I'm going to work on trying to figure out how they're doing this and come up with a countermeasure to plug them into," Antonia says, belching a little: "Meanwhile... um... excuse me..."

And then she gets up and, very carefully, heads for the bathroom of their control center.

"Ah, the joys of pregnancy," Blastman whispers to Mr. USA as Hanami and Rakim talk strategies and outcomes: "Makes me glad I never settled down."

"You missed out," the older hero says, trying to smile. Then he very carefully covers for his sudden nosebleed by pretending to need to block a sneeze.

"Sir, please," Blastman says, handing him some tissues from a nearby dispenser: "You're not fooling me. You're not fooling anyone. What the hell is going on?"

Mr. USA sighs and nods: "I'm dying."

"What?"

"Keep it quiet, please," the older hero says, almost pleading with him: "It's... not anything I want everyone to know about."

"Oh my god," Blastman says, looking around and hoping no one's heard this: "How... how long?"

"No one knows," he says, looking at his friend: "And that's the honest truth. I could have months, weeks... maybe days. We just don't know."

"Alright," Blastman says, coughing a little: "So, I think we should have stopped and gotten some of that rotgut to bring home. What's it called... starts with an S..."

"Soju," Mr. USA says, smiling and grateful: "And I had enough during the war, thanks."

"Really? I didn't think it was that bad..."

And they laugh and carry on until Hanami shushes them both, angrily -- apparently unaware of what just happened. 

Hopefully she stays that way, they both silently agree.  

* * *

"Well, it's like I'm always saying," one overly-burly TSA guard says to the other, watching people deplane from the latest direct flight from Kenya's Jomo Kenyatta to Neo York City's Idlewild: "There's all kinds of !@#$ goes on all the time, and no one ever notices."

"Example?" the other asks, wondering if the shaky kid with the backpack is on Lala or not.

"Well, like with this thing with North Korea they're on about, tonight," he says: "So they shoot at each other for a bit. And then suddenly they stop. And now that idiot who's running the place is saying-"

"Which idiot?"

"Huh?"

"What I asked. Which idiot?"

"The guy in North Korea. Kim something. You know, the idiot."

"Well, see, I was dating a gal from South Korea for a while. And from what she told me, her country's run by idiots, too."

"Yeah, but which one threatens to nuke the other every other week?"

"Well, there's ways of threatening," the guy says, smiling.

The other one's about to say something, and then stops. He looks down the way at the crowd as it peters out. And then he shakes his head.

"What's wrong, man?" his counterpart asks.

"Uh, I dunno," he says, looking around a bit: "I just thought for a minute that... well, it's crazy, but I thought I saw someone moving really fast through the crowd."

"What, we got a runner?"

"No, I mean like Flash fast. Or that Swiftfoot guy, used to be with the Liberty Patrol."

"You mean the Freedom Force."

"Oh, whatever. It's like I saw him when I blinked but not when I didn't, you know?"

"Should I call it in?" the guy asks, tapping his call button.

"Ah, nah," the guard says, shaking his head: "Probably nothing."

The bigger guy considers that, and then nods, and goes back to arguing with his friend about the current world situation, which is what they tend to do when they should really be watching people deplane.

A fact which makes the Wandering Shadow rather happy as he continues to move through a slowed-down airport, and out into Neo York City. He now has two less people to kill. And the fewer complications on a mission like this, the better.

One month, he says to himself as he makes his way through a treacle-slow city. He has one month until the moment he'll be able to strike comes to pass.

Until then, he'll just have to hole up, find some distractions, and wait for time to come around... 

Saturday: 8/22/15

Abdullah's trip to Orange is largely uneventful, yet very strange.

Just about everyone on the bus was going to the Sing-Love, and most of them were on Lala. Those that weren't holding hands and dreamsharing were all too happy to talk with one another about the ones they'd been to, before, or what they'd heard about the ones they'd missed.

"Sometimes S/He's there, masquerading as a priest/ess," he was told by the very loquacious, well-tanned young lady with orange hair, yellow contacts, and several earrings who sat next to him: "S/He doesn't really join in the singing unless everyone really impresses Hir, and then S/He just appears and leads everyone in the Dance."

"And if S/He isn't?" Abdullah asked, suddenly glad he dressed down for this event.

"Then the Dance happens anyway," the girl winked, turning around and dropping her head into his lap, facing up: "And all is well, and all is one."

"Yes," he said politely, watching the road for a time.

"You know, you look really familiar," she said, closing her eyes: "But I don't want to know why. Isn't that weird?"

He just smiled and resisted the urge to pat her on the head. She purred and snuggled up, falling asleep.

Somehow it just felt right, but he wasn't sure why. And as soon as the bus stopped, she got up, smiled at him one last time, and then disembarked with the others without saying another word to him.

The theatre was an old Roman amphitheater, well-known for hosting concerts and the like. Its lot was full of buses, RVs, and large vehicles that seemed one pothole away from flying apart. Inside there were strange lights and pulsing, shifting electronic music from the DJ.

(The signs said they'd gotten someone called Electrosexual. He wasn't sure if that was a real name or not, given the occasion.)

He got in the long line to get in, which seemed to take a shorted time than it should. All the while he was verbally assaulted by protesting Catholics and people from Human Destiny, none of whom wanted to stand too close to one another.

No one really paid them any mind. In fact, when someone decided to start shouting back, a Priest/ess mysteriously appeared to snuggle the anger out of the patron, telling him that it didn't matter, and they would see the light eventually.

After a few hugs and very passionate kisses, the anger was gone, replaced by bliss.

Not too long later, Abdullah was at the gate. A pair of scantily-clad Priest/esses took his ticket, and asked him if he had any drugs, alcohol, or birth control. When he said "No" to all three he was handed a strip of Lala, a ticket for a free drink, and a condom.

"Play safe, play well, and respect others," the willowy and androgynous wo/man said, smiling as genuinely as possible: "No one wants a bad scene."

"No," he said, and went on in, at once amazed and somewhat terrified by what he was seeing.

It was a rave party and an orgy, all at once. No one seemed to have much in the way of clothing, and people were just casting theirs aside within ten steps of the entrance -- handing their belongings over to priest/esses to lock up. They got "keys" in the form of temporary tattoos, which the ladymen happily licked onto whatever surface their owners wanted before they headed off to party.

"Come on, man," someone said to him after he'd been standing there, staring, for some time: "You look like you're about to have a heart attack. Just join in."

"I'm... waiting for someone," Abdullah said, not really sure of things all of a sudden.

"Oh, that's cool," the person said, stripping off without any hesitation and heading on into the throngs: "Have a good time!"

That was a half an hour ago. Since then he's stood there, watching. No one else has talked to him, really.

And there's been no sign of the old man he met at the Musee de la Magie. 

"Should I?" he asks himself, looking at the things he's been given.

He'd been drunk before, to his shame. He'd avoided drugs, though. And as for sex, well, he'd had his times in the past. And while he now claimed they were "mistakes," he sure didn't feel that way at the time.

He could just join in. He knows this. Allah forgives if repentance is true and total. But if he joins in willingly, is his repentance really true, or merely coerced?

(Besides, he may need a clear head for what's to come.)

So he sighs, and shakes his head. Then, smiling, he hands the drugs, the drink ticket, and the condom to three persons in turn as they make their way into the pit: "Enjoy them for me," he says to each one.

"Now, is that generosity?" a familiar voice asks, from right behind him: "If you would not use it, anyway?"

"I could just throw it away, too," he says, turning around to regard the tall man.

"True," Mister Freedom says, walking up to Abdullah. He's wearing the same black tabard he did he other day, but no chains -- not today.

"But then, that could be a lack of awareness of their worth."

"Or even spite," the supergod says: "If you cannot use it, no one else will."

"Perhaps," the young man says, taking one last, long look at the passion pit he just decided not to enter: "So why are we here, mssr?"

"Because I thought this would bring certain things into focus for you," Mister Freedom says: "That and I wanted to see what you did with temptation."

"Have I performed adequately?" Abdullah says, suddenly not liking where this is going.

"I don't know," his host says with a wink: "Have you?"

"Another riddle?"

"Perhaps a joke," the supergod says, gesturing to the steps of the amphitheater: "But shall we attain a higher perspective...?"

As they walk all the way up -- past dreamers who decided to step out of the pit for a time, or couples who wanted some space to themselves -- Abdullah asks: "The sign language, at the musee?"

"Yes," Mister Freedom says, finally sitting down at the very top, with one leg over the edge: "I know, Abdullah Ismail. I know about your brother. About Le Front de L'Espoir. About your imprisonment, and what was done to you there. About what's happened since."

"And?"

"And I have to say that for someone who was so grotesquely treated, you have acquitted yourself rather well," the supergod smiles, seemingly not concerned that his guest has declined to sit: "That's probably why they want you for that job."

"I won't take it," Abdullah says, sitting down with some sense of resignation: "They can shove it up their con. All of it."

"Who says you have to?"

"Isn't that what you're here about?" the young man asks: "You know all about me. That box appeared just after those two fools left my apartment."

"Yes," the older fellow says, looking down at the long line of people still coming into the Singlove: "One of them prays to me. The man from BOWLER. He credits me with getting him where he is, now."

"So you had him leave it?"

"No, I had him insist on accompanying the man from the NEU. You'll notice how little my follower spoke, and how much the other did?"

"I did, yes," Abdullah sighs: "So you're not trying to get me into Foudre Blanc's gloves, then?"

"Not unless you want to," Mister Freedom says, watching as one of the Catholic protesters suddenly rips away most of his clothing and all but dives into the line: "I would never force another to be something or someone they don't want to be. I only help them understand what that something is, sometimes."

"Well, of course not," Abdullah presses: "You call yourself Mister Freedom, after all?"

"And I am."

"Once part of the Freedom Force?"

"No. They denied my application. It was... complicated."

"And then the warden of supervillains too powerful to be contained in regular cells?"

"Indeed," Mister Freedom says, watching as one of the people in line fall to their knees before the protesters, tear-faced as she begs forgiveness of their God: "A task I still attend to, though my duties are more... all-encompassing as of now."

"But on the Revelation Day, when you all revealed yourselves to the world? They said you were Restriit? Is that right?"

"Yes," the Supergod says, looking back at his guest: "I am he. The Abyss and its keeper. If my brother, Hoosk, is the fount of all? Then I am its termination. I take energy, possibility, and knowledge, and then I turn them into entropy, entrapment, and ignorance. I am the devouring black pit that awaits all effort and endeavor, in time. The place where all comes to an end, and the one who watches as it all falls down. Prison and jailer, but yet also prisoner."

"And is that why you're always on about getting free?" Abdullah asks, miming shackles on his arms: "Is that hope on your part?"

"Perhaps," the older fellow chuckles: "But in a larger sense it is my gift to you."

"A gift?"

"Yes," Mister Freedom says, gesturing to the spectacle before them: "My sister-brother, Rosi, teaches you to let go of your fears and embrace passion. My brother Sphyne breaks down the barriers of sleep, and allows you to dream as one, there to find the mysteries you have been denied. My sister Syphon takes the products of your love and transfers them, either to others or to herself, so that life may be continued. And brother Satanoth removes the mystery from death, so that those who stand at his door can be comforted, or at least less confused.... and so on."

"So you... do what? Put on a philosophical lecture disguised as a magic show?"

"As I said, I help people realize who and what they are," the older man says.

"Even though you didn't know who you were for... what, almost 50 years?"

"Oh, less and more than that," the supergod chuckles: "We were with you as we were, once upon a time. And then a horrible thing was done to us by those who feared us, done by the Word of the God that rightly claims dominion over all. Reality was changed around us, not once but several times. And the last time it was changed I was remade into that person, that function."

"And now you're what... both?"

"I supposed you could say so. Once upon a time, when termination was all I knew, and my duty was all, I needed no prodding. It was my task, and my place, and I was happy to do it."

 "Did being away from it all make you change your outlook?"

"In a way, yes," the man says, looking with some interest as a number of couples nearby screw themselves into a giant knot of flesh: "But what really happened is that I saw my task was not truly imprisonment, but conversion. I took that remained and collapsed it so that it might be formed anew in my brother's hands.

"And once I understood that, I understood that my task was truly a paradox. I was destroying things in order to create things anew. I was jailing people to set them free of what put them there in the first place."

"And a paradox is where we find the truth," Abdullah says, nodding: "So why the interest in me, then? If you want me as a follower, I already have a God. And, as you pointed out, he does have dominion over all, including me."

"He does, yes," the supergod says: "And he still would, if you took my offer. You would just be approaching prayer from a different perspective."

"As what?"

"As something akin to an angel, perhaps," Mister Freedom says: "Or a demon, if you look at it a different way."

"I don't understand," Abdullah says, feeling the hackles rise on the back of his neck: "What... what in the name of Allah are you suggesting? That I become... what? One of you?"

"Yes," the supergod says: "In a sense, that is exactly what you'd be doing. You would be me. I would be you. We would continue on as one, in some ways, and yet more than one."

"Merde," the young man says, trying to get to his feet: "That's crazy. Insane! Do you know-"

"Let me explain this to you," Mister Freedom says, holding out a hand: "Let me say this much, and then you can decide."

"Casse-toi!" Abdullah shouts: "I am sick of you cons manipulating me! I am sick of having my mind played with! I want my life back!"

"Please," the old man says, and something about how he says it makes Abdullah stop moving. Was that genuine pleading?

Is that a tear in his eye?

"One more thing, then," the young man says: "And then I am gone."

"Give me one week to show you what I want to show you," the supergod says: "Seven days. If you decide to leave me, then, I will not only trouble you no more, but I will be forever at your beck and call. I, or who I become, will forever be your servant, so long as nothing you ask for in any way harms another. Can we agree to that?"

Abdullah blinks. Once, then twice.

Slowly, he nods, feeling the weight of what he's just agreed to only as it sinks in: "Alright. I am listening."

"Some time ago, even before the Revelation Day, I knew I was missing something," Mister Freedom says: "There was one paradox I could not solve. One trap I could not escape. And though I say it took me some time to realize what it was, the truth was that I knew all along. I was just scared to take that leap."

"Your own death?" Abdullah guesses.

"Yes," the older fellow says, smiling: "Life is, itself, a prison. Death is what sets us free. To solve that puzzle would truly make me the master of my realm. But I could not simply die, for then my realm would also die."

"And nothing would ever decay again," the young man says, imaging a world where nothing festered or decomposed, and deciding he didn't like the sound of that -- at all.

"And nothing could be created, either," the supergod adds: "For my abyss fuels Hoosk's hands. All innovation and effort would be stillborn. Your world would become a grey and stagnant place where everyone simply was, but could ascend no higher."

"That's... terrifying," Abdullah says: "So you would have to die, but not die?"

"A paradox," Mister Freedom says, nodding: "And a damned good one at that. First I thought I needed to find a protege. But then, after Revelation Day, I realized I needed more than that. I needed someone to become me, as I would become them after my death."

"And this is possible?"

"Oh yes," the old man says, smiling: "In fact, Shift has already done it at least once that we know of. It's hard to tell with him, as he's never the same person from meeting to meeting."

"I see," Abdullah sighs, looking around: "So I stay with you for a week? I walk in footsteps, see your job, see if I want it?"

"Oh no," the old man says: "You could never hope to see the job until it's upon you. There's too many angles to it. Too many layers of complexity. You'd just have to accept the concept."

"And in the meantime, what am I doing?"

"Well, you're solving a puzzle," Mister Freedom smiles, getting up: "Case in point, 'who are you?' And 'why are you here?'"

"Can I phone a friend?" Abdullah jokes, not caring to rise just yet.

"In a sense," the older fellow says, looking down at the pit, and then pointing into it: "But not today."

Abdullah follows the line of his finger. At its end, standing in the middle of the pit, is someone he hasn't seen in years, except in stock photographs and footage of how badly the Terre Unifee !@#$ed up.

It's Foudre Blanc, standing there amidst the revelers as they dance, drink, and screw. He's in his uniform, somewhere between standing and leaning -- like a marionette whose strings are half-cut.

And his face is skeletal and pale, caught in a silent scream...

"Merde!" Abdullah screams. But no sooner do the words leave his mouth than the spectre has vanished.

"The dragon at the end of the quest, I think," the supergod says, holding out a hand: "Now, we should  leave. My sister-brother is on Hir way here, now. And if we stay, you may be enticed into something you might not want to do."

"Yes," Abdullah Ismail says, taking the old man's hand. As he does, he sees that the girl he was snuggling with on the bus is sitting in a corner on the steps, crying and alone.

He wants to reach out to her, but then there's a weird feeling, like they're standing on the edge of a very deep pit he can only feel rather than see.

And then they're gone.

And then-
 

Sunday: 8/23/15 

-the ship it's coming towards that thing that thing it's the size of Jupiter even larger causing all kinds of strange gravity !@#$ups and big damn disturbances I can hear the sun screaming behind me as it comes terrified the sun is !@#$ing terrified by this thing that's how !@#$ing bad it is-

- okay now do it do it everybody open fire and pray it works just a distraction but pray it works pray to god to Allah to Vishnu to the World to whatever and whoever you need to !@#$ing pray to just call and pray the gods are listening or we are so damn !@#$ed right now-

-I can hear the voice of the thing as it comes closer the droning horrible call of nothing the sight of nothing the sound of nothing the being of nothing the Hellmouth the Ragnarok the Decreator the ((UNINTELLIGIBLE CONCEPT)) and it's right here right the !@#$ in front of me-

- oh god oh god not working not even slowing down what the !@#$ someone get hold of Night Phantom is he still out there oh he is good tell him Operation Eclipse is on that's right it's !@#$ing on toss that weird-ass star-thing out and tell it this is how it earns parole in 50 years just pump out all the power it can and then you hit it and you both hit it in the same place at the same time in the same spot and pray its enough just enough to-

- no nonononononononononono !@#$ !@#$ !@#$ on a stick up my ass with a !@#$ing oh god what the hell are we going to do now I think we just !@#$ing made it mad what's next oh god the VR it's breaking down I can hear people screaming all over the ship I can wait what's that what the hell is that it sounds like something's coming through from the other side of the Zero Room what the -

- oh god my god why have you forsaken me was it the Katooeys I'm sorry about the ladyboys I'm sorry about the drinking and whoring and making booze out of people's severed heads and the lies and the murder and the things I did to keep the world from falling apart and keep America on top of the heap I tried I didn't know I was stupid and prideful and oh wait wait wait we planned for this-

- yes, everyone get out get the !@#$ out someone call Night Phantom and tell him to try and swallow it the !@#$ up yes just like that no it won't work but !@#$ing try oh we can't raise him well !@#$ never mind then he's gone just like Brightstarsurfergirl and the Venusian fleet and the Martian fleet and the Dignitary and it's just us just the few of us still alive-

"Uhhhhh..." the patient groans, turning in his sleep and shaking his bandaged head from side to side.

"Um, I think he might be waking up," the nurse at the night station says, looking at the screen and his vitals.

"Should we do anything?" one of the others says.

"No," the doctor on call says: "Not at all. Just let him rest"

"But I thought-"

"I think otherwise," the doctor says: "Last time he partially woke up he put three people in the hospital. We just let him wake up fully on his own. That's it."

"But his boyfriend said-"

"He's built to take that kind of punishment. We aren't. End of story."

"Alright then," the nurse says, continuing to watch as Mt. Sinai's star patient shudders and whispers in his half-sleep, remembering something his observer should be damn glad to have no idea about.

* * *

Across the city, in Queens, the assassin known as Red Queen checks a dead drop she used when she was known as Whisper, and finds the letter. 

She reads it, and her heart stops -- not once, but twice.

"You son of a !@#$," she says to her gun: "You never told me... why didn't you tell me?"

Hǫfuð gives an answer that only she can hear. It makes enough sense that she accepts it, for now. 

And then she decides to accept something else -- the penalty for insubordination

* * *
(Chat Transcription follows)

14:34 + Do you have the material we discussed?

14:35 - I do. It's not in the greatest of shape, given its provenance. But it's mostly intact.

14:35 + What do you mean by "mostly?"

14:38 - I mean that it's been removed from the surrounding brain matter by someone who was slicing its former owner into sashimi. There is going to be some damage. And you will never really know how it fit into the overall structure, now.

14:40 + That is disappointing. 

14:41 - Yes, but it's also the best chance you have of seeing how this man's powers worked from a vivisectionist's point of view. Do you want it or not?

14:43 + A deal's a deal. But we're taking 2.5 million off the price.

14:43 - You can't do that.

14:46 + Yes we can, you little paska. By the time you approach anyone else, and they vet you, your employers will be onto your disappearing act. And if you say no, we'll be the ones who turn you in. 

14:47 - You Schweinebacke! 

14:50 + The next thing you say needs to be "yes, I will agree to the lesser price and deliver the specimen in the way we agreed"

14:55 -  Yes, I will agree to the lesser price and deliver the specimen in the way we agreed.

14:56 + Ihana. We will see you there.  And do not disappoint us further. 

 (Chat Transcription ends) 

* * *

In the Peace House, just south of the Panmunjom truce village, the delegations of North and South Korea sit down at the long table, once more, to try and resolve the crisis. 

To try and avert another true, full war.

As they discuss, and argue, and cajole one another, they are observed. 

They cannot see their observers. The cameras are too small to be seen by the naked eye, nor can they be detected or scanned for. 

On the other side of those tiny cameras are screens. Many of them are now lit up in a large, glass room in a tower, halfway around the world. 

In a large, tall office at the top of that tower -- one with walls and sloping roof made of sheer glass -- is a simple desk made of gold.

At that desk sits a large, middle-aged woman, dressed like some aging hippie. She's watching the screens she knits, weaving out something long and intricate. 

Over by the western window stands Seranu, resplendent as ever in a loudly purple business suit. He's drinking ambrosia from a crystal goblet that whispers to him with each sip. 

"So, my lovely sister-wife," he says, after some time: "Blessed Kanaan, weaver of the fates of men. Tell me truly, tell me wholly. Will it be peace, or will it be war?"

She doesn't even turn in his direction. She looks at the sweat on the South Korean delegation's brows, the stupid looks on their Northern cousins' faces. 

And when she gives her answer, he's not at all surprised, nor disappointed.

He just is, and takes it under consideration as he weighs what to do next.

(SPYGOD is listening to REALiTi (Grimes) and having a Chumchurum

Monday, August 17, 2015

Dis-Integration: 8/10/15 to 8/16/15

"Your Words Recall to Mind / Your Short Sweet Life"
Chinmoku, Red Wrecker, Shining Guardsman, Hanami
Myron, Mr. USA, Red Queen, Yanabah, Blastman
(Art by Dean Stahl)
  
  
* * *

51

* * *

Monday: 8/10/15

"Good evening America. I'm Randolph Scott. And This... Is Bull!@#$.

"The big news this week has horrifying hair, an ego that won't quit, and a sizable percentage of the Republican vote in his hip pocket after last week's debate on FOX News.

"In a nation that clearly desires glitz and glamor over sense and substance, Donald Trump's undeniably shallow, bombastic, and at-times offensive performance has made him the undisputed leader of the GOP race. However, as more candidates drop out, and the field gets more serious, Trump's inability to actually answer questions and give specifics about his plans will no doubt hurt his chances of securing the nomination.

"That said, Trump has delineated one of his plans. He's said that, should he fail to get the GOP nomination, he'll just run third party. I guess if you're worth billions it really is nothing to break your own toys and go home?

"But in a nation that's tossed out the Electoral College, what does that even mean?

"As of today, there's no less than twenty third parties vying for pre-election media attention. Some of them are splits from the Republican and Democratic party, and I'm sure most of you know of the Greens and the Libertarians. But there are a lot more to contend with, both old and new, and from all edges of the spectrum, running the gamut from principled splitters to the genuine lunatic fringe.

"And, thanks to the new campaign laws, you're going to get to see their ads, and will hear the top ten eventual nominees duke it out on primetime.

"It almost reminds this reporter of California's special recall election of 2003, when 135 people vied to be the Governor. Now, there wasn't any real question that it would go to the late Arnold Schwarzenegger, but if there'd been a candidate with real star power, as opposed to, say, the also late Gary Coleman or Gallagher, who may as well be late, well... what might have happened then?

"So is Trump's brazen threat to make a new party a credible one? Or is he hoping to blackmail the party into accepting him by tacitly threatening to drag the yee-hah contingent of the GOP's voter base with him, thus weakening it just that much more?

"That question forms the backbone of our special report, tonight. There's word from within the party that, should Trump get the nomination, there may indeed be a split, only from the opposite direction. Word has it that the more "dignified" candidates will leave to form another, supposedly truer GOP.

"There's also talk of this hypothetical real GOP clustering around Interim President Quayle as a candidate, though he has expressly ruled out running for office once more. And, given how deftly his long-promised Human Life Amendment -- hoped by many within the American Right to be the defining achievement of his interim Presidency -- was all but scuttled by a Supergod with powers over human fetuses, late last week...?

"Well, not running might not be such a bad idea, Mr. Quayle. Unless it's back to whatever bunker you sat and hid in while the Imago were killing your allies, friends, and fellow-travelers.

"Or did you think we !@#$ing forgot about all that?

"We'll have more on that, along with an update on reports of people attempting to engineer a race war in Ferguson, signs of lingering official racism within the heart of the New European Union, a look at the latest environmental red alerts...

"...and this just in! Accusations of a cover-up of the death of one of the strategic talents involved in destroying the Decreator, just over a year ago. Apparently, the French hero known as Disparaitre was found dead in his Parisian apartment, yesterday, under circumstances that are being billed as 'highly mysterious.' No one wants to comment on whether it was suicide, murder, substance abuse, or natural causes, and the French authorities have apparently cleared and closed down the entire apartment building, citing 'environmental hazards'...?

"...

"We'll have more on that, plus 'What Would Jello Do?' with San Francisco's own Jello Biafra, later in the show.

"All happening tonight, on This Is Bull!@#$ -- the only real, live news program left in America."

* * *

"What the actual !@#$, Helga?" Randolph says, coming off the set and into the camera pit as one of his readers comes on to talk small stuff before one of the big stories can be read: "He's dead?"

"Yes, he is," she says, shivering: "But I just got more information while you were reading it. And..."

"And what?"

"Well, it's hard to tell," she admits, trying to make herself heard over the audio and the news coming in: "FAUST and the COMPANY do not get along. And as Disparaitre was liaised with the COMPANY during the effort to save Earth, well, he was something of a football between the two agencies. I think that's the word."

"That works," Randolph says: "So, a lot of cross chatter? Back and forth?"

"And in that back and forth... it was not suicide. It was murder."

"Murder? How the !@#$ do you kill a teleporter like that?"

"I do not know. But it was messy. And it took time. And they think it is the same person who killed the First Lady of the Terre Unifee, two and a half years ago."

Randolph Scott blinks -- once, then twice. Then he slowly nods.

"Get Velma to read for me," he says, taking off his mike: "I'm getting on the horn."

"I thought you might say that," the Toon says, walking by and grabbing the object out of his hands: "And I've already taken the liberty of scrubbing your gratuitous hyperbole."

"Yeah, !@#$ you, too," he says, giving her a quick kiss and then booking it back to his office.

"Should I hold on a story for an update?" Helga asks as he goes.

"No," he shouts back: "If this is what I think it is, and it probably is, I'm going to be out for a while."

Inside his office, behind a large picture of Nixon being marched out of the White House, is a huge, triple-locked safe. Inside that safe is a bulky, black bag that houses his travel kit. Inside that kit is everything he needs to uncover a story, bust it open, and report it: laptop full of cracker software; cameras of every size; bugs and recorders; lockpicks and decoders; bribe money in several currencies.

And guns, guns, guns.

"'Go big or go home,'" he says to himself, making a call to a friend who can smuggle his ass into France -- hopefully as soon as tomorrow. If he gets there any later than that the ragged edges of the story will start to vanish on him. The witnesses will circle their wagons, the sources will have found their exclusive marks, and it'll be that much harder to persuade the truth out of them.

Time is not on his side, right now, and all he can hope for is to get there before fact turns into fiction...

Tuesday: 8/11/15

To his credit, New Man had taken the news about Disparaitre as well as one could expect someone in his position to handle it -- which is to say, better than he took the news about his son, but not without quickly regaining his direction and resolve.

"This changes things," he'd told Josie after a few moments of staring out the Flier's windows, down at DC: "I want everyone here in 48 hours to talk assignments and strategy. How long until he's buried?"

"I think they're making arrangements for this Saturday," she'd said, checking her wristpad: "Yes. He's being interred at Père Lachaise."

"I thought there was a waiting list a mile long for that?"

"They've got an open space for their heroes, sir," she replied, smiling: "Kind of like our area in Arlington, over by the Torchbearer."

"Good," he said, smiling a little: "He deserves that."

That was all he'd said before going back to looking out the window, and she'd wisely allowed him some space to process. It wasn't every day you had to deal with not only the fact that your long-missing son might not only be alive, but also be engaged in superscience terrorism. But that whoever killed the former Second Lady of the USA may have just assassinated one of the most powerful strategic talents on the planet -- right under their noses, no less -- and that the former President had apparently been on the scene to call it in?

Well, that took some handling, to say the least.  Dealing with his son's apparent defection, and association with this "Metal Plague" would have been hard enough, but at least it would have been fairly straightforward. Disparatre's death was going to be anything but. 

48 hours later, right on the dot, and Josie's standing at New Man's side as he looks down at every Strategic Talent, analyst, and specialist the COMPANY has on hand -- with a few notable exceptions -- and reads the shock and confusion on their faces as he finishes giving them his report.

"I know this all sounds incredible," he says, raising a hand before the murmurs turn into actual questions: "It also sounds pretty daunting. But we've put out bigger fires and handled worse crises. As long as we remember we're a team, and act like it, we can lick anything this crazy world wants to throw at us."

There are nods and the occasional "yes" whispered out there. It's all he needs to see.

"So this is the way it is," he says: "This is the closest we've been to this monster in more than two and a half years, and we are not letting him go this time. From this point forward, all principal action, goes towards finding our friend's killer.

"All other cases, except for those marked Ultra-One or Triple Black, become secondary until further notice. There will be some exceptions, of course, but if you don't hear directly from me or Second in the next hour, I want you working an angle on this.

"Case in point -- Hanami," he says, pointing to the android who's floating above the front row, right behind the majority of the Freedom Force: "You and your team will continue looking into this Purple Demon situation. If we're right about this, it could go critical at any time, and I want you all ready to deal with it."

"Yes sir," she says, snapping a very smart salute. If she's sad or disappointed, she does not show it.

"But make yourselves available to be in France for the funeral this Saturday, circumstances permitting. You're going to be our public faces there."

She nods, understanding that even if she can't feel it.

"And that's that, folks," Second says, stepping up as New Man steps back: "Your section leaders have your assignments. Get with them now, and get on them as of yesterday. I want hourly progress reports on my pad from all sections. Do not make me come asking for them!"

That gets people's butts moving with a purpose. She tries not to smile, at least until she turns around and looks at New Man.

"Well said, Josie," he says, looking at his own wristpad: "Now, we've got a hacked preliminary autopsy and forensic examination to go over..."

"Sir," Red Queen says, stepping out of a nearby alcove, her huge, round goggles glittering in the dark: "I need to speak to you."

"Is this about your assignment?" Josie asks, stepping between the two of them: "If not, we're a bit busy-"

"I should be helping in the hunt, sir," she insists, looking up and past Second: "Not on some chicken!@#$ ticket run-"

"You mind your place, Agent," Josie snarls: "You've got an order to follow, you do it. We don't have time for theatrics right now."

"Josie, go ahead," New Man says, nodding at his Second: "I think Red Queen and I need to talk."

"Yes, sir," she says, giving Red Queen one more withering look before heading away to their impending meeting.

"Sir, please," Red Queen all but begs as soon as Josie's out of sight: "He was my friend. I owe him to help in this."

"Yes, you do," he says, nodding: "But you've got an order, too, soldier. And I know you know which is more important."

"Yes, sir," she says, trying not to sigh: "But this one... I mean, it'll keep."

"Is that what you think?" New Man says, maybe a little more sternly than necessary: "Because I think we paired you up with this situation because it's the sort of mission that needs you on it. And that means it's a mess that needs cleaning up, preferably with a bullet the size of a baby's head. Do you disagree with that assessment, Agent?"

"No, sir," she says, standing at firm attention. If he's calling her "agent" instead of "soldier" she has clearly pissed him off.

"So when you say it'll keep, what you really mean is-"

"Sir, with respect, I get the picture," she says: "Let's not drag this out any further than it has to go."

He blinks, and then scowls: "Oh no, Agent. You opened the door, I'm walking through it. You have a problem with that?"

"No, sir."

"Good," he says, putting a hand on her shoulder: "Because I am not heartless. I know you two had a bond. I know that he didn't open up to a whole lot of people, either, and that makes that bond a special thing, worthy of avenging. You got no argument from me there.

"But right now, I need a plan to go forward and catch this !@#$er, and get him to talk before we make him pay. And to do that, I need cool, clear heads on this thing. I need the best analysis I can get. And I need them now.

"Now, be honest with me -- I mean really !@#$ honest. Do you think you can sit there, sifting through info until your brain's about to melt, looking for the needle in the haystack that's going to find this bastard? Or are you just going to sit there playing with that gun, feeling like you're helping, but not really helping at all?"

She sighs, nodding: "I'm... yes. Yes sir. I wouldn't be any help at all. I'm too angry and too focused on shooting him through each and every bone in his spinal column."

"As you should be," he says, taking the hand away: "That's your job. That's why we keep you here. And when the time comes to do it? You have my promise that you will be the one to take him down and out."

He extends a hand for her to shake, and looks at her intently: "Unless, of course, you'd rather keep lipping off to me, in which case I'll have them yank that gun out of your pocket and send you off to demob."

"Thank you, sir," she says, shaking the hand, and then saluting: "I'll go work on punching that ticket, sir."

"You do that, soldier," he says, saluting back: "And then hurry back. We'll have another ticket waiting for you."

"There's always one more ticket in the jar, sir," she says as she leaves, faking a smile.

And New Man watches her walk away, hoping to God he hasn't just made a big mistake by trusting her...

Wednesday: 8/12/15

"You let that Japanese bi help out?" Tubian shouts as he flies over the burning warehouses, changing the fire back into its elemental components, and then into water.

"Yes I did," Hong Lingxiu says from down on the ground, using his mental powers to command the fit to combat the fire, and urging the sick and wounded to leave the area as quickly as they can: "She was here, and she knows the face of our enemy."

"I don't trust her," their transmutationist mutters, his red tabard flapping around him as he soars above his work. But then he scowls as his attempts to put out the fire with water just make it worse.

The flames are burning too hot for this to work. He needs a better plan.

And before he can come up with one, he has to duck a hail of bullets, fired from some warbot on a nearby, burning warehouse.

The attack started just a half an hour ago, in Tianjin. Explosions rocked the industrial district of the port city, causing horrendous fires that have spread out of control.

And walking ahead of the waves of fire are large mobs of war robots, shooting as they come.

The People's Red Guard appeared on the scene as soon as they could, but soon got tied up trying to fight the seemingly-endless groups of warbots rather than the fire. Thankfully, the Japanese android from America's Freedom Force soon arrived, and volunteered to deal with the robots so the others could help fight the fire.

They're just not having much luck with it, so far.

"We could use some help, here!" Hong Lingxiu shouts into his communicator, barely able to control as many people as he's commanding right now: "Hong Ying? Shouwei? Xunsu Shibing?"

"I can bring my people in fairly quickly, if you would like!" Hanami shouts as she smashes group after group of warbots, her eyes glowing each and every time another line of them falls down, smoking and sparking: "They're in Seoul! I can have the fliers here in minutes-"

"I think we've had enough of your meddling for one day," some snarly voice tells her as he runs past almost too quickly to see, knocking over dozens more robots as he goes: "We can handle this."

"Don't be prideful!" she castigates the voice: "If you want to be helpful, find the machine that's making these robots and put it out of action!"

The speedster doesn't have anything to say about that, but she gets the idea he's decided it's a good idea, and headed off to comply.

A few moments later, Tubian has the bright idea of turning the oxygen into something that won't burn. He's working on the exact chemical compound as another explosion comes -- this one from the very center of the disturbance.

"Hey, I found the machine!" the speedster says: "But it's boobytrapped. I'll try to attack it from a different angle-"

More explosions. A haunting, horrible scream. Someone shouts a name that Hanami doesn't quite get.

The rest is a chain reaction of fires and explosions -- one that increases almost exponentially as the number of robots decreases.

* * *

Some time later, when the normal rescue squads have gotten the horrible mess under some semblance of control, Hanami stands in front of the melted slag that was once a Metal Plague machine, and does her best to search for information. 

"He was twenty," someone tells her. She turns and sees a young man in a very stylized Chinese army uniform -- one with bronze pads of armor in strategic locations. 

"I do not understand," she says.

"Xunsu Shibing!" the young man shouts, the bronze pads growing and lengthening as he does: "The man you ordered into the fire! He was only twenty and now he is dead! And you-"

"And she made the correct decision, Shouwei," Hong Lingxiu says, appearing from seemingly nowhere, his white, long robe flapping about as he walks: "The machine had to be destroyed. The menace had to be contained. He gave his life for our people, as was his duty. He should be showed respect, not argued over."

"I'll do more than argue with this riben gou-"

"Enough!" the middle-aged man shouts, and the sound of his voice makes the younger man stand perfectly still, shivering as if afraid: "Leave here now and await my command!"

"I hope you can forgive him," Hong Lingxiu says as the young man walks away from them, as if in a dream: "He is young and proud, and he and Xunsu Shibing were great friends. This is a terrible thing."

"It is," Hanami says, looking around: "No evidence remains. I came here too late to learn more. And now, it is certain this will happen at least once more."

The leader of the People's Red Guard raises a long eyebrow at that remark: "I was referring more to the loss of life."

"Yes, you were," the android says, kicking one of the warbots' heads some distance away in frustration: "My concerns are more strategic at this point. I will leave you to mourn your dead."

"You know, I met you, once before," the man says before she can leave: "It was many years ago. Decades, even. I was young, and another commanded this organization."

"I remember," she says, trying to hide her annoyance: "He kept trying to put his hand on my ass."

"Yes," Hong Lingxiu coughs into his fist: "He was a troubled man. You have my apologies for his behavior-"

"Is there a point to this memory, Hong Lingxiu?" Hanami asks, still not turning to look at him: "Because I also remember that your organization was late to the battle. Even the Koreans arrived before you did, and they hate us. And I remember that my people took the majority of the damage, and suffered the highest losses.

"And when it was all over, you all just nodded, bowed, and left without saying a word, as though you were stars on a stage and the show was over."

"I was just going to say that when we fought together, against the foe of that day? I was both amazed and made glad by your innocence and kindness. You were a ray of light in a dark hour, lighting the way to victory. And I was very glad of that light."

She turns, then, if only to glower at him: "Do you want to see me light up, again? Is that it?"

"No, of course not. I only mean to say that something happened to you in space, Hanami. You have changed, and in changing you have lost more than you have gained. If I were you, I would find it again."

"If I were you, I'd ask your Ministry of State Security what they know about these machines," she says, turning to go: "And given that you can do more than ask...?"

With that, she flies away, leaving him speechless.

On the way back to Seoul, she thinks of who all she lost, up there.

Brightstarsurfergirl, immolated by that thing.

Dr. Fuller, killed by its stare.

Mr. Chaos, lost while keeping them safe in its innards.

Dr. Heila, turned into something truly horrible.

(And Night Phantom was... what, absorbed by a god? Is that the word for it?)

And Faraj? Where was he? Where was that incredible, impossible man who took a broken, young girl and made her a woman, again?

"Of all the things I lost in space, I miss my heart the least," she mutters to herself, wondering where complete strangers get off telling her how to feel.

Thursday: 8/13/15
 
 "I'm trying to be nice about this, gentlemen," Abdullah Ismail says, wondering how much trouble he'd be in if he just started hitting them: "But my answer is still no. And you need to leave."

"Please, be reasonable," the well-dressed and bulbous representative from the NEU says, not making any moves to get up from Abdullah's kitchen table, which is stacked high with piles of Le Front de L'Espoir literature. 

"I am. I'm asking you both nicely."

"Look, can't you see you're the best person for this?" the man says, looking from Abdullah to the middle-aged, black Englishman who's come with him -- the one in the black suit, monocle, and bowler hat who isn't saying much of anything, preferring to stand and observe in silence.

"How so?" the young man asks, only mildly interested. Maybe this answer will be different from the others he's gotten, thus far.

"You see, France needs heroes. Now more than ever, especially since we've lost this latest fellow. And the heroes we need... we need French heroes who look like France. Modern France, in all its colors and creeds... and... um..."

"Religions," Abdullah says, trying not to sigh: "And I'm just the token Muslim you need to round out the roster?"

"I think that's rather harsh, young man."

"I think it's the truth," the man says, tapping his fingers on the table. Two and a half years after the attack and they still haven't really healed up. On good days he thinks it's Allah using his wounds to further the cause.

On bad days they just hurt.

They tried to shut him up -- they did. They all but acknowledged that the late Foudre Blanc used him as a punching bag for no reason, and then demanded he keep quiet about it in exchange for his freedom. When he called merde on that, they had him followed and harassed, at least for as long as the Terre Unifee lasted.

And when all that was over, and the full and shameful extent of the TU's partnership with racist organizations like the Front Nationale was exposed? And when their sinister plan to leave Earth to the mercy of that space monster was front page news all over the world?

Well, the new government had bent over backwards to try and apologize, and make it up to him. Abdullah always got the feeling they were more engaged in damage control than actual contrition.

So now that Le Front de L'Espoir was larger than ever, and Abdullah was telling his story to packed halls of young Beurs -- all incredibly disgusted and angry at what happened, and why -- here was the new government, making him an offer that was both strangely generous and extremely grotesque.

They wanted him to become the new Foudre Blanc.

"Look, I don't see why this would be so hard for you to understand," the man says, still not moving to get up and leave: "Your cooperation would be a massive boon for all involved! We would finally show that this new France is moving forward! That a sense of reconciliation had been achieved..."

"Look, this is what you don't seem to understand," Abdullah sighs, trying to explain one last time: "Even if I wasn't a pacifist? Even if I did know anything about the law, other than how to avoid looking like I'm breaking it when I'm just walking down the wrong street for a Beur to be on? That suit, that name... it's poisoned."

"How so?" the man in the bowler hat asks, finally deigning to speak. He speaks French with the kind of upper-class accent Abdullah normally associates with BBC shows involving English playwrights.

"Because it's a symbol of evil, mssr. It stands for oppression masquerading as the law. It stands for racism masquerading as justice. All the things our country stands for -- liberty, equality, brotherhood? It takes those ideas and smears them with merde. 

"I know these things, gentlemen. I have been a victim of them, both in general and in person. I was beaten to a pulp by the person who wore that suit, jailed for supposedly being a terrorist, and then while I was there someone tried to turn me into a hateful madman so I would fit his story!

"And you have the nerve to come here, to my place, and ask me to wear the same mask that my people have come to hate and fear? The same costume that once send our children fleeing into the night, more scared of him than of any criminal?"

"Well... we could change the name," the Frenchman says, coughing: "Possibly also the shape of the suit, so long as we maintain the color symbolism. We already have a rouge and a bleu-"

"How about Foudre Noir?" Abdullah spits: "That's what you really want, isn't it?"

"Now, please-"  

"Ta gueule!" He finally snaps, pounding his still-crooked fist down on the table, rattling the coffee mug he was sipping from before these official lackwits came around: "What do I look like? Some kind of moron?"

"You look like an angry young man," the English fellow says, adjusting the bowler hat on his head: "A victim of the previous government's regrettable policies, not to mention the rather execrable social environment that's been allowed to fester too long within this country. And so long as you continue to be an angry young man, you will achieve next to nothing except for fomenting more anger in your wake."

"So what should I do, then?" Abdullah asks, rising up to look the man in the eye: "Lick the shoe of the man who steps on me?"

"Of course not," the man says, smiling: "You should wear the shoe."

"Get out," Abdullah says, weakly: "Just please leave."

"Are we... yes, we're done here," the man from NEU says, getting up and finding his own hat: "I am very sorry we could not come to an arrangement, young man. Perhaps you will change your mind?"

"I will not," Abdullah says, not about to hobble to the door to show them out: "And if you send anyone else? I will forget I'm a pacifist. Or I'll have someone here to kick your con!"

They have the good sense to leave after that. The man from BOWLER can't resist tipping his hat and saying "Au revour, mssr," on the way out, but he doesn't stay along longer than necessary in doing so.

Abdullah Ismail doesn't bother to get up and lock the door. No one comes here, anyway, unless they're friends or idiots from the government.

"Why?" he asks Allah: "Are they really that stupid?"

God has nothing to say about that. But he also has no balm for Abdullah's soul in regards to what that man from BOWLER said about his achieving nothing.

Because it's true -- every !@#$ word of it.

He wanted to raise awareness by sharing his story, but all he seems to have done is made people angry. The more he tries to channel that anger into positive action and change, the more people want to march and protest.

And the more he tries to tamp it down, the more people he loses to more extreme philosophies...

He feels trapped in this Hell of his own making. He wishes he could go back and not have said anything about what happened to him. Just leave his disappearance and run-in with the law as another murky mystery from the end of the TU -- one of far too many.

But it's too late for that now. And now he has to taste his own foolishness, as his grandfather would have said.

"You'd know what to do, Abu," he whispers, reaching for his coffee -- doubtlessly cold by now. But his fingers brush something else, instead.

It's a small, grey box -- a cube, four inches to a side, and quite solid from the looks of things. He's not sure if it's metal, ceramic, or plastic, but when he picks it up it's both more and less heavy than he thought it might be.

And he gets the sense there's something inside of it...

He sees there's something written on the bottom, in a small, cramped hand:

  Every Prison Is A Puzzle, And Every Puzzle A Prison.

Solve It And See Me.

R.

For a moment, Abdullah thinks of that !@#$ty British horror movie a friend made him watch, a long time ago. But the more he turns the box this way and that -- and the more he wonders how the !@#$ it got here -- the more he thinks he wants to find a way to open this seemingly-solid object, if only to show whoever left it here that he can actually achieve something.

It would be nice to feel like he wasn't beating his head against a wall...

Friday: 8/14/15

"No, I don't care what he says," Director Straffer tells the harried staffer at Mt. Sinai's Cybernetic Prosthesis Surgery, just outside the door of their secure wing's star patient: "He gets three meals a day. Shove it up his ass if you have to."

"Well, it's just that... he is rather strong," the fellow says. As if to illustrate this, there's a loud crash from inside the room, followed by a bout of cursing that could make paint peel.

"He's also sleeping most of the day, and out of his mind the rest of it," he says: "How hard can it be?"

"He's rather determined when he's out of his mind."

"Don't I know it," Straffer sighs, handing the man a wad of bills: "And this is for bribing people to do their jobs. Understood?"

"Yes sir," the man says, pocketing it as discretely as possible and nodding: "I'll get my best people on it. Immediately."

"See that you do," the patient's lover says, taking one last look at the doors: "If he's still that gaunt the next time I come here? I'm going to shove something up your ass, only it won't be nutritious. Got it?"

And then he stomps off before the guy can say anything more.

(A weird role reversal. The last time Straffer was here, undergoing surgery, SPYGOD was the one doing the threatening. Now he's here, getting help for his many physical problems, and Straffer's the one having to muscle his way around the corridors.)

"The things we do for love..." he sings, chuckling in spite of the situation.

"Sir?" someone in a COMPANY uniform says, walking up to him and saluting-- young man, somewhat fey, hair frosted pink: "I'm Agent Hammond. COMPANY liaison with the Space Service."

"Good to meet you," Straffer says, shaking his hand before the man can salute him again "Are you handling arrangements for the funeral, then?"

"I am, sir," the man says, walking for the exit along with him: "I need to know if there's anyone else from your delegation going?"

"The only other person who knew him is my second in command, and he needs to stay down in Pontianak while I'm away. So it'll just be me paying my respects."

"Okay, that makes things a little easier," the man says, tapping notes on his wrist pad: "The Director has asked if you'd be willing to stand alongside the Freedom Force, rather than being on your own?"

"Oh? Well I'd be honored," Straffer says, genuinely touched: "Who all is making it that would have known him from the Egress? I'm not up on who's in the team these days."

"Well, I'm not sure who all on the team knew him from before. But all we've got up and running right now is Hanami. Underman's still being a sorry, useless drunk, somewhere in Washington state."

"A useless drunk?" the man asks, suddenly feeling his blood run cold, then hot.

"Yeah. He's holed up somewhere east of Bellingham, apparently. We drop by once a week when he can't see us, just to make sure he's okay and no one's !@#$ed with him. Apparently it's pretty !@#$ sad."

"Did they tell you what happened up there... Hammond, was it?" Straffer asks, slowing his step just a little, and moving a little closer to his liaison.

"Well, I read the reports, sir-"

"!@#$ the reports, Agent," the man says, rather abruptly: "I was there. I survived. And the only reason I survived is because of that useless drunk."

"Yes, sir," Agent Hammond says, realizing he's in the !@#$, now.

"And also? The only reason that mission succeeded at all? Him. He made things that gave us a fighting chance. And when the ship was burning he's the one who got us into that thing and took us out again."

"Yes, sir-"

"No. You don't affirmative your way out of this," Straffer says, putting a finger in the man's face: "Because I'm going to tell you something else. That man has saved the world twice, now. Once from the Imago. Twice from the Decreator. And I'm willing to bet you that the next time we need him? He'll do it again."

Hammond almost says 'yes sir,' again. Luckily for him, he says nothing at all.

"So you just remember that, Agent," Straffer says: "He's got his problems, yes, and maybe I don't agree with how he's dealing with them. But he gave his all to save this whole !@#$ planet.

"And if he needs to fall apart, right now? Then we're going to let him, and be glad he's still alive to do it. Got that?"

"Can I say 'yes, sir' now, sir?"

"Yes you may."

"Yes, sir. I'm sorry, sir. Will there be anything else, sir?"

"Yes there is, Agent. Next time I hear you call that man a sorry, useless drunk? I'll see you're demoted so quickly you don't even have time to blink before you're in housekeeping, scrubbing toilets for radioactive superheroes."

With that he walks away, turning only to add: "And be sure to tell the Director I said thank you for the offer, and I'll meet them at the funeral, tomorrow."

All the way to the airport he thinks of Myron. How he took the junk of three worlds and made everyone on board a personal VR unit. How he retooled his tunnelator to be able to handle the intense gravity fields of a space monster the size of a large planet.

And how he piloted that machine into and out of the insides of that thing, screaming as he held onto his sanity just long enough to get the survivors out before it all came down.

Survivors like his lover, still raging and broken from his own, horrible ordeal...

Saturday: 8/15/15

The thing that strikes me the most about Disparaitre's funeral? How staid it was. How antiseptic. 

Not a tear anywhere to be seen, at least for most of it. 

And at the end, well, I'm not a hundred percent !@#$ing sure what took place, there... Maybe because I'm really out of touch with my superhero politics since I wound up on the outside looking in. 

But yes, I was there. No, they did not see me. How and why that could have happened is a secret I'm taking with me, so don't ask. But I got a front-row seat to the whole !@#$ thing. 

Who was there? Pretty much everyone. And by everyone I mean everyone European. 

The French strategic talents they're trying to make into a winsome replacement for Les Trois Grandes, still missing a color. The weird English agency they call BOWLER, all wearing their eponymous hats, along with monocles and dark suits. The Union, with one hero from each member of the NEU. 

And, of course, FAUST was there. Agents everywhere, making no attempt to blend in whatsoever. It was their way of saying "!@#$ you -- we're in charge."

In some ways, this was their show. Even the Freedom Force, who came out to pay their respects, seemed dwarfed both by placement and numbers. There was also clearly some bad blood between them and FAUST, though it didn't erupt into anything more than long stares and grumbles.

And as for the Space Service, only one person came. Director Straffer, standing next to an empty chair meant for someone no one's seen anything of since he came back from space. 

SPYGOD, that is. Who should be here to say goodbye to the man who, more than anyone else, made the destruction of the Decreator a reality. 

And yet, still, there's no sign of him. Unless he was kidding about being able to see all...?

The eulogy is delivered by a man that most people outside of Europe have never even seen. He's German, maybe in his late 50's. Quite beefy and very grey. 

And his hands are made of silver. 

They say that he's the son of the former head of West Germany's strategic talents organization -- the one famous, or maybe infamous, for doing absolutely anything to stop Soviet incursion past the Iron Curtain. That man, rumored to be a missing Nazi war criminal, died sometime in this last year. His son, long groomed to replace him, has moved into his position, and seems to have either inherited or absorbed his powers. 

Word is that the old man and SPYGOD were allies, of a sort, and this facilitated a sense of cooperation and good feeling between the COMPANY and the other, nameless agency. That sense seems to have died with the old man, as his son's new agency, FAUST, has been openly hostile towards the COMPANY, and, by extension, the Freedom Force. 

This all makes for some !@#$ing interesting political theater. The eulogy is half remembrance, half celebration of his having been French. Having a German deliver such a speech is strange, given the history of the last century. 

Having that German not look at the guests from America once -- even when he briefly namechecks them -- is the ultimate snub. 

Eulogy delivered, people line up by row to walk by the grave and pay respects. They drop roses, notes, photographs, and occasionally just speak, or contemplate as quickly as they can before the rest of the line insists they move on. 

What's really interesting, though? At the very end, as there's hardly anyone there but FAUST agents and a few stragglers, the missing guests finally show up. 

Teleporters, seeming come to pay their last respects in private, except that their sudden appearance scares the !@#$ out of FAUST.

I recognize Anil and Skyspear. There's others I don't know, and maybe they're old faces in new masks, or entirely new talent. 

The second they appear, the FAUST agents all go ape!@#$ and start shouting orders. And that's when something really !@#$ strange happens. 

One of their number vanishes, just for a second. And the moment he comes back he's screaming in rage. 

"He's not here!" he shouts: "He's not here!"

And, at that note, they all leave.  

Clearly, something weird has happened with the man's body. Given the state they say it was in, this could be a logical thing. The investigation is still ongoing, after all. 

But on the other hand, this could be a sign that something has been done to Disparaitre's body.  Something really !@#$ing ugly. 

Something bearing sticking a big !@#$ gun under someone's nose to find out what. 

-- Randolph Scott, Père Lachaise., Paris


Sunday: 8/16/15

"Sir, I don't think you should see this," Jess Friend says as soon as the former American President gets back to the safehouse he keeps for him. 

"What is it this time?" he says.

"It's... oh god, it's not just what he sent," the man says, sighing and gesturing to a desk: "It's the letter he wrote. I found it in the dead drop along with... that..."

"He wrote us a letter?" the man says, blinking and heading over to the desk. Sure enough, there's a letter, there. Black envelope with white writing in a curving, looping hand.

The name of the person it's intended for. 

"I... I read it, first, sir," his servant says: "And... I threw up. I did. It's horrible."

"I'm sure," the man says, looking at it and then at the hermetically-sealed jar sitting next to it. The kind that can keep human tissue fresh and transplantable for years, if necessary.

Floating on the inside of it is a round, wrinkled, ringlike thing. It takes him a moment to realize exactly what it is.

And then, almost without intending to, he opens the letter and reads it.

Hello Mr. President.

Sorry it took so long to get this latest present to you. To tell the truth I was having to much fun with it that I didn't want to cut it out and send it to you. But a promise is a promise, and I can assure you she is going to miss this. 

But you know, the more I hurt her, the more she likes it?

Not that anyone likes colostomy bags, of course. But I genuinely think I'm winning her over, one night at a time. She used to struggle to stand at attention when I came into her room, and now she leaps up, almost eager to see what we'll do today. What new tricks I'll teach her. 

What new ways I'll make her bleed and ache. 

Of course, that gets harder to maintain the more I take things from her. Sooner or later she's just going to be a mute, blind stump. 

Sooner or later I'm going to have to cut more holes to fuck her in because I'll have taken everything else, or sewn it shut. 

Whether that happens or not depends on you, Mr. President. I thought we had an understanding. You would do well to keep to it. 

Remember -- I know what you're up to. I know where you go, who you meet, who you make deals with. There's nothing you can do or say that I won't hear about. And every time you do, well... 

Be Seeing You

ps: Now that your daughter's down a hole, I'm wondering how she'll look with an eyepatch. Just a thought!  

The former President scowls. Then he folds the letter back up carefully, puts it into the envelope, and places it on the desk.

To his credit, he doesn't throw up. He's too angry to be nauseated. Too furious at imagining what this evil copy of SPYGOD is doing to her daughter.

Too busy thinking of new ways to make him pay for this.

And too caught up in considering who he might need to talk to in order to make it happen as fast as possible.

* * *

Meanwhile, in Paris, after days of trying to open a box that simply will not open, Abdullah Ismail finally realizes he's going about it the wrong way. 

He puts the box down on the table. He takes a step back from it. And he says, rather loudly: "I can't open it with my hands, or my mind, or by speaking to it. And if I used tools, or smashed it, that would be incorrect.

"So maybe the box isn't what's supposed to open, here? You said a puzzle is a prison, and a prison a puzzle. Maybe the prisoner is supposed to figure something out in order to be free?

"Maybe I'm the one that's supposed to be opening, instead?"

The box doesn't answer him.

"Ah, it was too much to hope," Abdullah sighs, sitting back down in his chair and regarding the object: "Too simple a thing. Too philosophical."

But when he picks it back up to try it again, he notices two things:

1) It's not rattling, anymore. Whatever was inside is gone.

2) The writing has changed. 

Musee de la Magie. 

Three Days from Now.

Expect Nothing, See Everything.

R.
"Well then," Abdullah says: "Alhamdulillah."

Thunder booms outside his window, through a clear sky. He wonders if Allah is really to be praised for this, after all. 
 

(SPYGOD is listening to Eyes Be Closed (Washed Out) and having a Colon Brown Ale )