Monday, August 22, 2016

Apotheoclypse Now: 8/15/16 - 8/21/16

"Just a flame in the fire / Can hear the drums of fate / Reverberate"

(The Old Man and friends - many, many friends)

(Art by the Lemonade Project)

* * *
11
* * *

There's an art to this, he thinks as he watches the people below -- wondering who to kill, and when.

One of the most heavily-guarded places in the world and he just walked on in, smiling ear to ear.

He doesn't need to hide. No one can see him. 

He doesn't need to be quiet. All the noise and they'd never hear.

They have no idea he's there. None of them. 

And all he has to do is wait for the right moment...

His new friend explained it all to him, when he gave him this incredible gift. The thing he cradles in his hands.

So small a thing to be so dangerous, he thinks. But in his long and varied experience, it's often the little things that cause the most problems. 

So he smiles, and he watches. 

And he waits for the perfect moment to present itself...  



Monday: 8/15/16

"Alright, doc," SPYGOD says, tapping his high-heeled combat boot on the floor so loud it sounds like a gunshot: "Calm the !@#$ down. Take a deep !@#$ing breath. And tell me what's so !@#$ing important you had to call me at 3 in the goddamn AM to yabber-frabber at me over the !@#$ing phone."

"But... I've been telling you-"

"Then tell me again," the super spy insists, pointing through the observation window at the autopsy going on, below, in the haz-mat area: "And this time, make some !@#$ing sense! You sound like a pet monkey that found the booze and go-powder."

"But-"

"You know, that !@#$ing happened once. Hunter S. Thompson bought some damn monkey as a joke. I don't know what the !@#$ he was thinking, but one day he comes home from shooting his guns at hippies, and finds out the whole cabin is !@#$ing trashed. You know why?"

"Why...?"

"Because the damn monkey got bored, got out of the !@#$ing cage, brachiated through his goddamn rafters, opened his bedroom door, rifled through his !@#$, and found the big black box with all the goddamn drugs."

"Oh."

"Oh is goddamn right, doc. Hunter comes home, smells monkey !@#$, and just thinks the damn thing got out of its cage. But then he stomps to the bedroom and sees this poor thing flying all over the room, trailing piss and !@#$ behind it, throwing the !@#$ up, and so stoned, cranked, high, and down at once that its eyes were like big, red spirals."

"Well-"

"Took ten rounds to bring that !@#$ing thing down. Even then it lived on for a half hour, so jacked out of its !@#$ing skull that its body refused to tell its brain it was dead."

"..."

"Yeah, a real tragedy. I think about that monkey, sometimes. Like right !@#$ing now when I see a supposedly grown !@#$ing man running around, waving !@#$ in the air like you just don't !@#$ing care, and trying to tell me something goddamn important but making chitter jibber jabber noises instead!"

The doctor looks at the man. He takes another deep breath, nods. Puts the things in question down on the nearest available surface.

"Alright," he says, holding up his hands: "Let's... let's go a different direction. What can you tell me about the woman down there?"

"About Space Commander?"

"If that's the woman you pulled out of Lake Calumet? Then yes, sir."

"Jesus," SPYGOD thinks: "You want the !@#$ing Cliff Notes version, or-"

"That will do, sir," the doctor interrupts, wishing to god he had a real drink right about now.

"Okay then. Showed up in Chicago in 1927 or so. Had a spaceship, ray guns, force fields. Basically what you'd !@#$ing call Dieselpunk these days. Not that those days didn't have enough of that already."

"What else can you tell me about her?" he asks.

"She hung out with some Chi-town heroes for quite a while," he goes on: "The Owl, the Wraith. This one creepy !@#$er known as the Jester of Justice. And that Mister Future... well, let's not talk about that !@#$er..."

"Alright. But what about her?" the doctor presses: "Do you know how old she was? Where she came from? Anything like that?"

"She said she was 27 when The Owl met her," SPYGOD shrugs: "Sure seemed that way. Pretty good shape physically. Not !@#$ing crazy or off-balance, especially compared to some heroes I've dealt with."

"Did you ever meet her?"

"No," SPYGOD says, shaking his head and having a nip from a hidden flask: "I knew The Owl during the War, and we became real allies after it. By the time that happened she was long !@#$ing gone, though. Took off after the War, in fact. The whole group of Chicago heroes was gone by then, except for the Wraith. And... well, he's a special case."

The doctor nods: "What did she say she was? I heard she was a hero, but...?"

"Just a plucky gal inventor who wanted to !@#$ing fight crime, doc," the superspy says, going over to the window and looking down at her body -- being gently torn down to its component parts by man and machine: "Built a working flying saucer out of tractor parts, if you can !@#$ing believe that. So far ahead of us that it took us !@#$ing ages to reverse engineer what little she left behind. Even then, most of the !@#$ we got out of it was barely functional."

"So... as far as you know, she was born in 1900?" the doctor asks: "Just an American farm girl who somehow figured out scientific principles so far ahead of her time she once argued Albert Einstein to a standstill?"

"HA!" SPYGOD laughs, turning from the window: "That's !@#$ing right, doc. I'd forgotten about that. She even gave Doctor Yesterday a run for the money, now and again. Always challenging him to make a better future. What a gal."

The doctor nods, takes a deep breath, and gestures to what's going on, down in the theater: "Sir, I don't know how to tell you this... but..."

"Doc," SPYGOD says, waving his hand somewhat impatiently: "Small !@#$ing words. Spell it out for me, now."

"You have to understand that this woman's body is in bad shape," the man begins again, after a second to collect his thoughts: "I don't know how far into space she went, but she was exposed to vacuum. Most likely cause of death is asphyxiation. The ship kept her warm enough to mummify instead of freeze, which is why her DNA is still in good enough shape to do some preliminary tests."

"Such as?"

"Enough to tell that her DNA has been altered through genetic surgery," the doctor says, holding up a pad -- showing a holographic representation of her chromosomes: "There's things in here that have been awakened, and others that have been shut down. A familial predisposition to diabetes was turned off, along with some other, serious aliments. Meanwhile, characteristics that would contribute to robust health, strength, and longevity have been activated, or strengthened."

"But that's..."

"Not possible, right now?" the doctor asks, glad to finally get SPYGOD at something of a disadvantage: "Yes and no. We know how to do it. We've been doing it wholescale since we started putting something in the water to suppress people's powers, if you'll recall. But that's a sloppy, one-size-fits-all solution that doesn't always work.

"But this? This was planned with foresight. Executed with surgical precision. And done seamlessly. The only reason we know it happened at all is because the genetic materials have been neatly deactivated, instead of the ragged mess we tend to leave these days."

SPYGOD blinks a few times: "What else?"

"Well, I'm not entirely certain, given the damage. But there are clearly organs inside her that don't normally belong there. Something to do with digestion, I think. Her appendix is not only missing, I think it was never there at all. Her bones are stronger than they should be... and..."

He changes the hologram on the pad to a view of her head. The layers fall away, one by one, leaving her brain.

And inside her brain...

"Those are implants," SPYGOD says, running a finger along them: "A whole !@#$ing lot of implants."

"Yes, and they're all internal," the doctor says: "No external jacks for any of it. I'm wondering if maybe programming wasn't done on a biochemical level. Or maybe they flashed information into one of her eyes. We've found the remnants of some ocular implants, there, but they're in bad shape due to vacuum exposure."

"She wasn't from our time," SPYGOD says, understanding what the doctor was on about last night: "She was from the future."

"Yes," the doctor says: "Which means that that flying saucer is most likely not merely a vehicle. It's a time machine."

"Unless..." SPYGOD says, holding up a finger: "Unless she wasn't lying about going into space when she left."

"What do you mean?"

"Time travel is serious !@#$ing business, doc," the superspy says: "It's not something you do in basements or phone boxes. It requires a lot of !@#$ing energy, and a lot of computational power. Either that or a whole lot of magic, and something tells me that wasn't her damn bag."

"So... she went into space to find a time machine?"

"A time portal, yeah," SPYGOD says, looking up: "And for some damn reason, she didn't make it. Floated up there for !@#$ing ages. Crashed back down to Earth last week."

"So what happened to her, then?" the doctor asks.

"You find that out," SPYGOD says, heading out of the room as he grabs his phone: "I gotta !@#$ing talk to Mars..."

Tuesday: 8/16/16

"This should not be happening," Straffer says, looking at the smeared remains of what was once a god wearing a hero. 

"And yet it has," Freyja says, looking down at the person who was once Tyr, but is now once more becoming Home Fort -- brave hero of Andorra. He wears his bravery still in death, though his facial features are all that's immediately recognizable. 

"Return to your posts," Straffer snaps at the Lightship pilots who've come to gawk. They obey very quickly, not wanting to mess with him when he's in this kind of a mood. 

"Fear not, good ally," Ve says to him, kneeling before her fallen comrade: "They should see this death. They should know what yet awaits them. What remains to be done."

"Got that damn right," the blonde cyborg replies, biting his tongue to keep from saying anything harsher to these Aesir in human hosts.

Especially now that he knows they haven't been telling him the whole damn truth. 

* * *

It happened earlier in the day, after a group of Lightships traveled deeper into the ruined, cryptic surface of Mars than any of the liberation forces had gone before. 

They were really pushing the envelope, there. The ships only worked at 100% when they were in direct line of sight with the Sun. In darkness, they could operate on the equivalent of batteries for six hours in a normal run -- less if they had to fly faster, or fight. 

They got down a couple of miles before they needed to do both -- ambushed by something highly reminiscent of the massive turd-crabs each 8-Ball housed, only larger and nastier. Two of the five ships were lost in the attack, and the other three barely made it back to report. 

Straffer had barely had time to receive that report, and begin to formulate a strategy, than the Aesir were all hopped up on war fever and itching to go deal with the beast. He told them they should wait for another sighting run, just to see how many of those things were down there, but Odin didn't want to hear it. 

So ten Aesir jumped off Naglfar and launched themselves at the planet below, screaming oaths and praising the fates all the way down. A short while later came the sounds of fighting, and battle, and the sound of a gruesome monster dying. 

A short while after that, nine Aesir came back, bearing the melting body of the tenth. 

Tyr had delivered the death blow, and not cared to get out of the way of the caustic spray that ensued. Did he think his armor could stand being immersed in the sort of thing that could eat through steel and concrete? Or did he simply not care?

Straffer wasn't certain. All he knew is that a hero who was once able to walk through a volcano and stop an eruption was now becoming a red and pink puddle on the deck of the ship. And all the Aesir could do was cheer on his demise, and decide how best to perform a proper funeral under these conditions. 
 
(Could they put him and his things in a lightship and send it towards the sun? Would Rahmaa mind..?)

He thought to tell them that no, wasting another precious lightship would not be a good thing, but decided to just let them have their moment. They fought hard and played hard, these Aesir, and if they wanted to mourn as hard as they died, so be it. 

He was more concerned about getting to the bottom of why this supposedly liberated planet still had so many dangerous things living inside of it. 

And why even Odin -- inside a man he knew to be an honest and honorable person -- wasn't telling him all that he knew. 

And he had to know, didn't he? All seeing All-Father. Two wolves to run ahead and scout. Two ravens to learn all there was to know, and bring it back to him. 

He must have known the beast was there. He must have known someone would die. 

And if he knew, and didn't say, that made him responsible. For Tyr's death. For the death of his two pilots. And a few other casualties, besides. 

Suddenly, Straffer isn't feeling like an ally in this fight. He's feeling like a safari guide, only the tourists want to both kill and die, without a thought for the life of their staff. 

Clearly, this needs tending to, before things get worse.

And suddenly, the astounding news SPYGOD sent him yesterday seems like a minor distraction, rather than cause for concern...

Wednesday: 8/17/16

"No, sir," Hanami radios back, looking carefully across the town at the person in question: "She's not doing anything, really. Just... wandering."

"What do you mean by 'wandering?'" SPYGOD asks, very quickly: "Describe this 'wandering' you speak of, Hanami."

The android nods, and looks to her companions in monster-trailing (being Red Wrecker and Dragonfly) for some backup on this one.

They've been in Taos for four days now, keeping an eye on Yanabah for SPYGOD. So far they haven't had much to report, in terms of obvious dangers or threat assessment.

But in terms of odd behavior... well, you could say she's not acting like herself.

She shucked the black leather combat suit, either before or after she got here. She doesn't seem to have any weapons on her, though she could have secreted any number of guns, knives, grenades, or other such implements of grievous bodily harm in that tacky, flowing sunflower dress she's got on, or the huge bag she's lugging about. She's also got a floppy hat and what might be dollar store flip flops.

(Still wearing sunglasses, though -- the thin, silvery ones she wears day and night like some kind of 80's New Wave assassin.)

As for what she's doing, well, 'wandering' seems to fit. In the four days they've been quietly trailing her, she's gone to no less than ten shopping areas, spent time in at least thirty stores, and eaten at nine fast food restaurants.

She has also not gotten anything alcoholic to drink, even in the privacy of the flea-pit hotel room she's taken in the less tourist-friendly part of town.

Hanami tells SPYGOD all of that, deciding to skip no details whatsoever. It takes her exactly 31:34, and by the time she's done she's wondering if she's said too much, or not enough.

(She can tell Red Wrecker's bored as hell, though. Girl's patience and ability to control her temper seems to have vanished along with most of her hair...)

"Alright, then," SPYGOD says: "No alcohol? Not even a damn drop?"

"No, sir," the Japanese Android replies, watching through telescopic eyes as the woman in question gently haggles with someone over some very lovely jewelry.

"And she hasn't beaten the !@#$ing !@#$ out of anyone, yet?" the superspy asks.

"Not that I've seen. In fact, the other day someone ran into her, and she was actually... well, she seemed to be polite about it."

".."

"I know, sir. That's.... well, that's rather spooky-"

"Put Dragonfly on the line, Hanami," SPYGOD says. The android nods and, looking at the white-clad former assassin, hands the communicator over to her.

"What's up, boss?" she asks, looking over at the quary.

"I know you won't kill, anymore," the superspy says: "I respect that. I do. Really."

"What do you need me to do, sir?" she asks.

"I need you to figure out how to knock her the !@#$ out," SPYGOD says: "No drugs. No bullets. Just a single, quick smack to something !@#$ing sensitive enough to drop her ass on the ground and keep her gone."

"Do you think she might be compromised?"

"What I think ain't your damn concern, Dragonfly," the superspy says: "I want a strategy in ten !@#$ing minutes. Call me back when you got it."

"And then what, sir?"

"And then... go back to watching, until it's time to do what you planned."

With that he turns off the communicator, and she nods, sighing.

"I think he's gonna come talk to her," the former assassin says, looking at Hanami and Red Wrecker: "I hope that's all he's gonna do."

"Me too," the short heroine says, tousling her short hair and pursing her lips: "Be a shame after all she's !@#$ing been through, you know?"

"We've all been through something, Florence," Hanami says, continuing to watch their quarry act like someone clearly not herself: "But sometimes it changes you too much..."

Thursday: 8/18/16

Randolph Scott looks in the mirror of his upscale, Nairobi hotel room, and wonders who he's seeing there, now.

He's not pretty. Not anymore. He's got wires and tubes sticking out the back of his misshapen head instead of hair. One eye's been replaced by a camera lens, and the other's red from caffeine, jet lag, and crying. He's got more scars, divots, and weird spots than he cares to see, and can't even remember how he got them all.

A few years ago he was just another reporter, working for Alternet. The only one who cared to cry "Bull!@#$" at SPYGOD. His seeming fearlessness got him a spot by the spy's side, and that spot got him into some damn weird and dangerous situations. 

Getting out of them? That'd been him. 

And getting back into them, over and over again -- both alone, and with his family? That'd been him, too. Somehow managing to plan his way out of danger, or at least to have enough allies and friends nearby to pull his ass out of the fire when it counted. 

Day after day. Week after week. Year after year. Going where the story was. Finding out the facts. Sticking a gun down the throat of those who kept the secrets and exposing them for the world to see.

And all it had cost him was his wholeness. Then his humanity. Almost his life, a time or two. 

Now, it's cost him his family. His kids. The woman he loves. 

And in a few short minutes, if he gets the phone call he's expecting, it might just cost him everything he has left...


* * *

"Bad news for the Republican front runner today, as people in no less than five American cities got a view of him they weren't really expecting -- naked," 

Karl pauses for a laugh from his home audience, as he unveils a picture of the gross, nude statue in question.

"The anarchist organization INDECLINE has taken credit for the lifesize statues, which turned up in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Neo York City, and Cleveland. Entitled 'the Emperor has no Balls,' they portray the Candidate as a grower, not a shower, and portray him in a rather unflattering light. 

"Unfortunately, most of the statues didn't last the full day before city sanitation crews were dispatched to remove them. At least Neo York City's parks department had a sense of humor about the situation, stating that 'NYC Parks stands firmly against any unpermitted erection in city parks, no matter how small.'

"Over to you, Jana...." he says, and his smile drops the moment the camera's off him.

He sighs and looks at Helga, who's giving him the thumbs-up. He's good to clear the floor and go do what he was going to do -- supposedly keep checking the wires for any quick-breaking news they might need for the show.

That's not what he's going to do, though. He's got an entirely different thing in mind. 

Instead, he goes back to the wire office, and uses the burner phone he got yesterday -- supposedly while getting everyone's take-out -- to call a certain number. 

"Yeah, hey," he says: "It's me. Yeah... can't talk long..."

"Oh, you did?" he says, raising an eyebrow: "That easily? That's unusual. He's usually a lot more careful..."

"Oh, well, yes. You are you, I know," he smiles: "So where is he, then?"

He listens for a while, and gets the information down in his mind: "Alright. Thank you. Yes... please keep an eye on him. If he moves, I would like to know about it."

"Not this phone, no. I'm about to go toss it. Just send me a line at the email I'm about to text to you."

"Yes. Thank you. You've made me feel a lot better. Yes. Thank you. Goodbye."

With that, he closes the phone, and then puts it down. He'll smash it later and crush the important bits. 

And then he wonders why his father went to Nairobi. What could he possibly want there...?

He thinks about that for a moment. As he does he feels his head go light, just for a second, and then shakes it off. 

It's probably nothing. Just stress. Just worry. 

No wonder he's getting gray hairs, all of a sudden...

Friday: 8/19/16

"Did he just tell the black population of Michigan they had no jobs?"

"Yes, he did," the pollster says to the Candidate's campaign manager, chugging a beer as the crowd below goes nuts: "Followed up with 'what do you have to lose.'"

The young man grits his teeth, and nervously rolls his crisp Dartmouth tie halfway up his chest: "Please, please tone it down. Just a little. Just a little..."

"Oh no," the pollster says: "Here he goes again..."

And as the beefy man goes on and on -- dropping bomb after bomb, gaffe after gaffe -- his manager wonders if the sigil King Whip made for him will explode when it overloads, or simply disappear.

He also wonders how quickly he could get out of Dimondale if his life depended on it.

* * *

"No," the FAUST prison official tells his superior over the phone: "Everything seems to be in order. The running of the prison is... well, it is perfect, for want of a better word. Our prisoners are being treated as humanely as possible, under very trying circumstances...

"Yes, even Agent 78. Especially him. He's being very well looked after...

"Well, it's... it's just a feeling I have," Mssr Andek says, doing his best to avoid clouding his thoughts with what he saw, the other day, in the Habitrail. What he saw that prisoner doing.

(What he'd like to do to that prisoner...)

"Yes," he says to the obvious question to his understated concerns: "I feel that something could change, soon. I'm not certain what. I just feel that I should be here in case the wind shifts in the direction I think it will...

"Yes, of course," the official says: "I'll stay out of Mssr. Freedom's way. He won't even know I'm there.

"I'll just find something else to do," he says, smiling in spite of it all.

And planning how it's all going to happen...

* * *

"And that's what you've !@#$ing got, huh?" SPYGOD says, looking Hanami straight in the eyes: "One quick pulse to the back of the head?"

"It'll overload her ability to respond to her surroundings," the Japanese android answers, doing her best not to act intimidated by his glowering -- or his getup: "I do that, and then all you have to do is give her a tap to the temple. She'll be unconscious in less than a second."

He looks at her, then over at Red Wrecker and Dragonfly -- sitting on and around the hotel room's bed, respectively -- and then nods.

"Alright, then," he says, sitting down in the room's one chair and nodding: "Sounds like a !@#$ing plan to me."

"So what's the plan?" Dragonfly asks.

"Based on what you've !@#$ing told me, Rakim ran the damn brain computer through some options," the superspy replies: "There's something like an 85% chance of her hitting the !@#$ing plaza on Sunday. So that's when I'll approach her."

"Is there a reason why she's more likely to be there?" Hanami asks, always fascinated by what the former Brainman's computer can predict.

"Apparently there's a big, pan-tribal thing," SPYGOD says: "Arts and crafts, stories and songs. That kind of thing.

"Dunno why she'd be overly interested in that !@#$," Red Wrecker shrugs: "She really wasn't before."

"You never knew her Grandfather, did you?" the superspy asks, looking over his glasses at the young heroine.

"No sir. I guess he died before I really !@#$ing came on board?"

"That's right," he nods, leaning forward as he goes into explanation mode: "Well, for the longest damn time she was stuck to his leathery ass like glue, kid. She was his bodyguard, his business manager, his advocate. I didn't ever want to !@#$ with him, but she made him look like a goddamn puppy. And he was really into what you so elegantly called 'tribal stuff.'"

"So you think she might be trying to reconnect with things that were important to him?" Dragonfly asks, nodding: "That makes sense."

"'It's just !@#$ing possible that after all the !@#$ she's been through, she'd want some comfort from her past," SPYGOD says: "I know I do from time to time. !@#$ goes from bad to worse to 'holy !@#$ batten down the !@#$ing hatches,' I go grab my grandma's secret book of family recipes and cook like a mother!@#$er."

Hanami raises her eyebrow at that, and Dragonfly chuckles: "You do like to cook. I remember when we-"

"We ain't !@#$ing talking about that," SPYGOD says, holding up a hand: "Ever."

Red Wrecker shrugs in the silence that follows: "Past's got !@#$ing nothing for me, now. There's just what's ahead."

"Well, that's good for you, kid," the superspy says, raising himself up from the chair and looking down at her: "Sunday we bring your teammate back, either on her feet or in a !@#$ing box. So you stop !@#$ing posing like you're too tough to get hurt, and get your damn attention ahead of that one."

With that he heads for the door: "I'll be elsewhere until the rendezvous, ladies. Don't follow me. Don't be !@#$ing late."

"What did he mean..." Red Wrecker asks as soon as he's out the door, looking at Dragonfly for some kind of reassurance -- because she does know what he meant, but doesn't want to admit it.

And Dragonfly just shrugs -- having just been shut down by him, herself -- and decides some hard, honest meditation is what's called for, here.

Anything to clear her cluttered mind of the sense of impending doom...

Saturday: 8/20/16

"So..." the dark-skinned man with the very large gun says to Randolph: "I hear you wish to speak to him."

"I do, yes," the outlaw reporter says, aiming a very large gun of his own at the man: "Are you here to help me?"

"I might be," Khalil says -- not caring to lower his weapon at all: "But first, I have to ask you the same question."

They're standing about three feet apart in a side room, apart from the sorry floor of the hotel's honest attempt at a swanky restaurant. They arranged to meet there, at separate tables, with their true appearances disguised by holographic projectors. At a predetermined signal -- someone dropping a bottle of beer on the floor, which happened fairly often -- they would both get up, take a stroll towards the men's room, and meet there. 

He didn't exactly expect the man to pull a gun on him. But he wasn't not expecting it, either. He used to be NGUVU, after all, and then a major player in the weird, super-spy circles their time with SPYGOD had pulled them both into.

"So how do you think I can help you?" Randolph asks after a moment -- not caring to lower his weapon, either.

"It turns out we both have a friend in common," the agent says: "Skyspear."

"That's right," the outlaw reporter says, nodding -- remembering how she helped him find out what was going on with those missing teleporter parts, all that time ago: "I haven't seen her since Moscow, about a month back. Things have been kind of crazy since then."

"I haven't really seen her either," Khalil says: "And that's worrying me. We were..."

He doesn't have the words, but Randolph understands.

"If she didn't leave a number, she probably doesn't want you to call her," he says, lowering his gun at last: "I hate to say this, but... things went pretty bad with Mark Clutch and her. If she went with you afterwards, it might have been a rebound."

"Rebound?"

"Yeah. You break up with someone, you need something to feel complete, so you date someone that maybe isn't right for you just to have someone in your life. I'm sure-"

"I think I understand," Khalil says, sighing and lowering his weapon: "Malaya."

"I don't think that's fair-"

"I don't think I care to know your assessment, sir," the agent says, putting his gun away and frowning: "But thank you. You have helped me. Just not exactly how I wanted."

"Truth hurts, sometimes," Randolph says, considering his own issues with it as he puts his own weapon back inside his suit: "Now, can you help me?"

The agent looks at the reporter, and nods: "You know the Carnivore?"

"That tourist trap place that serves warthog and zebra?"

"Not so much zebra, anymore. Go there tomorrow, at 3. Sit in the back. Order the crocodile."

"He'll be there?"

"He might," the agent admits: "All I ever do is leave a message in his drop box. He may not get it. He may not care to come. He may not even care to come right away. I've heard of him leaving people to wait for days, even weeks. Just to see if what they have to say it worth his time.

"But for you? I will try," Khalil says, reaching out a hand to shake: "Just... the next time you see her? Tell her something for me?"

"What?" Randolph asks, shaking the man's hand.

"Tell her..." the man starts to say, and then, ashamed of the words that might leave his lips, shakes his head and leaves.

"I'll do that," the outlaw reporter whispers once the man's out of earshot, and then decides he really doesn't care to finish his meal. 

Sunday: 8/21/16

The plaza is a !@#$ing mess, operationally-speaking.

There's too many people for this kind of a show -- all packed too densely and moving too chaotically to properly track. Booths and buyers, singers and audiences, storytellers and kids and people just !@#$ing around with their cameras and phones.

Sound and motion. Distractions galore. And noise, noise, noise. 

SPYGOD doesn't let that deter him, though. He's there, right on the button, as planned. And as soon as he's positive his people are in place -- Dragonfly nearby, Red Wrecker not too far, and Hanami overhead -- he begins to wander through the crowds, looking for the target.

She's not too hard to find, Yanabah. In fact, if he didn't know any better he'd think she was trying to be conspicuous. She's wearing things more in keeping with what he's used to seeing her in, rather than the tourist drag she's been in since she got to Taos: black sunglasses, a loose t-shirt, blue jeans, and Army surplus boots. All she'd need is a holster and some very large damn guns and it'd be just like old times.

He waits a moment, just to make sure of something. He's not entirely sure what it is.

(Too easy, he thinks. Way too !@#$ing easy.)

But he rushes forward, anyway. And when she turns to face him, revealing that her shirt says SUPERHERO, he realizes he's been played.

"Hey boss," she says, smiling over her glasses: "About !@#$ing time you got here."

"Took a wrong !@#$ing turn at Albuquerque," he shrugs: "You all need to mark your damn roads better."

"Should have had the girls give you directions," she says, indicating they should walk a certain way: "They've been here long enough, keeping tabs on me."

"Think so, huh?"

She smirks at that: "Hanami needs to !@#$ing avoid being seen. Not a lot of Asian tourists here, boss man. They usually stay on the coast."

"Fair enough," SPYGOD says: "What are you doing here, Yanabah? Really?"

"Getting some !@#$ing perspective, at least at first," the assassin shrugs: "The ground here talks to you, if you know how to walk it."

"And then what?" he presses: "I figured you'd be at your Grandfather's place, but-"

"No," she interrupts him: "I'm not ready to go there. Not yet, anyway."

"I understand that," SPYGOD nods, deciding to back off a bit: "He was a good man, Yanabah. A humane man. A friend, when he wasn't !@#$ing pissed off at me for one thing or another."

"What are friends for?" someone else asks -- suddenly too far up in their business for SPYGOD's liking.

SPYGOD turns to face the person, and is puzzled by what he sees. An older, Native American man wearing a very sharp black and grey suit, with a frankly tacky "cowboy and indian" tie.

He's about to tell him to step the !@#$ back and mind his own damn business, but something about how he looks at him makes him falter, just for a second.

(A very short second.)

"Boss man," Yanabah says before the superspy can do the obvious thing with one of his many hidden handguns: "This man is the other reason I came here. He wanted to talk to you."

SPYGOD looks at the old man -- grinning like a skeleton -- and then back at Yanabah: "We're going to have some !@#$ing words about this later."

"I'd be !@#$ing disappointed if we didn't," she chuckles, but before he can answer that in the proper manner -- a machine-gun stream of very loud, curse-strewn threats -- the old man's extended a hand to shake.

"Don't blame the girl for this, (REDACTED)," he says: "We're long overdue for a talk, you and I."

"I beg your damn pardon?" SPYGOD says, wondering if he should break the hand off at the wrist before shoving it up this guy's asshole, or afterwards.

"I see Wayfinder was right about you," the old man says, dropping his hand -- along with the smile: "There's bugs out in the desert got better manners than you do. And they strip the skin off your bones ten minutes after you're dead."

"I don't like people sticking their nose my my !@#$ing business, old man," the superspy says, taking a step further into the man's personal space: "If you knew Wayfinder, he'd have !@#$ing told you that."

"He did, yeah," the flint-faced man says: "Told me a lot more, besides. Like how you had the far-seeing look, but it didn't do you any good. That you didn't get old with the others like you. Didn't die, either, though you should have killed yourself a dozen times over. He even told me you used to eat poison for laughs-"

"You want a taste, pal?"

"Woah, hey," Yanabah says, stepping closer: "Boss man, you really shouldn't-"

"It's alright, dearie," the old man says, not taking his eyes off SPYGOD for a moment: "You go find your friends that are watching us, and let them know it's all okay. We'll be fine here."

Yanabah nods, and goes to do as she's told, leaving SPYGOD there to fume and clench his fists.

(And wonder why -- why -- he hasn't just made a fist and turned this flint-eyed !@#$er's face inside out, yet...)

"It's because you're in my place of power, son," the old man says, clearly able to read the superspy's mind: "This whole area's sacred to my people."

"What?" SPYGOD asks, feeling the world slip from under his feet, just a little.

"Why do you think Wayfinder stayed here for so long, the weather?" the old man smirks: "It sure wasn't the scenery. This place is desolate, even by my standards."

"So where's home?"

The old man smiles, and gestures that they should walk further into the crowd: "Maybe someday you'll see for yourself. Not just yet, though. You got some more walking this world to do."

"Nice to know," SPYGOD replies, looking back to see Yanabah heading off: "She's yours now, then?"

"If you mean she, as a grown woman, capable of making her own damn decisions, has decided to embrace the world I can offer her?" the old man asks, not turning around: "You'd be correct. But she also wants to stay in your world, too. She figures she owes it to you, after everything that happened."

"I don't have time for divided !@#$ing loyalties-"

"Grow up, (REDACTED)," the man says, turning around: "You think Wayfinder was your man? He worked with you, not for you. And on his terms, not yours. Now you're going to extend her the same courtesy, and be glad you've got her on your side."

"And what do you get out of it?" SPYGOD asks, trying not to shout so loud as to alert the civilians around him: "Who the !@#$ are you, anyway?"

"Well, that's an interesting question," the old man grins: "I guess you could say I'm you."

SPYGOD blinks -- once, then twice: "Bull!@#$."

"No !@#$, son. See, I'm the guy who sits at the head of the fire, like you. People come and tell me things, and I remember those things. Keep them a secret, up here in my head.

"And then I tell those people what to go and do, and to not do. What to say, and who to. Where to be, what to be, and when, and how.

"And when all these new folks come around to the fire, and want to speak? And they tell me what they think they know, and what they think we ought to do about it? Well... I'm the one who pretends to listen, nods sagely, try to avoid looking irritated.

"And then I say, in the most even tone that I can, 'I have heard your words of wisdom, and of change. I know your heart to be good, and your intentions honest. So I have considered your words, as I consider all such things. And this is what we will do.'"

"And then what?" SPYGOD asks, thinking he knows where this is !@#$ing going. 

"And then I tell them to do what I was going to tell them to do, anyway, because none of them know a fraction of what I do, or see as far, or for as long."

The old man smiles at that, and pats SPYGOD on the chest, right about his heart: "So you see? Not so different. We just deal with different battles. Different fights. Different worlds.

"But my world is about to rejoin with yours, (REDACTED)," he says: "More than it's been in a long damn time. And that's why I wanted to speak to you, today. Because we need to be on the same page, going forward.

"Or we are all in some deep, deep !@#$."

"What do you mean?" SPYGOD says: "We just kicked the Devil's ass, in case you weren't paying attention."

"Oh, we are," the old man says: "Believe me. That was kind of the kicker."

"How?"

"Well, you know, when those silly Gods came back the first time, we sat on our hands and did nothing. Because we knew what was going to happen. The White Man's god doesn't like competition, and he never has. We knew he'd find a way to ruin things for them."

"They didn't," SPYGOD says.

"Oh, sure they did," the old man chuckles: "You think that prophet of theirs can't see their own doom? She wouldn't be much of a seer if she didn't know, would she?

"But she also knew what we knew, and have always known. That the White Man's god isn't just jealous, but he's also very touchy. He's like a friend who's only willing to take so much nonsense from you, and then one day, after one last really bad fight he just leaves. And you never see him again."

"But we're stuck with you, huh?" the superspy says, thinking he's finally realized who -- or at least what -- he's talking to, now.

"Well, now that he's gone, I figure the world's a free market economy, again," the old man smiles: "Time for us to come back and walk the land, again. See what's going on with our own eyes. Do what we have to do.

"But we're not the only ones, now," he goes on: "There's going to be a lot of folks coming back. Not all of them are going to get along. Some of them have been nursing grudges for longer than recorded history. Some of them have changed in bad ways since they left.

"And some of them... well, they were never too nice to begin with. Time away's just made them cruel."

"So you're saying what !@#$ing happened with the Aesir... that's just the icing on the !@#$ cake?"

"I'm saying you need to learn from the mistake they still haven't really fixed, yet," the old man goes on, taking the time to admire a woman's woven blankets, on the tables of her stall. She smiles at him like she recognizes and respects him, and he does the same.

"What mistake is that?"

"Well... that would be telling," the old man says, turning around and winking: "But if it helps any? That one Olympian you know really well figured it out a long time ago. You might want to talk to him about that, and quick. Especially before you wind up hip deep in more spirits than you know what to do with."

"How many are we talking about, then?" the superspy asks -- a very cold feeling slipping into the pit of his stomach.

"How many stars in the sky?" the old man replies, waving a hand to the heavens: "How many leaves on the trees? How many names has man called the spirits down the years? How many spirits did man actually know about?"

"Can you give me a !@#$ing ballpark estimate?" SPYGOD asks: "Hundreds? Thousands...?"

"A lot," the old man says, his eyes glowing like there was lightning behind them.

"A whole lot," says the woman at the stall, her eyes doing the same.

"More than you could possibly imagine," says every person on the plaza -- all the vendors and singers and parents and children. All their eyes are lit up, and all of them are fixed on SPYGOD, just for a moment.

And then the moment's gone, and everyone goes back to looking normal, again.

"Well..." SPYGOD says, looking around: "I guess that's one !@#$ing way to make an entrance."

"Oh, that's just us knocking on the door, son," the old man says, extending a hand to shake: "When we're walking in? Now that will be something to see."

SPYGOD looks at the man's face, then at the hand.

He reaches out and takes it, very slowly. Shakes it firmly. Politely, even.

"Glad we could reach an understanding," the old man says, and then his eyes widen with surprise as SPYGOD pulls him in -- close enough to whisper to him. 

What he tells him doesn't take long. But when he's done, the old man isn't smiling as much, anymore. Instead he's looking at the superspy with something very much like worry.

And maybe a little like fear...

With that, SPYGOD lets go of the man's hand, nods at him, and smiles back: "I'm glad we could have this talk, sir. I feel like we really connected."

And then he turns and walks away, still smiling. The old man shouts something after him, but he doesn't care to hear it.

It isn't until he's a long damn way away from the market that he lets himself truly feel the fear that had been creeping into his bones once he realized who he was conversing with, and what that actually was.

And it isn't until he's on a transport back to DC -- with his heroes and Yanabah along for the ride -- that he can steady his hands enough to take a really deep drink from the flask he'd had next to the gun he'd been ready to use, but somehow couldn't.

And as he drinks...

* * *

... Straffer takes control of a Lightship, late into the Martian evening, and pilots down into the bowels of the red planet -- seeking the truth he's not getting from the Aesir...

... The Owl gets a call from the last person she thought would ever contact her, asking her to come and talk about "their" son...

... Karl waits for another phone call, and wonders if he should tell his brother and sisters that he's noticed they have the same problem, all of a sudden...

... the daughter of the last President looks up from her bed to see someone standing there, watching, and smiles ear to ear to have some company at last...

... Randolph Scott sits in the back of the theme restaurant, nursing a Dawa and wondering how long he can sit here and peck at flame-roasted crocodile before the staff kicks him out...

... while someone watches the outlaw reporter sitting there, and decides it's time to put a few things into motion...

... and someone else -- who really doesn't belong at the Olympic games -- waits for the closing ceremonies to begin, feverishly anticipating the horror he's going to bring to the table...

* * *

... and SPYGOD realizes Yanabah's been talking to him for the past few minutes.

"Bossman?" she asks, realizing he's finally listening: "Can I ask you something?"

"You can ask," he says, staring at her -- wondering a few things.

"What did you say to him, at the end there?" she asks: "I mean, I haven't known him that long. But he looked !@#$ing spooked-"

"That's on a !@#$ing need to know basis," the superspy replies, raising an eyebrow: "And right now, if I were you? I wouldn't push your !@#$ing luck too damn far."

"Look... I know you're !@#$ing angry, but-"

"But nothing," he says, taking another hit: "You and me need to talk about what's going to happen next, Yanabah."

She nods, knowing this conversation was coming: "I'm not gonna lie and say I played this by the !@#$ing book, but-"

"No, you didn't," he says, pointing the finger of the hand he's got wrapped around the flask at her: "But I didn't bring you into this !@#$ to play things by the !@#$ing book. That's not who you are. That's not what you do. You gotta do your thing your way, and usually it !@#$ing works. I respect that. I respect you.

"But if you're going to be my liaison to the Great !@#$ing Spirit?" he says, looking up at her with all seriousness: "We're gonna have to change a few damn things."

She looks at him for a second, and then nods: "It's really better to call him the Great Mystery."

"See?" he says, taking yet another pull from the flask: "You're !@#$ing helping already."

And they both laugh at that -- at least until some panicked voice from the Flier tells them they need to be watching the Olympics right the !@#$ now.

And then no one's laughing at all. 

(SPYGOD is listening to Waste (Front 242) and having a Superstitious Stout)

Monday, August 15, 2016

Apotheoclypse Now: 8/8/16 - 8/14/16

"I'm tired of emotions / They bare me with distortions"

(Old friends, never forgotten -- no matter how hard we try)

(Art by the Lemonade Project + Dean Stahl)

* * *
12
* * *

My dearest, my darling.

You're reading this, so you know this means I am gone.

I told you this would happen, one day. I said it would be after the war, and I tried to hold on for as long as I could. But I can't stay here, anymore. Not for anything. 

Not even for you.

Please believe that I love you. I would be yours forever, no matter what. I would pray in your church, take your vows, take your name. Whatever we needed to do to make this world believe in what we already know to be true. 

But I cannot, my love. I must go. The future is calling, and I have to answer.

You were an amazing man. You will always be that man. And know that your family will endure, and be fruitful. All the way until I can no longer see, there is an Owl. 

And they are all magnificent -- each and every one.

Please do not cry. Please be happy. Love your wife. Love your children, and their children.

When you pray to your God, please include me. I know you already do. Please never stop.

And when you feel sad? Look to the future. It's where I'll be, waiting. 

Yours forever. 

Lashonda.



Monday: 8/8/16

"I'm just saying, we really should have more people here for this," Shining Guardsman says, stepping out of the massive, stretch party limousine someone perversely insisted on getting for the occasion. He looks very out of place in a suit and tie.

"Really?" Gosheven asks, chugging something fruity and noxious from an innocent-looking water bottle -- his second, so far -- and dressed like he just came out of a disco for the color-blind: "Well, if you can find them, tell them they've got an hour to get their asses here, and then the party's just gonna go, go, go..."

"Asshole," Red Wrecker snorts, pushing past him on her way to their destination, just past the statue of the Torchbearer. She's dressed like she normally would, out of costume, these days -- which is to say loud and skimpy.

"Hey, was that nice...?" the metamorph whines, shaking his head in indignation as she quickly leads the pack -- her new, extremely short haircut not entirely flattering, but maybe that's the point. 

Hanami comes out next, wearing the white dress uniform she had with the Space Service, and then stands by as everyone else stumbles or half-crawls from the cramped, cavernous interiors: Rakim in his prayer robes (sober as ever); Myron in a suit and tie (sober as a rock); Dragonfly, also in a suit and tie (a little tipsy); and Free Fire, in armor as always (still unable to drink).

"I have to say, this is going to be a little strange for me," the orange android says as he closes the door behind them: "Given what happened, I am not certain it's appropriate for me to be here."

"You couldn't have helped it," New Man says to Free Fire, appearing in a flash of purple light not too far away: "There was mind control involved. You had to defend yourself. No one's blaming you for that."

"Still should have more people here," Shining Guardsman repeats: "Just not !@#$ing right..."

No one pays any attention to him, though. They just march on 

* * *

The Torchbearer stands tall and proud as ever -- eternally guarding the McPherson Drive teardrop, and the many heroes and strategic talents buried there. 

The super soldiers who died in World War II, and then Korea. The Freedom Force members who fell after that. The occasional "charity case" who may not have been on a team, but whose work was so legendary (or death so tragic) that the powers that be afforded them a place here. 

Many more people were laid to rest here, following the Imago incident -- almost all of the original Freedom Force, in fact. Since then, there's been dribs and drabs, mostly older heroes who fell asleep and didn't wake up, or the occasional accident. 

But now, in the wake of the cluster of bad, crazy, and tragic that led up to the Apocalypse, it's been just like the Imago all over again. 

The group trudges past the newer graves, some with reverence, others with impatience. Arachnoid and Zephyr lay side by side in recognition of their having died together. American Steel and Doctor Uncertainty are "buried" here, too, in order to maintain the fiction of their existence. A few other names, mostly unknown. 

(Both New Men, laid side by side -- father and son. A sight that makes New Man pause, then move on a little faster than perhaps he should.)

And then there's the two they all really came to see: Chinmoku and Blastman, laid to rest by the other members of the Freedom Force. 

"Oh god," Gosheven says, and starts bawling. Dragonfly puts an arm around him, which he literally melts into. 

"It doesn't seem real," Red Wrecker says, dabbing at her eyes with the handkerchief she brought, just in case. 

"I can confirm that it is," Free Fire says, wondering why that doesn't help much. 

"Brave allies, both," Hanami says, holding her hands behind her back: "I'll miss their sense of duty."

"Chinmoku's wisdom was considerable," Rakim opines: "Even if I sometimes needed to turn on the brain computer to understand it."

"Blastman was an asshole and a grump," Shining Guardsman says: "But he was always there, you know? He had your back."

"I worked with Chinmoku before, on this one crazy damn op when SPYGOD was on the run," Dragonfly says: "We were allies, then enemies, and then things got !@#$ing weird. But when I came back out of the cold, he just looked at me and smiled, like he was expecting me to show up again. And never let the past get in the way of working together. I appreciated that more than I ever said."

"Chinmoku once told me he saw his own death, back when he started to learn that kind of kung fu," Myron says: "He said he knew how and where, just not exactly when. But he said it was enough for him to know that, no matter what he did, he would succeed, until then. In some ways I envy him that. In others... it seems like a damn cheat."

"I miss them both, incredibly. And I envy them both as well," New Man says. No one wants to ask why. 

"Neither of them shared my faith, but I pray for them," Rakim says: "They say Allah will save those he deems worthy, and damn those he does not, regardless of whom they prayed to, or how truly. I pray he finds them worthy,  and grants them Paradise."

"I'll drink to that," Gosheven says, using some more of the cocktail to stop from weeping. 

They stand in silence, after that. At least until Gosheven realizes they've only got the limo for another thirty minutes and hustles them all back to it. 

All the while, Shining Guardsman grouses, thinking of the bodies that aren't buried. The people who aren't there. 

He thinks of poor Yanabah, stuck in that hospital while they figure out what's to be done with her. She should have been there with them for this, regardless.

He thinks of Mr. USA, now playing host to the being calling himself Odin. What happens when that presence leaves, and he goes back to being at the worse end of stage four cancer? 

(He also thinks that Night Phantom should be there, too, regardless of what that Olympian says. He was a person before he became part of a God, damn it.) 

And he thinks of SPYGOD, sitting up there in his fancy new Flier, not deigning to come down and mourn with them for reasons he didn't care to specify. 

(He doesn't specify a lot of !@#$, these days.)

But he keeps those thoughts to himself for the rest of the trip back to the hotel they took for the night, the somber dinner that follows, and the new wave karaoke wake Gosheven insists on holding afterwards. 

"Next time," Hanami later tells him, somewhat conspiratorially: "Let's tell Second to give someone else the power over the mourning funds."

Next time, will there be anyone left to attend? he wonders. And for a scary moment he thinks he said it out loud.

But if he did she says nothing -- merely watches as Dragonfly, ever the good sport these days, scoops the human puddle formerly known as Gosheven off the floor with an ice bucket, and pays a bellhop $200 to pour him under his door.  

"I !@#$ing hate superhero funerals," the guy says on his way out. He's not the only one.

Tuesday: 8/9/16

The COMPANY Transport gets to Chicago around noon, which is exactly an hour earlier than SPYGOD said, but an hour later than he really wanted.

(The small detail of having to listen to the manager of the Rosewood complain about the mess "his people" left after the wake, last night, delayed him more than he cared to. If he still had the gun that shot bullets over the phone there would be one less grumpy hotel manager in the world.)

Lake Calumet rushes up to greet them -- barely recognizable for all the cordons, force-barriers, and portable containment units the UNSS threw up at or around 6 in the AM. There's enough hovercraft down there to hold a damn race at this point, and two Warbots are circling the area, just to be certain.

"Thank you for coming, sir," the white-uniformed officer in charge of the show says as he tromps down the Transport's gangplank -- his salute so smart it should be on Jeopardy for a whole week.

"My goddamn pleasure, son," the super-spy lies, saluting back. He's wearing what he's taken to calling his Summer Uniform: a shiny, leather skort over padded pants festooned with handguns and knives, with a thick, mesh shirt open to the navel and shoulderpads that seem to have a damn life of their own. All in black, of course, with pink and silver touches.

(He's also wearing black underwear. He's in !@#$ing mourning, after all.)

"So tell me exactly what we got, here," he says as the officer leads him into the nearest portable containment unit -- something reminiscent of a hamster palace, only in translucent white rather than transparent orange.

"A rare case of our two agencies touching in on a single case," some long-haired, youngish guy in a white smock says, walking away from a large bank of video screens: "We called you in a soon as your file got flagged. We also stopped all investigation until you could arrive."

"Well, hot !@#$'in damn," SPYGOD says, realizing he can't light up in there, but doing it anyway -- much to the concern of the Space Service personnel in the room: "Guess all I had to do was !@#$ your boss to get the A+ treatment, huh?"

"Well," the chief scientist says, coughing into his hand: "I can't really comment on that, sir. But... well, it's just easier to show you..."

He gestures over to the screens, and begins to tell his excavation crews to begin moving forward again. As they do, SPYGOD almost drops his cigarette.

"Sir...?" the officer asks, seeing the look on the superspy's face.

"Get me down there, son," he orders, reaching out to touch the nearest screen -- what might be tears wetting his eyes: "Right. !@#$ing. Now."

* * *

The hot zone is actually under the water, though it's hard to tell that at times. 

A bubble of air surrounds it, which is a large part of what gave the manifestation away when it appeared, at exactly 5:21 in the AM, Chicago time. Whatever's inside the object, it's generating its own passive shielding - keeping air in, but allowing larger objects to slide in and out with only a little surface tension. 

They've extended a human-sized, plastic hamster tunnel from the containment unit over the lake into the bubble. It's sealed and guarded at one end, and the guards there are impassive as !@#$ as SPYGOD strips down to his skimpy, black combat man-panties to suit up in an armored, stark white U-suit, straps on several devices (and one very sanitized, ultra-compact weapon).

And they get the !@#$ out of his way as he stomps past them, down the gently-inclining tunnel, and out the other end -- on the bottom of Lake Calumet. 

The bubble wavers in the air, like a humid curtain. He pauses long enough to touch it -- feeling the sensation the U-suit's haptic sensors report back to him -- and then walks through. There's enough lights on the probes to see where he's going without turning on the suit's illumination strips, for which he is eternally grateful. 

(He has bad memories of the movie Electric Horseman. Never ask him why. Just !@#$ing don't.)

There, brightened by the lights of the probes -- floating in mid-air, or just outside the bubble, in the lake itself -- is what looks like a UFO. A flying saucer, maybe six feet high, and fifteen feet in diameter, with a person-sized, glassy bubble right in the center. 

Only it's not a UFO. Not to SPYGOD, anyway. 

He grabs hold of the side of the ship, somehow knowing it'll form a handhold for him. It does, and he carefully climbs up to the top, and makes his way across -- ducking just a little to avoid soaking his head in the lake, above. 

Inside the bubble is a control chair -- thick and comfortable. Cradled in the chair is the mummified body of a young woman, wearing a futuristic, silver suit. Her skin is badly desiccated from the vacuum, her eyes are dried and fishy, and her lips are thin things, pulled back over perfect, white teeth. 

He reaches out to put a hand on the dome. He doesn't expect it to open. It would only do it from within, he thinks. 

"It's her," he radios back, trying not to choke up: "It's Space Commander."

"My god," the scientist gasps: "I mean... I read about her, but... I thought she went out into space?"

"Yeah," the superspy says, remembering the first time he saw the photo of her, back when the Owl took him under his wing, all those decades ago: "I guess she didn't make it."

He turns the radio off, after that. There doesn't seem to be much point in saying any more. 

And there's only one person he really needs to talk to, right now...

Wednesday: 8/10/16

"I'm just saying, I feel really uneasy about how this is going," Director Straffer says, trying to hold court with Odin as his hunting party make ready to launch themselves at Mars, once more.

"Do you fear success, my ally?" the Lord of the Aesir -- riding the body of Mr. USA -- asks, looking back and down at the blonde cyborg: "Are you afraid that we won with too much ease?"

"Well, frankly? Yes," he says, nodding: "It was a hard-fought battle to get here. And taking the surface of the planet was extremely harrowing. I just keep waiting for the other shoe to drop?"

"Perhaps one day your other ball will?" red-headed Tyr offers, clapping him on the back in a friendly, very manly fashion. That brings out the laughs in the others.

"I'm just saying we need to be more careful down there," Straffer says, knowing what sounded like an insult was just a friendly joke between allies (at least, that's what he hopes): "Just until we know for sure what we're facing."

"We are facing the last, desperate soldiers of a battle gone to dust," Odin says, smiling widely: "We are facing a defeated foe that knows not how to surrender. Their commanders are dead, their tactics in shambles, and no reinforcements shall take the field. 

"All we need do is wait for them in the most likely of places, and they shall eventually impale themselves upon our spears."

"Or my hammer!" Thor offers, shooting a large gout of lightning down to light the way, to much appreciation and applause.

"I just don't feel confident that we have room to be celebrating yet," Straffer tries to explain: "For all we know, we just mopped up the forward folks. There could be a lot more waiting down there."

"Then be grateful that we shall draw them out for your vaunted Lightships to destroy, my friend!" Odin says, making ready to leap down with the others: "And then we shall all drink to glory!"

And then he's gone -- hurtling towards the surface of the red planet at an ungodly speed.

"Well, that wasn't exactly a productive conversation," his Second says, coming up behind him as he watches them fall.

"No," he says, putting his hands on his hips and turning to face her: "Do me a favor?"

"Of course, sir."

"Get the strike force captains up here on the double," he says, walking to the other end of the Aesir's long, creaking ship: "I want to change our search tactics. We need to figure out how long we can be outside of the sun's rays."

"They estimate six hours just flying, sir. That's just flying, though. Regular speed, no shields, no fighting."

"Then let's find out how they do when you have to do more then just fly in the darkness," he says: "Raitha didn't really hand over an instruction manual. It's been trial and error ever since we left Earth. Now's the best time to find out what we're really dealing with."

"Before the Aesir let loose something we're not ready for, you mean," she says.

"Damn skippy, Second," he says, crossing his arms and looking at the stars above the ship. Wondering what other threats might be out there, today.

And how long before he can focus on them, exclusively, once more.

Thursday: 8/11/16

"We do appreciate your looking after our... mutual problems," the whip-thin prison official from FAUST says as they march down the halls of the Habitrail, going past a long bank of prisoners who aren't going anywhere: "I know this is something of a political football."

"I like to think that we are beyond such concerns," Mister Freedom says -- his fancy, complicated wrist restraints gleaming under the neon lights as they walk: "It is not a matter of expediency or favor, here, Msr. Andek. It is simply a matter of duty."

"Well said, sir," the official says, putting his hands behind his back as they continue on.

In the cells to their left, behind a transparent steel wall. are a number of very sad and sorry individuals -- a rogue's gallery of hate and fear. Militant atheists, Muslim haters, racial separatists (both European and American), and other assorted scum.

Some sit on their cots and glower. Some stand and pace. Some pound the wall and scream -- for lawyers, for doctors, for mercy.

"I need help!" one of them insists: "I wasn't responsible for my actions! Do you hear me? It wasn't me! It wasn't me!"

"Maybe not at the time, Mr. Harris," the Olympian says -- somewhat amused to be addressing him in Abdullah Ismail's body: "But you knew what you were doing when you made the agreement to participate in this venture. In that sense, you are as culpable as a drink driver who knew what he was going when he became drunk, even if he had little control over what happened after."

"No!" the man insists -- eyes red from hysterical crying: "I'm a victim, here! I'm a victim!"

"Tell that to the people of Moscow, Msr," the man from FAUST sneers: "And be grateful this man has allowed you to be housed here, before your trial. If we had you anywhere else, I think you would not last a day."

With that they leave the sorry sight, heading for another area -- one where conditions are much less penal and stark, and more calming.

"Oh my," the official says as they pass a certain cell, and see what its current occupant is getting up to.

"It's best to pretend you don't see her," Mister Freedom says, as quietly as he can -- knowing the last remaining daughter of the last President will hear, anyway: "A great deal of her exhibitionism is a cry for help. We let her have those devices to express her desires, but to watch for too long is to be drawn into them."

"What happens then?"

"Madness, murder, and suicide," the Olympian says: "Hopefully not in that order."

The man nods, and decides to focus on who they really came here to see -- around the corner from the feverish hothouse of her diseased imagination, and down the hall a ways.

The man in question is a nondescript fellow, so bland that one would have a hard time picking him out in a crowd. He's lying in a life support bed, with very heavy restraints upon every major joint, and VR goggles over his eyes.

"Agent 78," the man from FAUST sighs: "The true victim in all this."

"I cannot disagree," Mister Freedom says -- his godly eyes able to see the true spiritual damage that's been done to the man: "He will be like this until the Aesir who took control of him decides to return."

The man from FAUST nods: "And after the altercation that one had with Odin, I fear we may never see him again."

"Oh, he will return," the Olympian says, smiling: "Which is why I have created the traps I have."

"Traps...?" the official asks, looking around the room, and the man: "I don't... where are they? I don't see them."

"Then hopefully, neither will be," Mister Freedom replies, smiling.

As he smiles, he mentally checks on his other, most interesting prisoner -- far from here, and yet merely a step away.

It's far, far down in the deepest, darkest pit he has. There, just above a void not even he dares go too far into, lest his concept be crunched by the heavy teeth of raw entropy, sits a container that is both all states, and yet none.

Endlessly cycling between random shapes and materials -- locks and combinations -- it seems to vibrate, like a silent fan blade. Should it stop for even a second, its occupant would doubtless squirm out of it, and wreak untold damage upon Restriit's domain.

But it will not stop. It will not falter. It will not fail.

It is the culmination of a lifetime's contemplation, wrapped into being through a shared working between both ends of the creation-destruction spectrum. Hoosk and Restriit, laboring under the watchful eye of Senchro, who made the work of an age happen in merely a day.

And then, once the liberators of Mars had done their work, it fell to Restriit to go there, and capture his wayward creation within it.

It seethes, now, inside its prison. Hate and anger boil up within. Confusion steams away, along with determination. The need to one day be free of this insult -- this betrayal -- and do what it was made to do.

What it must do. 

Friday: 8/12/16

She doesn't scream and throw things at him from across the break room table. There's that, at least.

But then, Velma never was one for angry outbursts. She's never yelled at him, even once, during the entirety of their relationship.

Been angry? Sure. Glowered? Like mad.

Fumed? Oh, that, too -- for days on end, sometimes. And sometimes, after a day or so, he wished she would just yell and get it over with.

But it's not every day one lover tells another that's he's decided to do something like this.

"What do you want me to say, here?" the Toon finally asks, pushing her glasses up her nose and looking at him.

"What do you want to say?" Randolph Scott  replies, putting his hands closer to hers: "What do you need to say?"

"Would it make a difference?"

"... I don't know," the outlaw journalist admits: "I've put a lot of thought into this. I've been thinking about it since what happened, that day. The day I almost lost you. The day I thought I'd lost Helmut and Helga, along with Karl and Jana. The day I thought I'd lost everything."

"Yes, but you didn't," Velma says, taking his hands in hers: "You didn't. You got us all back."

"Yes, but-"

"But what?" she asks, glowering: "Am I dead?"

"No..."

"Is this some damn illusion? Do you think you're living in the !@#$ing Matrix?"

"Dear God, I hope not."

"Then there is no but," Velma says, holding his hand a little tighter: "We won. We got Karl and Jana back. You rescued them. You made the world move your way and got them out of there. You saved them."

"Yes," he admits: "I did."

"And you stood by me the whole damn time. Talking to me. Telling me you loved me. I could hear you, even if I didn't know it. I knew, the whole time I was under, that you were there for me. I never felt afraid or abandoned. I knew you were there."

"I'm glad," he says, starting to cry: "I was so scared..."

"I know," she says: "And when I came out, and I couldn't talk? And we were convinced those bastards were going to come back and finish the job? I still wasn't scared because I knew you were still there, with me. I knew we'd find a way."

"And we did, didn't we?" Randolph says.

"We sure did," Velma smiles, kissing his hand: "Craziest damn plan ever. And I never want to watch my own funeral again."

"Would you pretend to be a super hero, again?"

"Who says I pretended?" she raises an eyebrow.

"Okay-"

"But I'm not cross-dressing for the part again," she insists: "Whose idea was that, anyway?"

"Wasn't it Josie's?"

"I have no idea. I'm just glad you agreed to do the same."

"Hey, in for a penny-"

"And that's the problem, here," she says, tapping his hand: "I'm not comfortable with what you are wanting to do. Not just because of what you want to do, but because this is the first I'm hearing of it, and it sounds like you're over halfway done with the plans."

"More than that," he admits, wiping his tears: "I make one more phone call, and it's on."

She lets go of his hand like it was on fire: "You... you're kidding me."

"No," he says: "No I'm not."

"Randolph..."

"Listen-"

"Randolph!"

"Velma, please listen to me," he insists, holding up his hands -- somehow glad to hear her actually raise her voice: "You're right. Yes, I should have come to you earlier. Yes, we got the family back. Yes, we came through it all okay. Mostly-"

"Oh no-"

"But Velma, please. Don't think about what we still have. Think about what we lost."

"You think I don't?" She gasps, clearly insulted: "Do you really believe...? Do you?"

"Because every time I close my eyes, it's the massacre all over again," he says: "It's that day, all over again.

"It's the explosions in Toon Town. It's the buildings on fire, the dead people in the streets. It's people I know and love dying or dead or on fire.

"It's that poor cat stumbling down the road, holding his guts in and saying 'I'm not here, this isn't happening.' Over and over like a song until he died from shock and fell down.

"It's knowing that an evil bastard has my son and my daughter. Knowing he can do whatever he likes to them. Knowing that he did.

"It's you on a stretcher, with a hole in your head-"

"Stop it," Velma hisses, almost getting up from her chair to leave: "Do not make me part of this-"

"But you are," he says, reaching out to take her hand, and feeling crushed by the weight of an entire world when she recoils: "You are. They raped my daughter. They burned my son's face so badly it took a full month to make him look halfway decent, again.

"And if that bullet had been just a little faster or slower..."

He leaves the point. He doesn't have to say any more.

"Your daughter," she says, looking at him through very narrow eyes: "Your son."

"I meant ours-"

"You said yours," she says, finally getting up from the table: "I think that says everything."

"Velma-"

"I can't stop you," she says, holding up her hands: "If you've made up your mind to do... this, then I can't stop you. I know it. You've got a plan, you've got people. For all I know, Anil's going to show up outside the door in ten minutes and then it'll be on."

"He doesn't know where we are," Randolph says: "None of them do. I promised."

"Glad to hear you can keep some promises," Velma says: "So here's one of mine. I won't stop you. And maybe it's because I want to see this happen, too. Because of what happened to our son, our daughter. Because of what happened to our friends.

"And because, yes, if that bullet had just been a little faster or slower, we wouldn't even be having this conversation. I would be dead, or worse than dead.

"Yes, this person deserves retribution. Even if he wasn't exactly himself when he did what he did, much like Jana and Karl weren't themselves when they did what they did. There's some things you just don't walk away from with clean hands. There's some lines you don't cross.

"This is mine," she says, making a line between the two of them with her finger: "I won't support this. I can't. This isn't journalism, anymore. This is... I don't know what this is. But I can't be a part of it."

"So," he says, putting his hands on the table: "I stop, or you go?"

"No," she says: "You stop, or you go. And if you go, you don't come back."

He blinks: "What?"

"Ours, remember?" she says: "This Is Bull!@#$ was ours. We said it was about getting at the truth any way possible. We said it was about not being afraid to become part of the story to get the story. Even if we became the story, sometimes.

"This isn't just becoming the story. It's manufacturing one. And I won't work with someone who's willing to do that."

He tries to say something, but she holds up a finger and glowers at him. He knows that she is done talking, and so he is done trying to talk to her. And she turns, sadly, and leaves the room without another word.

After that, there's just the quiet of the breakroom. The sounds of his kids running around to make the evening broadcast happen, as if nothing was wrong. As if his absence affected nothing.

Tears come -- slowly, and then in a flood. He tries to sob quietly. He does not succeed, but eventually calms down, and is very quiet for a very long time.

No one sees him leave.

Saturday: 8/13/16

"I swear, sir, I don't know what happened," the rather terrified AGENT says over the video link: "One minute Yanabah was there, in her bed. The next she was gone, and the restraints were... well-"

"Spit it the !@#$ out, son," SPYGOD snorts: "I got more important things to deal with than your having !@#$ed up with a high-profile situation like this."

"Ripped to pieces, sir," he says: "There's silver all over the place."

"Was anyone hurt?" the superspy asks, after a moment.

"No, sir. Not so much as a scratch."

"Then I think we're alright," SPYGOD says, praying he's correct about this: "Stand down, report back to the Heptagon. I'll see you at 6 in the goddamn AM for your debriefing. Bring ear plugs."

With that he closes the channel, leans back in his office chair in the Flier, and considers a thing or two.

Finally, he gets Hanami on the video link: "Hey flower, how's your morning?"

"Alright, sir," she says, smiling at him.

"You still on leave?"

"I never went on it, sir."

"You're !@#$ing entitled, you know."

"I know. But someone needs to be on guard in case of emergency. I decided it should be me."

"Because you don't sleep?"

Her smile falters a little at that: "Because I don't need to, sir."

"How about everyone else?"

"Well, some of us are better than others," she replies, carefully: "They're saying Gosheven might eventually resolidify, provided someone doesn't keep pouring more alcohol into the bucket he's chosen to mourn in."

"That sounds about right," SPYGOD says: "Tell Myron to stop !@#$ing boozing him. I know it's probably the most damn peace he's gotten in a while, but we need that goofy !@#$er back on the clock. We got all kinds of !@#$ to deal with."

"Yes sir-"

"And I got a !@#$ing job for you, Hanami," he says, leaning in close: "I need it handled quick and quiet. Surgical, if you get my !@#$ing drift."

"I got it, sir," she nods: "Who and where?"

"Ever been to Taos?" he grins.

Her smile drops.

* * *

The AGENT sits and watches the scene unfold. 

He's in a cheap hotel he's feels he's used before, out in Austin, Texas. It's far enough away from the Flier that, should anyone suspect bugging, it would be one of the last places considered. But then he could be anywhere in the world, or off it, and observe the goings-on as though he were right there. 

After all, he does have the backdoors into all their security. He's had them since he started this job. 

(Technically, even longer than that...)

As he watches this man give orders, he wonders if he's ever heard about this day, before. It sounds familiar, anyway. 

But who did he hear it from? Did he read it somewhere? Was it buried in a briefing?

And was it even real...?

That's the problem with all of this. He can't be sure about anything, now. 

If what the temporal sensitives are right? What if he's fated to go through what he saw, back in Rikki's office, moment by moment until the second everything goes black?

But what if they're wrong? What if it doesn't happen that way, after all? 

And if they're wrong about that, then what else have they been wrong about all this time..?

Of all the AGENTS they've had working with the Time Chamber, he's the only one who's lasted this long. All the others have retired, or had to be retired, due to the stress and strain that going through history causes. All the brain wipes. All the not knowing anything about what you did, once you get back.

Never knowing if you changed something, however small, that made a ripple that became a wave and changed everything...

Fading is for losers. He used to say that. He used to believe that. 
But isn't this exactly what fading from reality would feel like? Being told you have to do something like this?  

Being told you shouldn't even exist...?

He looks away from the screen, and then back. He grits his teeth. He thinks of his husband, his wife, the child they're all going to have that he just learned about. 

He decides, right then and there, that he's going to get through this craziness somehow. He will make it through to the other side, where it will all make sense. 

He will make it home, to where his loves, his life, and his fathers are waiting for him. 

Meantime, he just has to hang on, watch carefully, and be ready for the moment he's seen to come around. 

* * *

The video link goes off right on time -- 8:35 in the damn PM -- and SPYGOD turns it on so fast he barely sees himself move. 

"Hey hon," Straffer says on the prerecorded message, sent however many hours ago from Mars: "It's me, dialing in from the death ship. If I've got this right you should be receiving it with just enough time to catch that movie. You'll have to tell me what you think. I'd be curious to know what came out of the debriefing. 

"Anyway," the blonde cyborg sighs: "Lost another lightship, today. They were doing a run over what's left of the Arcadia Planitia when something just reared up out of a hole and shot a gout of black snot the size of an economy car at the fighter group. 

"Fortunately, they were obeying orders and flying far enough apart that one ship going down wouldn't take out any others. But we lost Specialist Wyndcombe. We think he died right away. I hope he did.

"We also lost the ship, which might be a little worse in the long run. I started this liberation with 200 of the things. I'm down to 73, as of right now, and I've been losing them at an alarming rate since we supposedly won.

"And when they're gone, well... I don't have to tell you. You're the one who shamed those Olympians into putting some metal behind their words, after all. But they've still got their rules. I guess gods are nothing without them.

"Speaking of gods, the Aesir took care of the problem for me. They even brought back the body, carrying it with all the reverence of one of their own. Which is to say they practically threw a party for poor Wyndcombe, and wondered why the rest of us didn't feel like getting drunk and saluting her voyage into Valhalla. 

"(REDACTED)..." he says, looking one way and then the other, and then leaning in to be quiet: "I don't know what's wrong, here. But something is not right with these people. Before they were all evil and nasty, because they were riding some very disturbed and hateful people. 

"But now, well, they're noble and good, but something's still wrong with them. And I get the feeling they're not telling me the complete truth about what's going on. 

"I think that there's still worse, waiting for us down there..."

He pauses, and then leans back: "I know you hate talking to them, given how they operate. But if you could ask the Olympians if they have any idea what's going on here, that might be a good idea. Either that or maybe you could talk to Mr. USA... sorry, Odin. You knew him as a man. Maybe you can get through to him?

"Anyway," he sighs: "I love you. I miss you. I want this to be over so we can all go home and argue in real time about what color to have at the wedding, and whether your friend Frankie can be a bridesmaid, or best woman, or whatever. 

"But I'm willing to compromise. Black and gold sounds great. You'll make it work. You always do.

"I love you," he says, putting a hand to the camera: "I'll talk to you tomorrow."

And then the video link goes off, and SPYGOD sits there for a while, considering his options.

Before he knows it, he's making another call, and then taking another, and then doing even more things he hadn't quite expected to do.

The movie will have to wait. It usually !@#$ing does.

Sunday: 8/14/16

"Well, it's just that I had plans," the Candidate says, not really expecting his political sorcerer to show up in his room unbidden -- much less just teleport in, somehow.

"I know you did," King Whip says, tousling his short, perky haircut and sitting down in what appears to be the comfiest chair in the executive suite: "That's why I'm here."

"Okay," the beefy man says, deciding to sit down: "Is there something wrong? Something I need to know about?"

"You could say that, yeah," the goth-boy says, leaning forward and looking at the man over his dark sunglasses. Something about his eyes makes the man shiver.

"You need more money," the Candidate surmises: "I was going to talk to you about that-"

"Money," King Whip says, raising both eyebrows: "You know what money is?"

"Well, I'd like to think so-"

"Money is an illusion that's made itself a reality," the sorcerer interrupts, pulling a fresh, crisp Franklin from seemingly nowhere: "This piece of paper? It's a hundred dollars, right? It says so on the thing. It's got stamps from the treasury department, a serial number, a signature or two. Mark it with a security pen if you're not sure, but to the untrained eye this is worth ten thousand pennies. Right?"

"I'd say so," the man says: "Unless-"

"Unless it was just a fake?" King Whip asks: "Oh no, this is genuine. I stole it myself this morning."

"Who from?"

"Someone who doesn't need any illusions, anymore," the dark-aspected kid grins, turning the bill over in his fingers: "But supposing I take this bill, and I send it somewhere that no one will understand that it is. Not just into the past, for the dinosaurs to find. Not a thousand years from now, when paper money is but a distant memory. But somewhere that the ideas of paper and money don't exist. Somewhere that writing doesn't exist.

"What do you think the beings that find it will make of this bill?"

"I don't know," the Candidate says, mentally reconfiguring his schedule.

"I don't know, either, but this won't be worth a hundred dollars to them," he says, turning the bill one more time, and then letting it go as it quickly catches fire -- burning straight up in a flash: "It'll just be some weird thing they found, floating around in their environment. They won't know how to interpret it, or know that they should.

"They'll just float on by and not realize that, if they took this and came to Earth in the early 21st century? They could buy a whole lot of cheap-ass cheeseburgers."

With that the sorcerer leans back into the chair, drums his fingers on the sides of the armrests, and smiles: "Money doesn't rule me. I usually don't need it, and when I do I can just steal it."

"So... what do you do with the money I send you?"

"Give it to people who still need it," King Whip says: "No point expending time and effort if I don't need to.

"Which is kind of what I wanted to talk to you about, today," the kid says, no longer drumming his fingers: "I hear you think you can just waggle more money in front of my face and make me fix your bullet proof vest."

"Well, can't I?" the Candidate asks.

"You can, yes," King Whip admits: "But like I said, I don't really need your money. I really need some other things done, instead."

"Ah," the man says, nodding and getting up from his chair: "Smart man. Ask for some favors."

"Not favors, no," the sorcerer says, also getting up -- somehow seeming to tower over his employer: "Understandings. You're going to be the next President of the United States of America. When you are, there's some things you're going to need to do, and not do. Some of it will be for my benefit. Some of it will be for the benefit of others."

"Excuse me?" the Candidate asks, clearly taken aback: "You think you can just... now wait, wait! I just went through this-"

"Oh no," King Whip says: "We're not playing that game. I'm not going to control your mind. You have free will in all this, sir. You always have. You can do whatever you want.

"All I'm saying is that if you want me to continue to help you? You'll do what I need you to. Otherwise, I will walk. I will leave the campaign immediately, and all that I did for you will not only cease to work, but possibly backfire.

"And if I do that? Well... there's just a chance you'll be able to limp across the finish line in last place without me. But whether you'll do it in those expensive loafers or prison shoes is the question. Isn't it?"

The sorcerer smiles, and the candidate glowers, then purses his lips, and then sighs.

"Alright," he says: "As soon as I'm in the White House? Tell me what you need. But until then I need you to keep this thing working. Otherwise-"

"Otherwise," the sorcerer says: "You have my word, Mr. President. Enjoy your day."

Then he disappears -- fading from view as the Candidate watches.

(Was he even there? Was this all an illusion, too?)

The man's face quivers, for a second. Then it falls completely.

And then...

* * *

... Hanami and her team watch from a distance as Yanabah -- dressed entirely unlike herself -- walks through the streets of Taos, seeming as much a tourist as the people she's trying to emulate...

... Odin rushes through the thin atmosphere of Mars, smelling the hunt to come and grinning at the stark and bloody choices it provides him...

...  an almost-unrecognizable Randolph Scott gets off the plane at Nairobi, heading to talk to the one man he knows can help him do the impossible, now that he has no one else left...

... The Owl looks over the old photograph of her grandfather, taken back in 1928, and says a small prayer for the smiling, lovely woman he's posing with...

... Msr Andek wakes in the night to find himself unconsciously pleasuring himself at the thought of encountering that dangerous prisoner, and having a one on one, private conversation with her... 

... the head of the autopsy team rushes down the sterile corridor to call someone -- anyone -- to tell them what they found in the dead woman's body...

* * *

... and, after a full hour of listening to their employer smash and destroy the executive suite like some kind of rock star, his security guards finally go inside to find the Candidate sitting in the ruin -- red-faced and crying, like a little boy. 

Looking for all the world as though that world had finally deserted him.

* * *

This heavy heart / heart that I carry
Still holds the weight of you
And when I fall / As I always do
I'm crushed by the absence of you

* * *



(SPYGOD is listening to Crushed (Front 242) and having an Ashtray Heart)