It's early in the morning in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Most people are asleep, or else straggling home from the inevitable after-party.
But some people work all night, most notably on the endless line of towers that the recent economic embarrassment has done little to slow the progress of. Brought from around the world to toil night and day, they toil under networks of bright lights: scores of artificial suns, up and down the highway.
Moloch sits near one, watching the metal come together under rough but skilled hands. He extends his mind out ever so slightly, and on the edges of that awareness he can just barely feel every rivet going into place, every arc welding, every post sunk into concrete.
He thinks of the new machine, back at his home. How new and shiny it is. How lovely.
His employer has stopped trying to contact him, at long last. Perhaps he's finally satisfied with his progress, or perhaps he's now his ex-employer and doesn't deign to give him his notice.
(He doesn't seem to have much in the way of communication skills, as Moloch has noticed)
But Moloch does not really care, anymore. This was never about money, except to build a new and better machine. Whatever his employer's goals were, or where they came from, Moloch's part in this has always been about destroying a man who claimed to be a god.
He smiled, and then locks himself in his car. Then he extends himself out fully, jumping from metal to metal in an unbroken line, all the way up to the skeleton of the tower. There, in possession of the evolving creature, aware of every thing in and around it, he flexes his muscles ever so much.
The news will say it was an unexpected collapse. The dead workers will be blamed, and their families will not get any of the death benefits. The contractor might have his knuckles rapped under the table, but life -- and, more importantly, work -- will go on.
Moloch doesn't care. There will always be other towers. There has to be.
He needs his exercise, too.
* * *
Not quite half the world away, METALMAID pauses while crafting another furious letter to her followers, such as they are. Her logic circuits are overheating from all the anger she's projecting, and she needs to calm down for a time.
Needs to cool that robot brain down.
Saying that things have not been going rather well is putting it rather mildly. She should have been free, by now. SPYGOD should be dead, and she should be leading her fellow, former Slaughterbots in a cold, clinical, and downright brutal punitive war against America.
The human germs should have been conquered by now. The pitiful few survivors should have been put to work making more Slaughterbots, or at least making the factories that will make more Slaughterbots.
(Unless, of course, they still want some of those human germs walking around and breeding, just so they can remember what they were fighting against. There's still some discussion about this amongst the few, former Slaughterbots that METALMAID can get to answer her.)
But all these plans are academic until SPYGOD is dead, and so far, she is having no luck making that happen.
The first direct attempt failed, due to some limits of her programs. The plan required her to be sneaky, but she was never good at that, really. So she overcompensated some details, and underplayed others, unwittingly hamstringing her own attempt to present him with an no-win situation.
Then she contracted out to an expert, who, in turn, created a one-shot, fire and forget supervillain. That was also a failure, due to the fact that the would-be villain was a psychologically unstable idiot.
The expert was willing to try again, but she'd had enough of his failure. This time she decided to do a little uplifting of her own, and contacted an up-and-coming villain, offering him some upgrades and new technology provided he use it to deal with her problem.
This, too, was a failure, but it was one she could live with. Her assassin had not been an idiot -- merely outclassed by a smarter, or at least luckier, opponent. She offered more money for another chance, hoping that the second round would go better if her chosen warrior was more prepared.
In the meantime, someone tried to kill SPYGOD under her nose. She still has no idea who put the bomb in his beloved flying car, but took some comfort in the fact that that attempt on his life didn't succeed, either.
(And a little jealousy, as well. Why didn't she think of that?)
A second round between SPYGOD and her assassin went a little better, but still failed to bring victory. But then her would-be employer had to get stupid -- or so she thought -- and challenge him to a fight he could spend more time preparing for.
And prepare he did.
For a week, SPYGOD was dead, at least to the outside world. But METALMAID knew better. She'd seen the massive preparations the COMPANY had taken to carry out that one illusion, and prepare for many more.
And suddenly, every plan she'd had going had to be altered or derailed. Every would-be assassin she could have contacted over the Undernet was already being called up to try and kill SPYGOD, to try and flush her out. And none of those assassins had a hope in computer hell at succeeding, because they were only killing clones, and COMPANY Agents were either handling them, or close at hand.
Suddenly, all she had to rely on was Moloch, and Moloch was taking too long to make another run at SPYGOD. Always one excuse or another. Always other considerations. And always a complete lack of concern at METALMAID's reasonable requests for progress reports and timetables.
Meanwhile, the situation was deteriorating. SPYGOD wasn't suspecting her hand in things, but it was all she could do to keep herself from having her programming checked for anomalies. Sooner or later he'd get that Dr. Yesterday egghead up here from the South Pole, and then it could be all over.
(Maybe sooner than that. She couldn't be sure, but she was wondering if BeeBee was beginning to suspect something. The cat won't let her pet her, anymore, and tends to run away when she treads through a room. No hisses, yet, but she thinks they're coming.)
Which means that, unless she gets the robot revolution up and running, at long last, the plan may fail. SPYGOD may nip it in the bud before it even gets off the ground, and if she isn't there to command it, it will either not start, or collapse around itself in an orgy of go-nowhere strategy discussions and tabled motions.
Something has to break, soon. Something must.
* * *
At that time, down in the Ice Palace, America's greatest superhero gets a call.
That isn't all that unusual, of course. Since he got the job of looking after this this freezing, former Supernazi redoubt, he takes about a thousand calls a day. Mostly from the United Nations, wondering how this, that, or the other thing is going.
(Do you have enough food? Are the penguins okay? Have you gotten through the door, yet? No? Well why not? Etc.)
But it's a call on that phone. The one no one knows about but him, and one other, certain person.
A name he's been trying to forget about, lately, but really can't. Not anymore.
So he goes down to the lowest tunnel, where no one is supposed to be going at all. It's where one of the last werewolves blew himself to kingdom come rather than surrender to the COMPANY, back in May. It's horribly radioactive and toxic as heck, but it's not like he has to worry about that, now does he?
He takes his time, to avoid suspicion. The phone rings and rings, but there's no hurry. The person on the other end won't hang up, not until they've spoken, anyway.
Finally, he's there. Satisfied that he's alone, he taps the subcutaneous button behind his ear three times, and just listens.
He doesn't get to talk during these conversations. He just listens. This is both for security purposes, and because the other person does all the talking in this particular relationship.
He just listens to the person's voice as it speaks. He does not reply, because small talk would be pointless. He does not question, because all aspects of his instructions are said, including what to do (or, rather, what will happen) if he fails.
It takes about five minutes, and then the person on the other end hangs up without really saying goodbye. Mr. USA lets go of the breath he's been holding all that time.
He has his true orders, yet again.
Of course, he doesn't really need to come down here for this. The conversation is one-sided, after all, and so quiet that no one but he can hear it. He could be in a crowded, noisy room and he'd hear it perfectly, and almost anyone they'd throw at him (except SPYGOD, of course) would be unable to hear it. He has no fear of the game being given away, and no worries of some well-meaning bluehelmet finding out too much.
No, he comes down here for these calls so no one can see him weep.
* * *
In a hallway behind another hallway, deep within the CIA's headquarters, the Director is doing something he swore he'd never do.
It's true what they say about Washington: when you get any kind of really big job in this town, you get to your office and there's a big envelope on the table. In that envelope are all the answers to all the questions you might have had about your new position, and all the things you didn't know it entailed.
The Director's envelope was a sinister and upsetting read.
It was mostly active cover-ups for things that happened so long ago that no one remembers them, along with some more recent, very upsetting things. The relationship with The Legion was one of them, but there was more. Much more, and much worse.
One of them was the thing that he is doing now.
When the CIA was created, just after World War II, it was understood that there might come a day when, given the sloppy nature of any democracy, the American people might vote in their own destruction. They could get a Manchurian Candidate, or possibly a Communist impostor, or just some double-talking !@#$ who railed against the Iron Curtain by day and lobbied to bring it to America by night.
There was also the possibility that a coup might take place. Certain pro-fascist businessmen had tried it back before the War. There was nothing to stop it from happening again.
Nothing but this one thing, here in the bowels of the building, behind several locked doors that the Director alone had full knowledge of, and the keys to.
The thing in question was the terrible responsibility that had been given to the Agency: the ability to kill an American President, and get away with it. If the NSA or The COMPANY had existed back then, they might have had it, instead. And the FBI was Hoover's child, and Hoover thought he could deep-six anyone at a moment's notice, without any help from anyone.
And indeed, he had.
But the CIA was seen to be the sane, older brother of the Intelligence family, back in those days. Unto their hands was given the supreme responsibility. And, to their credit, no matter how crazy or insane things got at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the Directors kept their hands off the kill switch.
Now, things were different. Now there was an idiot in the Oval Office who, for whatever reason, was actually listening to what SPYGOD was saying. And SPYGOD was leading the country to ruin, one super-powered train-wreck at a time.
The Director had never liked the President. True, his predecessor and he and gotten along just fine, but his predecessor was fairly friendly to SPYGOD, too. So what did he know?
Besides, he was out of the picture, and highly unlikely to protest if the responsibility he'd kept secret for so long had to be used. What could he say, anyway? Nothing, if he knew what was good for him.
So the President would die. His Vice President would be putty in the hands of his new advisers. And the Director knew those advisers would persuade him to ditch the man-monster that was running The COMPANY. It was as simple as 1, 2, 3.
And after that little talk he'd had with SPYGOD -- or, rather, that SPYGOD had had with him -- it was clear the button had to be pushed. Half of the information in that welcoming envelope was now in the President's hands, thanks to SPYGOD. And if he read even a quarter of it, and had some weird, Midnight conscience attack in the bedroom...?
No. He had to die. It was a horrible thing, but it had to be done. The Director was just the man to do it.
The hallway ends in another door. The door swings open, once unlocked, and there's a long flight of dusty, cobwebbed stairs. He takes it down, wishing he had something other than his cell phone to light the way. Also wishing he'd thought about the trip, and what to bring.
Down the stairs and into a chamber. In the chamber is another, very old door. It's locked, but there is one last key on the ring. It slides into the lock like a !@#$ into a willing, wet !@#$, and the door creaks open.
The room behind seems empty, but there must be something in there. Why else would it lead here?
The Director walks in, and flashes his phone this way and that, looking for something in the gloom. He sees nothing at all. Just a small room, and a floor that seems scraped and pocked with holes.
There was something here, once. Something large and complicated. But now it's gone, leaving an empty room.
He wants to scream in rage. He wants to cry and bang his fists against the wall. He almost throws his phone against it in frustration, ready to walk back up the stairs and start thinking of alternatives.
But then he hears it. A scuffling, from back the way he came. Several scufflings, in fact.
Coming down the stairs.
He turns and heads back into the chamber, and flashes his light up the stairs. There are, indeed, figures moving down it. He can't quite see their faces, yet, just the fact that they're wearing robes.
"Hello, (REDACTED)," one of them says, voice gentle and soft as a teddy bear: "We've been waiting for you."
"Who are you?' He shouts, getting ready to call for help. Why doesn't he have his sidearm with him? Why?
"You won't need that," the leader says, extending her hands out for a hug: "The phone is useless, down here. No one knows you're here, and no one can hear you if you call.
"It's just you, and us."
"What do you want?" He asks, taking a step back.
"You, (REDACTED)," they say as one: "We want you."
And there is screaming in the secret room below the Agency, followed by half an hour of silence.
Some time later, the Director comes back into the part of the building everyone knows about. There's a smile on his face, perhaps belying the ordeal he has been through. Or did anything happen at all?
And as he walks back to his office, tossing the keyring into the trash as he does so, he's humming a song. Not one that anyone thought would be one of his favorites, really, but you never know.
Dum dum, dum dum, dum-dum-dum, dum-dum-dum
* * *
In the far reaches of the galaxy, far beyond and below our own solar system. something approaches. Something vast and timeless. Something implacable.
Stars tremble in their slow orbits as it moves past. Dead and lifeless worlds crack and crumble. Some of these systems never had life.
Some did, once, before that something's final visit.
It is coming, now. There is no stopping it. No holding it back or denying its ultimate trajectory.
Towards Earth. Towards us.
* * *
And SPYGOD walks down a cold, Washington DC street to his next appointment, perhaps aware that he's on camera.
(SPYGOD is listening to Sinking (The Cure) and planning to buy several Virgils Bavarian Nutmeg Root Beers)