"(REDACTED), I know you can hear me," the President says into the CIA Director's voicemail: "Pick up the !@#$ing phone, okay? We're under attack, the whole world's gone to !@#$, and someone's coming into the White House basement. No flier, no COMPANY, no nothing. If you've got answers-"
The line goes dead, just then. He signs and puts Col. Richter's phone down on a nearby table: "Well, so much for that."
"Can we do anything else?" the First Lady asks.
"Wanna order pizza?" He'd asked, pointing back to the phone: "I bet it'll take more than thirty minutes. Might get it for free this time."
"Sorry, hon," he says, putting up his hands: "It's what I do."
"I know. I wasn't complaining. I was just telling you that it's a good thing."
"Well, I'd hope you'd think it was a good thing by now..." he smiles, putting a hand around her leg: "Still glad you married me?"
"Always," she says: "You are a good man, Mr. President. You will have a lot to offer the world in the days to come."
Something about how she says that bothers him, just a little. He's about to say something when the doors to the saferoom open, revealing Colonel Richter, a man in dark sunglasses who must be that Myron fellow, and a number of COMPANY Agents. There's a strong sense of urgency about them, but they seem to be somewhat relieved.
"Sir, we've got an escape plan for you and the First Lady-" Richter begins to say, but suddenly Myron shouts and draws a gun on the President.
A Secret Service Agent immediately hurls himself at the man, who starts shouting something that's hard to understand past the fists and feet launched at his face, knocking his dark sunglasses off.
More Secret Service Agents rush to either protect the President or pile on Myron.
The COMPANY Agents run into the melee to pull the other Agents off the man who saved them from the Specials back at the Heptagon.
And before Colonel Richter can tell his people to back the !@#$ off and let these men and women protect the President, he looks over at the First Couple and realizes that something is wrong.
The President looks bewildered, as usual, but the First Lady is smiling -- a smile he really does not like.
And then the air is filled with flashes of light and sudden motion, and the saferoom proves to no longer be safe at all.
Something terrible has been waiting for them, here, all along.
* * *
The insectile carrier that was once The Flier -- still changing its shape and configuration in mid-air -- hovers over a patch of the Pacific Ocean, not too far from the last battle that the COMPANY engaged in with GORGON.
There's nothing here to mark that momentous occasion, of course. The principal players both left the field not long thereafter, and their dead were swallowed up by the deep. Any lost weapons or wounded machines fell down to the punishing depths of the ocean floor, there to be crushed by the depths and picked over by what few scavengers can thrive in such extreme environments.
Hundreds of such rude cenotaphs litter the dark, hidden depths of the ocean -- cold and mute testament to the ferocious battles that happen on, above, or just under its surface. Down in the eternal, crushing black, they form the only memorials those lost to such conflagrations can ever have.
But as the giant, metal butterfly that was the Flier hovers high above the water, a strange, circular perturbation on its surface would seem to indicate that something is being returned to the light.
The ocean surface roils and bubbles, and the circumference of the disturbance increases almost exponentially. Within minutes it is a full five miles across, and still growing. And from the vantage point of the Flier, it is possible to see the faintest hints of whatever is causing the phenomenon as it approaches the boiling surface.
Something vast and dark, and swiftly ascending.
With the crashing of mighty waves, that something breaks through into the air. Something that has been under the surface of the Pacific for untold aeons. Something that has not been seen by unaided eyes before today.
Something alien, yet oddly familiar.
A massive agglomeration of dark, stone towers -- built with giant, perfectly-cut bricks in the manner of the Mayan temples of old -- reaches for the heavens. It appears to be a city: one made for what may have been giants, or beings for whom cyclopean architecture was the norm. And as it rises and rises in what seems an unending train of black stone spires and platforms, the circumference widens out to ten miles, then twenty, then fifty...
At some point, its rate of ascent slows, and then stops -- just a scant ten feet from the keel of the Flier. Sea spray steams in the heat of the Sun, and strange, deep-sea creatures that had no business existing more than a single fathom beyond their normal habitat explode in the sudden change of pressure.
For a moment or two, the city and the Flier are content to behold one another. And then something swift-moving and dangerous-looking all but erupts from the newly-risen metropolis, and hurtles towards the Flier with strange intent.
It is a Deros, clearly. And as it streaks towards the Flier, the bottom of the aircraft shudders twice, and then opens wide in order to accommodate it. Large, strange mechanisms unfold from the hole in its belly, clearly intending to provide a welcome mat for the creature.
At the sight of its landing pad, the metal beast curlicues and goes into a spiral, slowing its trajectory just enough to avoid crashing into the Flier. And then, just as it seems to have burned up all its forward momentum, it slides into the underside of the aircraft -- effectively docking with the devices that came out of it.
The Deros tightens its curves, becoming a ball, and begins a spinning motion that creates light, heat, and energy seemingly powerful enough to rival the Sun. The surrounding area is bathed with a bright, radiant light -- one that burns off whatever moisture and damp remained outside the formerly-sunken city, and then vanishes as the Flier pulls the containing machines back into itself.
Then the Flier lights up -- a brilliant, shining butterfly just above the new, dark island.
* * *
When Second comes to, moments after the conversion is over, he is aware of three things.
The first is that he's no longer in engineering, nor anywhere near it so far as he can tell. The bulkhead he grabbed onto clearly moved several areas away. That one, he was kind of expecting.
The second is that those few Agents who survived along with him have been surrounded by even more Specials, some of which are teleporting in. They seem content to simply guard their captives for the moment, but it's anyone's guess as to when they'll start shooting, instead.
In fact, one stands right by Second's head, pointing the business end of a gauss gun between his eyes. There's no look on his face, but if there were it'd be him all but daring Second to not to drop the pistol in his hand.
(Second does, ever so slowly, but not in such a way so as to not have it back in hand within a moment.)
The third is that something new has entered the equation.
Teleporting in along with the new Specials are beings in colorful, gleaming armor and long, flowing capes. They move gracefully, compared to their heavier brethren, and where the Specials are anonymous behind their armored, blank visages, these ones bare bright and smiling faces to the world around them.
In a way, these newcomers remind Second of the over-the-top sueprheroes of the 70's. The ones who rewrote the book on how strategic talents operated. The ones who built Deep Ten -- Wonderwall, back then -- along with numerous other astounding creations.
The ones who gradually disappeared in the decades afterwards, leaving only fading echoes of themselves and the occasional, re-purposed artifact in their wake.
Something in their mix of bright color, and the exaggerated lines of their armor, tickles the more nostalgic parts of Second's mind. And for a moment -- however brief -- he could almost believe that those lost heroes have returned, somehow. He could find himself entertaining the fleeing notion that this has all been some massive mistake, and now they're going to help clear it all up.
For a moment, anyway.
But these newcomers are not them. They can't be.
The supergods of the 70's were otherworldly but comforting, somehow filling our need to believe in benevolent higher powers. They were the kind of august entities that might save the entire world with powers beyond imagining, and then take the time to gently rescue a small kitten from a tree.
These new beings may be similarly dressed, but there's something sinister about them. Their gleaming, colored metal costumes seem so exaggerated as to be caricatures. And their smiles are so desperate for love that they seem broken -- predatory, even.
Indeed, those smiles remind him of a photo he saw of a career pedophile: a human monster who'd abused hundreds of children. His smile was wide and disarming, but somewhere between the lips and the eyes the illusion broke down, and it became not a sign of trust, but a hunter's leer.
And when one of the newcomers' leers is focused on him, he throws caution to the wind and picks his pistol back up, aiming it at the green and yellow, female thing that's languidly walking towards him.
(He doesn't seem to care that the Special beside him's cocked the gun that's aimed at his forehead.)
"Oh, you must be confused and scared," the thing says, walking closer in spite of the pistol aimed at her: "Your world has changed around you. Things are no longer what they were. You think you need to reassert control over it, but there's really no need. From this moment forward, we will take care of you."
"Who... what are you?" he asks, realizing that the pistol has only got a couple shots in it. Maybe just one.
"We are the Imago," she says as the Specials behind her start pulling Agents to their feet and roughly immobilizing them: "And we have come to save you."
"I can see that," he says: "Tell your friend to back off or I'll shoot."
She looks to the Special, who slowly takes the gun from Second's head and moves a few respectful steps back. Not fast enough for his liking, but it's a start.
"Are you in league with GORGON?" he says, figuring he knows the answer, anyway, but might as well get what intelligence he can.
"GORGON no longer exists," she says: "The caterpillar has emerged from the cocoon. A new day has dawned, (REDACTED). And you will be a part of it."
"I don't !@#$ing think so," he says, cocking his pistol at her: "Let my people go or I'll shoot."
"You misunderstand my role in things," she explains, holding her ground: "I am not in control, here. I am merely a part of the greater whole. If you shoot me, others will come in my place. And you only have so many shots in that gun."
He's about to ask her another question when he hears a cry for help from down the hall. An Agent who was badly wounded in the fight is crawling along the floor, trying to get away from the Special who's walking behind her.
(New Agent, just shuffled in from the FBI. He's admired her bright blue eyes, but hadn't caught her name, yet.)
Before he can say or do anything, a number of teleports occur in the hallway -- all of them False Faces. One appears just behind her, not far from the Special, and kneels down to take her around the head with its long, anonymous fingers.
As soon as it's touching both temples with either index finger, the Agent screams, and the two light up in a rush of strange, pulsing energy. The pulsing is equal between the two at first, but soon favors the False Face. And as Second watches the Agent's body withers, turns grey, and collapses into flakes, powder, and fragments of bone.
The False Face stands up again, its body changing to match that of the Agent it just absorbed. The horrible, exposed skull is the last to change: flickering like a television set, and then resolving with her face.
It -- now she -- looks over at Second and smiles, and the baleful, metal eyes behind the projected skin change to a beautiful blue.
"My name is Leila Winters," she says: "COMPANY Agent, tactical section. I am ready to soar."
"Are you ready to soar, (REDACTED)?" The Imago asks Second -- her smile is the genius of languid evil.
"!@#$ you," he mutters, twisting around to shoot the Special guarding him in the crotch -- blowing him into three pieces -- and then pivoting to shoot her dead-bang in the face.
The blast hits her right in the nose, but to no avail. The energy simply slides around her like water, and doesn't so much as alter her complexion, much less her expression.
"Oh, that's excellent," she says as the last wisps of what should have just taken her head off dissipate around her: "We are looking forward to adding your passion and dedication to our new world."
"Like !@#$," he shouts, scrambling to his feet and dodging around the twitching remnants of the Special. He can hear Agents screaming behind him -- absorbed into waiting False Faces -- but there's nothing he can do for them, now. His options are as slim as his gun is empty, and as he flings it behind him he hopes the !@#$ chokes on it.
However, he doesn't get five strides into his headlong flight before the Imago teleports right in front of him. He only has a moment to realize what's happened -- and be amazed by this -- before she slaps him across the face.
It would seem to any onlooker that she gave him a gentle, effortless blow. But it hits like a sledgehammer to the skull -- all but caving in the left side of his face and knocking him up against the wall.
His head lolling on a broken neck, face shattered, eyes half-popped out of their sockets, Second collapses to the floor, gasping for breath in a mouth full of blood and broken teeth.
"I am so sorry to hear how reluctant you are to join in this effort, (REDACTED)," she says, slowly advancing on him: "But you will join us. Sooner or later, one way or the other."
It's to Second's eternal credit that, even blind and broken, he still tries to get up and run. That he fails -- unable to move anything below his navel -- is no blemish upon his effort. And when a False Face teleports in beside him, and starts to kneel down to do what it came here for, he could be excused for simply giving in.
But he still has control of his arms and hands. And he still has one last weapon to use.
"No surrender," he gurgles through blood as the sexless, skull-faced creature takes his crushed, bloody head in its hands: "Not to you."
He pulls at his belt buckle and pushes it up and to the side. A light comes on in the exposed circuitry behind it. A high, shrill beeping begins.
The Imago realizes what this means, and teleports right on top of him, knocking the False Face roughly across the room to try and stop what's about to happen.
The white phosphorous explosion rocks that section of what used to be the Flier. The quadrant is all but obliterated, killing both False Faces and Agents in mid-Embrace with a rushing wave of white heat. Stress fractures begin to appear all over the stricken aircraft as bulkheads go molten and collapse in on themselves.
Within seconds of the explosion, it seems almost assured that the insectile aircraft will burst open and fall into the city that just erupted from the Ocean. But just then, the nanostreams that reworked the ship from top to bottom kick into action, and before too long the ship is being repaired on the molecular level. Burn damage is reversed, systems are put back together again, and whatever was put out of shape is quickly molded back into place.
Before long, all that's left to mark the passing of Second is the Imago who oversaw his last moments -- clearly undamaged by the blast -- standing right by where he detonated himself. There isn't even burned smell in the air, much less a single scorch mark on the wall.
"We have failed, leader," she says: "(REDACTED) is lost to us."
No matter, says a wet, feminine voice in her head: We have the entirety of their knowledge within us, now. What we have lost with him, we will regain with others. You have done well. Carry on.
"Thank you," she says, and teleports somewhere else, hoping to make up for what she still sees as a failure somewhere along the line.
And knowing she'll have many chances to to do so in the brilliant days to come.
* * *
"I applaud your passion, Daniel Richter," the red and blue armored man is saying as the Colonel tries to get to his feet and protect the President: "You are a good man. You have done good things for your country."
"I'll show you good..." he hisses, but can't get up. The armored hands holding him down are too strong, and come just within an ounce of breaking his shoulderblades like pretzel sticks.
"You struggle for no purpose," one of the ones holding him down says: "I assure you we have no plans to harm this man."
"Tell that to his wife, you !@#$er," Myron, also held down, retorts through a smashed-up face: "How long? Huh? How long has she been dead?"
The skull-faced abomination wearing the body of the First Lady looks at him with what might be pity or regret: "I am not dead, Myron. I have been Embraced."
"You'll pardon me if I can't see the !@#$ing difference," Myron spits, his mouth and nose dribbling blood.
"I am one with Imago in flesh, spirit, and purpose. This is not death. This is something entirely different."
The President, meanwhile, doesn't know what to say. Surrounded by smiling men and women in brightly-colored armor, all of whom have made it clear that he's free to do everything but leave this saferoom, he's realized -- all too late -- that this is the end of everything he's ever known.
"You too?" he finally says to what he thought was his wife. The way she looks back at him makes him look away.
The Red and Blue Imago kneels down and picks up the broken sunglasses that Myron had been wearing when he came into the room: "A very ingenious design," he says.
"The specs are already going out all over the internet," Myron lies: "I hope you know that. You aren't going to take us over without a fight."
"There will be no fight," the First Lady says: "You were given no opportunity. Nothing was left to chance."
"We have taken the world in our hands," another Imago says: "From this moment onward, you will be ruled."
"Like !@#$," the President says: "You're underestimating America. You're underestimating the whole !@#$ing world. We will fight you. You will you lose."
"And how will you do that?" the Red and Blue Imago asks, crushing the glasses in his gauntlet: "We control Deep Ten. Your ability to make war on us is nonexistent. Your Strategic Talents have been neutralized. Your leaders will soon sing our praises and convince their citizens that ours is the greater good."
"They will be well fed and cared for," the First Lady insists: "Occupied and content. Safe from petty tyrannies and their accompanying tortures, protected from the worst things life could offer."
"They will have the illusion of liberty," Red and Blue says: "And with just enough freedom and enfranchisement to feel as though nothing is missing, and everything is in order."
"And within one generation, they will know nothing else but what we tell them," the First Lady says: "We have won."
"Humanity is never as magnificent as when they've got an enemy to fight," the President declares, rising to his feet and looking the Red and Blue man square in the face: "And you just elected to put yourselves in the crosshairs, you stupid son of a !@#$. Good luck holding onto it-"
"Oh, we agree," the Imago says, putting his hands on the President's shoulders: "And we have given them that enemy. You."
"What?" the President stammers.
"You, Mr. President, will be the enemy of the world," he says: "Ambition's debt shall be repaid."
"I don't.... I..." the President stammers, and then winces as Red and Blue 'gently' puts him back down in his chair -- all but breaking his clavicle as he does.
"You will soon learn what we mean," Red and Blue says, looking around the room at any non-GORGON personnel that remain.
Myron and Richter look at one another. Now would be a great moment for one or the other to pull out some kind of last-minute save, or at least find a way to take a number of them out with them. But a look in each others' eyes reveals the sad truth.
They have !@#$ing nothing.
"I really hated working with you," Richter says to Myron: "You talk too much."
"Likewise," Myron says to Richter: "You are suck a !@#$ing dick."
"Likewise," Myron says to Richter: "You are suck a !@#$ing dick."
And they both half-smile, expecting to be executed at any moment. But that moment never quite comes.
They just wish, later, that it had.