At first, there's nothing. Just an endless white space behind her eyelids, throbbing and serene. There could be anything or nothing, there, and for a moment she wonders if this time the process has failed.
Then strange, red and purple geometric patterns appear in that whiteness. A feeling of place, and a sense of actually being there starts to form, like the slow realization that one is -- or is no longer -- drunk.
She knows better than to open her eyes, just yet. She needs to give it a few moments more, just to be sure. But she can run her thumbs along her fingers, sensing that she has both motion and feeling in her extremities, however slow and dulled.
She flexes her toes, stretches her fingers. She cracks her knuckles one-handed, one after the other. Twists her head on her neck from side to side, feeling the muscles strain and slide under the skin. Tenses her jaw, releases, licks her teeth with her tongue to make sure they're all there.
Finally, after she's sure the body is working, Zalea Zathros opens her eyes, ever so slightly and slowly, and looks around her bright, white, Art Deco-styled workshop. A number of retro-50's droids stand by, observing her vital signs and waiting for her commands. Blinking lights and lit up monitors nearby indicate that she's doing fine, as does their lack of motion and concern.
An eye chart sits on a back wall, some forty feet away. She had one of her droids put it up just before she submitted to the switch, and did not look at it. She reads it flawlessly, out loud, down to the last line. Only then does she look at the body she's in, smile, and step carefully from the upright, form-fitting coffin she was just birthed from, naked and lovely.
In another coffin, nearby, lies her old body. It looks raggedy and tired, pale and sunken. That's what comes from being imprisoned for too long, put to work, and then having to perform rough brain surgery on oneself to get an explosive tracking chip out of one's head, one supposes. She's amazed she even made it this far, given how bad she was after the procedure.
She regards the corpse, quietly, then leans down to kiss its forehead, ever so gently.
"Unit 2, dispose of the carcass," she says to one of the droids: "Unit 3, bring me clothes. Unit 4, bring me a simple meal. I will take the clothes and meal in the solarium. Thank you."
They signal their assent and get to work. She strides up a nearby stairwell and enters a sun room filled with lovely plants and tasteful, wood furniture. At the wave of a hand a wall turns from solid to shimmering transparency, and she stands there, nude in the sunlight, looking at the desert beyond.
It has never been more beautiful than today.
"Free," she says, feeling the word leave her lips and understanding its true meaning, now. No more COMPANY cell in the Heptagon. No more ridiculous wastes of her genius on trivial matters of national security. No more hands holding her back from her plans and dreams.
No more taking orders from a man who should have been put down like a dog ages ago.
"A small retaking of stock, first," she says, crossing her arms and watching the sand eddy and whirl in the wind: "Regaining contact with my allies, next. Then some long-overdue recreation time.
"And then... revenge."
She narrows her eyes, anticipating that lovely moment. Outside, a hawk glides down and snatches something frail and squirming from the sand.
In Dubai, a young man sits down in an expensive easy chair, seeming out of place in a grimy, soot-stained metal workshop. He closes his eyes, and when he opens them again, he sees his own body through a different set of eyes, as if seeing through fire.
Moloch rears its new, much-improved brass body back. Its rib cage opens and closes like a trap door. Teleportation systems come online, along with tracking and rangefinders.
Its two arms separate at the joints to become six. Looking at its six hands, with sharp, brass knives aflutter, it speaks through the fire: "Moloch, whose fingers are ten armies..."
The cannibal dynamo laughs fire, no longer caring if its meat family hears, anymore. It no longer worries about them. It no longer worries about anything.
The false god will die. Its on-again, off-again employer has promised this death, just as he has promised it will come at Moloch's hands. All he needs to do is wait for the signal.
A signal soon to come, if the man's words have any truth. But even if they do not, Moloch does not care.
The time is soon. It radiates in the air like the heat of the final fire.
And this time, Moloch will be the one who lights it.
* * *
In Washington D.C., the President watches as Congressional leaders from both parties leave the Oval Office. He leans back in his chair, takes the folder he was using as a prop, and thwaps it into a nearby table. He's disgusted, disappointed, and just plain tired.
They'd been talking for the last two hours, trying to come to some consensus on what to do about The COMPANY. The President wanted to get them to act on a certain part of The COMPANY charter: the one that allowed for its Director to be removed by an overwhelming vote in both Houses, in case it was clear the Director was a menace but the President refused to remove him. That way he could force SPYGOD out without having to play the game they played the last time -- the game he lost so badly he didn't like to talk about it.
About as badly as he lost this one, here, today.
He thought he had a slam dunk. He really did. Improper notice of the invasion of Antarctica. The insult to the people of South Korea. The dangerous, fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants dismantling of The Legion. And now this catastrophe -- one that SPYGOD refused to take full responsibility for.
(No mention of the matter with the CIA Director, though. That was staying as quiet as the President could make it.)
But no. No dice. The Senate Majority Leader agrees but won't back his play, and the Minority Leader wants to see him twist in the wind until November. As for the House, well, as much as the other party might not like SPYGOD the man, The COMPANY's done no wrong in their eyes. Meanwhile, his own party is !@#$ terrified of waking up to find him perched atop their pillow, staring at them with his glowing, alien eye.
So no. No vote. No escape hatch. He has to find some kind of leverage on the man, to overcome what he knows about him, and as far as he knows there's nothing.
There is that phone, over to the right of the windows, by the desk. The one that's on top of the white, marble pedestal with the glass, handled cover on it. The one that's been there since the 80's, but hasn't been used since the early part of the decade.
The phone with no line connecting it.
They can't take it out; it simply will not move. When they redid the flooring, about seven years ago, they had to work around it. A worker was severely injured when his sawblade bounced off the pedestal and shattered into hundreds of pieces.
Once it was here, it was here to stay.
He looks at the phone. He could make the call, right now. It would be the worst thing in the world that he could do, given everything he knows, but he could do it. The matter could be handled. His hands could be clean.
No. He shakes his head, ashamed of himself for even thinking about it. He gets the folder, gets up, and decides to leave the room before he's tempted any further.
Then the phone starts to ring.
It's that ring, too. Loud and chirpy, like a mother calling up the stairs in a warm but insistent voice. The tone that says "you have to answer."
The President hitches a breath and grits his teeth. He doesn't have to answer it. He can just let it ring and ring, and maybe it'll stop. Like it's started and stopped all those other times, over the years, when the Presidents before him decided to not repeat that one, bad mistake.
But he can't leave, either. Something won't let him. He stands there and listens to it ring.
* * *
In Antarctica, deep beneath the Ice Palace, Doctor Yesterday staggers along an empty, frigid corridor, weakly calling for help.
The ragged, bleeding hole in his left side is painful, wet, and warm. He knows that if he takes his hand from it, things will slop out of it, again. Pulsing organs and bits of flesh that, if he weren't about to go into shock, he could probably remember what they were.
It's enough to know that they're important, and that he has to keep staggering forward, slowly, and focus. If he takes his left hand off the wall he'll lose his balance and have to stop. If he stops he won't be able to start again.
If he falls he won't get up.
"Put one foot in front of the other," he whispers, weakly, trying not to breathe too deeply lest he start coughing blood, again: "One foot in front of the other. One foot in front of the other..."
The Blue Helmets are nowhere to be found. His communicator isn't working. If he just gets a little further down the hall, he might be able to scream for help loud enough that someone could actually hear him.
He's a dead man walking as it is, but if he can cry out loud enough, someone may hear. Someone may come running in time for him to warn them. Someone may be able to do something about what's just happened.
There has to be some way out of this one. There always is. He just has to stay ahead of the person who did this to him long enough to find it.
(Luckily, he had a gizmo on him that could keep his attacker tied up for a moment or two, but there's no way it would stop that person entirely. Not hardly.)
Even now, he can't believe this has happened, even though he knew it was coming.
He's been slowly gathering evidence, like SPYGOD told him to. He's been looking into things left unsaid, snooping around in person or by proxy, looking right while pretending to look left. It's been a slow education with a steep learning curve, but he thought he had the pattern down.
Apparently not, as the hole in his chest would tell him.
"One foot in front of the other..." he says, looking up again. Is the T-junction up ahead any closer? Has he just been imagining he's been walking the whole time?
SPYGOD. Where is he when he needs him? He tried to contact him the other day but he wouldn't even pick up the phone. He called and called and no answer. And now...
The blast hits him before he hears the gun go off. It strikes him in his upper right shoulder, not quite blowing his arm off at the joint. It falls down weakly, and as he falls forward to join it on the floor, the things his hand's been keeping in start to slip out again, along with a fresh gout of blood.
He barely even feels the ground as he slams into it. It seems to happen in slow motion, and when time catches back up again the person who did the shooting is rolling him over and pointing the gun at his face.
"How could you?" Yesterday asks, weakly. After all they've done together? After everything? This?
If the shooter has anything to say, it's lost in the sound of the next shot. After that, the good Doctor is quite incapable of finding the way out.
* * *
Elsewhere, far far away from Earth, a world dies horribly as something unspeakable moves past it.
It was no small thing, this world. It boasted a civilization hundreds of thousands of its cycles old. It was a center of culture and commerce for several solar systems around it. The people were wise and generous in times of peace, and cunning and steadfast in times of war, but never cruel in either.
They were a good people. It was a good world. It should have continued in being.
They never had a prayer.
The first intimation that something was wrong came only three days before. On that day, their astronomers noticed something missing at the far end of their system. Stars were being blocked out by something large, irregularly shaped, and dark.
Something their telescopes could not discern, for it seemed to absorb all light and reflect nothing at all.
On the second day, it was much larger. They sent out ships to investigate, and hailed it in the spirit of friendship and peace. Their ships were smashed to shrapnel by what was either massive gravity or the object lashing out.
Their messages were answered with words that made their ears bleed, and men go insane.
On the third day, it loomed over their world. Those few who'd had the good sense to evacuate overnight were the only ones who remained sane enough to see what happened next, and speak of it.
But they still choose not to say what they saw. Only that, as their world cracked and broke and burned and died, the thing did not slow down to harass or vex it further. It did not send ships to conquer the ruins, harvesters to mine the core, or slaughterhouses to collect what few living people remained on the surface.
It simply continued on, black against the blackness of space.
Their world had not been a target for invasion. Their world had not angered it, inviting retribution. Their world had not been important enough to it to do anything of the sort.
They had simply been in its flight path, and died as a result.
Those worlds they traded with are still picking up survivors. If asked to name the thing that killed their homeworld, they can only say (Unintelligible Concept)
And say that they pity whatever world is is true destination.
(SPYGOD is listening to Heavenly (Seal) and drinking a Poppaskull, in memory of the dead)