Friday, December 14, 2012

9/20/12 - (The Owl) Bigger Than God pt.1

It's just past noon on a Thursday, and the traffic on the San Diego highway (southbound) is surprisingly light.

On any other day, the trip from Modesto to Los Angeles would have taken at least six hours, given the tendency for accidents, rolling tailbacks, and sudden slowdowns with no discernible cause. But today, for some weird reason, it might just wind up taking the five hours and three minutes that various online mapping sites always promise, but can never deliver.

In a dull, green SUV, a young girl looks out the window as Van Nuys speeds past. She's spent most of this long trip in silence, having a lot to say but not knowing how to say it.

And as for the driver, the young woman at the wheel knows all too well what kind of storm is raging inside the girl's head, and has chosen -- perhaps wisely -- not to send a kite up into those clouds.

"I'm hungry," Kaitlyn Clutch suddenly announces, looking at the woman.

"So am I," Martha Samuels says, having a chug from her water bottle.

"Could we get something?"

"Sure. What do you want?"

"McDonalds?" Kaitlyn asks, perhaps with a little trepidation: "I know, it's junk, but..."

Martha smiles: "You know, I hate to say it, but I think I could do with some all-American junk right about now."

"Maybe just a cheeseburger."

"Oh, come on. If you're going to get a cheeseburger, you need to have fries. It's a rule."

"Okay. A cheeseburger and fries."

"And maybe a shake?" Martha teases her.

"Yeah," she says, her eyes lighting up for the first time in what seems like years: "A shake would be awesome, Aunt Martha."

"I think they'll do shakes in Happy Meals."

"No Happy Meal," Kaitlyn insists: "I'm too old for that, now."

Martha smiles, looking over at the kid: "You're never too old for a Happy Meal, kid."

The girl's smile falls away, and she becomes silent, again, and goes back to looking out the window. Martha bites her lip, realizing she probably should not have said that, but knows there's nothing she can do about that now.

"Harcourt, where's the nearest McDonalds?" Martha asks the car.

"There's one on East Noble, Martha," a friendly, fatherly voice replies from the dashboard: "I can get you there in about twenty minutes, provided there are no traffic jams or accidents."

"Works for me," Martha says, reaching over to tousle Kaitlyn's hair, hoping to get a good reaction. The little girl doesn't shrug it off, but she doesn't smile, either.

She just looks out the window, her eyes full of broken pieces that Martha doesn't know how to put back together.

* * *

Saying that the last six months had been rough on their family would be putting it pretty mildly. 

First, the Samuels were nearly annihilated by GORGON, right in their own home. Her cousin, Rachel, was killed outright in the invasion of the Owls Nest. Her father died during their escape in Owl 10. And her son, Thomas, was horribly maimed by a bomb planted in his motorcycle. 

(Their robotic butler, Harcourt, was also corrupted beyond saving, but thankfully they had an old backup file saved onboard the aircraft.)

That left only her, her brother-in-law, Mark, and his daughter, Kaitlyn, fit for duty. And by the time they'd reunited with each other -- in Wisconsin, of all places -- and gotten their heads around what they'd been through, 3/15 happened. 

And, after that, things really stunk. 

The good news was that, after a month of fruitless wandering in search of people they could help, help finally found them. Allies of SPYGOD brought them into the unseen army that was being assembled to fight the Imago, and they were taken to the West Coast to rendezvous with the main group. 

Once there, in an impossible town made by living cartoons, they were sent across a dimensional barrier to a parallel Earth.  And there, in the one place that the world's conquerors could not see, much less teleport into, they worked with others like themselves, and began to put together a plan that could conceivably win the world back from its new masters.

That was a little over five months ago. Since then, Martha has gone from being the resident superhero of Chicago to the unarmed combat trainer, stealth expert, and unofficial den mother to an often quite fractious group of freedom fighters. Strategic talents from all over the world stand alongside COMPANY Agents, mercenaries, Toons, former supervillains, SPYGOD SCOUTS, and even stranger beings, all working to free the planet, and all supposedly following the lead of SPYGOD -- wherever he might actually be.

(The mysterious, hooded stranger who'd brought them all together, and acted as the de-facto leader, claims to be following SPYGOD's wishes in this matter. Whether he's telling the full truth is as mysterious as his true identity, but if Chinmoku is willing to vouch for him, then Martha figures he's worth trusting.)

All in all, it was a pretty good deal -- especially when they agreed to pool their considerable medical resources to look after her son. The only downside was that Thomas needed to stay in B.A.S.E.C.A.M.P. 4, and she was needed in the real world, which meant that she had to literally move heaven and Earth to see her boy. 

Not that there's much to see, anymore. He'd lost his arms and legs in the blast, and had suffered fourth-degree and third-degree burns over most of his body. Her handsome son was little more than a burnt and blackened stump, blind and capable of speech only with the greatest of effort. 

But when she comes to see him, and speaks his name, she swears she can see those dead eyes light up, somehow. And she thanks God every day for that one, small miracle. 

Another problem is that Mark was needed over there almost all the time, these days. She'd come to depend on him in the bleak, black days after the near-destruction of their family, and hoped that she could help him come to grips with the loss of his wife, so that he could, in turn, help his daughter with her grief. 

But the needs of the revolution came first, it seems. So he's over there, helping them build weapons against the Imago, and she's over here, teaching a mismatched army how to hurt and break (but not kill) attackers with their bare hands and feet.

That and tending to a little girl with a very bright future, and a terribly broken heart. 

* * *

The trip to the McDonalds is rather educational. 

Once they get off the freeway, they realize that all the road signs are flickering, and all the advertisements are live. Flat screens at bus stops, street corners, and on unused walls provide a constant saturation of happy news and cheerful ads, along with smarmy PSAs, all delivered by the Imago, or their spokespeople.

That and posters -- lots of them, all shiny and new, up on the walls. Almost all of them feature the "All American" Imago known as Green and Yellow. And every single one of them worries Martha, greatly.

"Did that one we just passed say 'We're Watching Out of Love'?" she asks Kaitlyn as she passes through an intersection, following Harcourt's sporadic directions.

"Yes," Kaitlyn responds, rubbing her eyes: "They're all like that, Aunt Martha. They want people to think they're good guys, like the police used to be."

"Do you think most people believe it?"

"I think people are dumb," Kaitlyn sighs.

"You can't believe that, honey."

"I wish I didn't. But everyone I saw in Modesto, they like the Imago. They should know something's wrong, but they don't. If that's not dumb, then what is?"

Martha has nothing on that one, and at the next stoplight she realizes something even more disturbing. They've passed at least three churches since they got off the freeway, but none of them are in use. Their doors have been boarded up, their marquees denuded of lettering and signs, and their names either taken down or covered up.

"Lord have mercy," she sighs, terrified that certain signs are coming to pass.

* * *

The McDonalds is busy, but not crazy busy. That means it only takes them one trip around the parking lot to find a space, and then only five minutes to be served by the terminally-peppy teenager behind the one working cash register. That's more than enough time for Aunt Martha to nudge Kaitlyn into going for a happy meal, if only by saying that she'll get one, too, just for laughs. 

"It'll be good for us both," she says with a wink: "And I will not tell your dad. Promise."

Kaitlyn's about to say something, but then she turns and looks at someone who's just come in. It's an older lady wearing hippie jeans and long, bangly jewelry, and wearing a t-shirt that has the smiling visage of Green and Yellow on it, but done up in the color and style of that one, famous poster of the last President. 

LOVE, it says.

"Oh, barf," Kaitlyn sighs, turning back up to Aunt Martha: "You sure I'm not right about people?"

Martha looks back at her, and tries not to scowl. The woman sees her trying not to scowl, and smiles, walking closer.

"No need to be jealous, honey," she says, pulling the front of the shirt down so Martha can appreciate the whole picture: "You can get them online."

"I'll keep that in mind," Martha says, turning to look away before-

-what's left of her son collides with her at frightening speed, knocking her back onto the floor and sending her sprawling. She tries to get up, but then realizes who she's been hit by. 

And when she sees that her son is little more than a charred and broken torso -- legs blown off, arms burned down to the elbows -- her training and discipline break down, and - 
-she does something she's going to spend a lot of time apologizing to God for, not to mention having to explain to their leader.
* * *
They get to the front of the line and smile. "Two cheeseburger Happy Meals, please," Martha says: "One with a vanilla shake, one with a chocolate shake."

"Yes ma'am," the peppy teen replies: "Can I see your ID, please?"

Martha smiles, remembering they're in California: "Oh, we're paying cash, today."

"I still need to see your ID, ma'am," the teen insists, sweet as honey. Her smile hasn't wavered a millimeter. 

Martha smiles just a little wider, and then takes her fake drivers license out of her purse. "Oh, not a problem," she says, holding it up for inspection: "It's me! Bad hair day, long line at the DMV-"

The teen smiles, swipes it right out of her hand, and runs it through her cash register before Martha has time to finish her sentence. Then she hands it right back, and looks down at the screen.

Then she stops smiling.

"Ma'am, I'm sorry, there's something wrong with your ID," the McPerson says, taking a half-step back from the counter: "I'm going to need to call my Manager up here..."

"Oh, well why don't you run it again?" Martha says, holding it out: "I'm always having that problem."

"Um, that's not it..." the teen says, looking back at the grill and trying to flag down her manager: "Bill? Sir? I need you up here..."

"Maybe if you wrap it in plastic wrap and run it through?" Kaitlyn offers, looking up at her Aunt and smiling, but looking at the door. 

The message is clear: we need to leave. Now. 

Martha half-nods, realizing they've made a mistake, and reaches down into her purse to grab her cell phone: "Oh, excuse me. I have to take this call. Why don't you let this gentleman behind me go first, and we can jump back in later-"

"I don't think you should leave," the gentleman in question says, taking a step away from Martha, as though she'd turned radioactive. He's not the only one with that look on his face, here, now. 

"Ma'am, you need to stay here," the McPerson says: "It's the law. My manager will be here in just a second."

(The manager in question is clearly having problems with a screen full of drive-thru orders, and hasn't even realized he's being called for, even though the cook closest to the front bin's also trying to get his attention, now.)

"Sorry, I have to take this call," Martha says, putting the phone to her ear and gently -- but firmly -- bustling herself and Kaitlyn to the door through the clearly-disturbed crowd of would-be diners: "Yes, George? ... What? ... How many pills? ... Oh gosh, get her to drink a glass of water with a few tablespoons of salt in it, and I'll get there as soon as I can. Where are you?"

"Not that rock star again..." Kaitlyn sighs, playing her part in their practiced deception perfectly. 

"Well, honey, you know how it is-" Martha starts to say, but then stops short as a strange light appears between her and the door, and the weird, whiteboard sound of a teleportation goes off.

An Imago appears, there. Orange and Grey. Smiling brightly.

"Greetings, O Citizen," he says, taking a step towards them and holding up his hands: "Is everything alright, here?"

"Of course it is," Martha says, trying to adopt the biggest, most fake smile that she can: "I just had a little trouble with my Drivers License, and then I got a call from my assistant about one of my patients."

"Truly, O Citizen?" the Imago says: "But yet there are no signals going to your phone, and no sounds coming from it."

"Oh, well I think I lost reception," Martha says, realizing how much trouble they're in, right now.

"And I cannot help but notice that the contact lenses that you and this young lady are wearing are stopping me from identifying you."

Martha's thoughts at that second are unworthy of her, but she realizes that she's got to stick to the plan her and Kaitlyn agreed on, if they were ever caught. 

"Look, this has all been a big misunderstanding," Martha said, putting her hands up and taking a step back, getting ready to use a certain something hidden in that phone: "If I can just explain it-"

"Please, mister," Kaitlyn says, looking up at the Imago and starting to fake cry, also getting something ready: "We didn't want to run away. But my daddy gets drunk and hits us..."

"I knew there was something wrong with her!" the hippie lady with the Imago t-shirt declares, stepping forward and putting a hand on Kaitlyn's shoulder: "I bet they're dangerous persons, sir. There's something not right about them..."

"Yeah," someone else in the line says: "They acted like they didn't know about the safety measures at the registers."

The room goes ugly in a millisecond, as though someone flipped the switch marked 'lynch party.' And in that second, with Kaitlyn hampered by an innocent, and the room dynamic changing, Martha hesitates.

And is lost.

"Your facial structure is conclusive,"  the Imago says, balling up its fists: "You are Martha Samuels. She is Kaitlyn Clutch. You are dangerous persons, and must be eliminated."

"Oh, poop," Kaitlyn says, trying to get at what she was about to use, but unable to do so with the hippie lady trying to put her in a half-nelson.

And then...

(SPYGOD is listening to Open Up (Leftfield) and trying to have a chocolate shake)

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