He falls for what seems like a hundred years -- maybe even a thousand -- and remembers being told that the Kingdom of Heaven is beyond the conception of time and space. He is inside the Great Mystery, here in this tunnel of shimmering white. And he can only wonder, between flashes of life and memory, when he's going to touch ground, or at least hear a voice welcoming him home.
When he finally does, it's not God, but man.
"Mark?" he hears a woman say. It's a familiar voice, accompanied by a strange feeling.
Pain -- sharp and stinging.
"Mark, please," the voice continues as the white goes away: "You gotta open your eyes. Please !@#$ing open your eyes..."
There's more pain, now. It's to his face. His cheeks. It feels like someone's slapping him.
Someone is slapping him. And he can smell things. Metal and sweat. Wood and electricity. Burning things.
There's one more slap, and then he opens his eyes, gasping for air as though he'd just breached the water's surface. He clutches at the air and wonders where he is, and how he got here.
And then he remembers what happened back at the infirmary, and what was going to happen. But he also realizes he's not burned, and not dying.
He's in the main buffet room, up against the far wall. The giant, television-like machine that they use to travel back and forth from the real world to B.A.S.E.C.A.M.P. 4 is warming up. Myron is standing by the controls, holding a very large gun and pointing it at the door. His sunglasses are gone and his face is bloody, and the look in his eyes is terrifying to see.
Winifred is in front of him, looking extremely relieved. There's a number of SPYGOD SCOUTS near her, all holding guns at the door or tending to each others' injuries. He can't see The Wall or The Fist, anywhere. And Skyspear...
There's a strange noise, like the world being ripped open. For a moment he thinks that big, brass, fire-breathing monster he was trying to fight is coming here, crashing the treehouse to pieces as he goes. But then a hole in the air opens up, close to him, and Skyspear leaps through it.
She's holding something wrapped up in a blanket. A badly-burned stump that was once a teenager's arm is poking out from under it.
"He's awake!" Winifred shouts to the woman, who places the blanket-wrapped-boy on the ground and falls to her knees, panting.
"Thanks God," she says, between breaths: "I got Thomas out of there, but I could not get his machines. Do we have anything here that can help him?"
"I'll keep him breathing," one of the Scouts says, and hustles over: "But we'll need the machines. Can you go back?"
She looks at him, and then, bowing her head, nods weakly: "Give me time. Too many short jaunts weaken me. If I go too soon I may be lost..."
"You saved me," Mark says, holding his hand towards her: "You... I thought I was dead..."
She just smiles at him, and takes his hand in hers: "Alhamdulillah"
"Alhamdulillah," he repeats, noticing for the first time how truly lovely her eyes are: "Thanks be to God."
"Where are the others?" Myron asks, taking a step away from the controls (but keeping his eyes, and the gun, aimed right at the door): "Are they still fighting it?"
"They are," Skyspear says: "The Fist and Green Man are trying to distract him. I do not know where the Wall is, but I suspect he is near."
"Are the satellites...?" Mark asks, trying to get to his feet.
"That's what's going back now," Myron says, gesturing to the six large, metal spheres in front of the machine, caught up in the flickering, bright field that's starting to dominate all the light and sound in the room: "The thing's gotta rest for five minutes after that. Then we send back Thomas and whoever's badly hurt."
"What about the monster?" Winifred asks: "Can we hold it off?"
"We'd !@#$ing better," Myron shouts to be heard over the machine's noises: "If it gets past us, and figures out how to get this thing working..."
He doesn't have to finish the sentence. In fact, Mark remembers teaching the hero that monster was masquerading as how to operate it just the other week, before the metal man lost his temper and vanished.
If Moloch gets past them, he'll have no problems operating the machine. He'll go to the Toon colony and cause mayhem, there -- maybe even stop the rockets from launching. He'll destroy their entire war effort in one blow.
He'll doom the entire world just to win.
* * *
Prentice walks up the corridor to the main communications hub, doing his best to conceal the cylinder he's brought along as a surprise.
The plan is pretty simple. He'll apologize for interrupting, of course, and then he'll explain why he's actually here. It seems there's some energy variances that they detected not too long ago (true), and they're bound to play havoc with the signal that Director Straffer's machine is going to cause (maybe).
The cyborg will probably want to look the papers over, but he'll want to do it by the machine. While he's doing that, he'll be far enough away that Prentice can pull out the explosive and arm it, and then show that grumpy, dictatorial narcissist the true reason for his visit.
And then, while the shock's still setting in -- and before the clanking, stumbling, metal stick man can think of something to do -- Prentice will calmly and coolly tell him why this is happening.
And, most importantly of all, why Prentice is the one doing this.
He didn't get that short straw entirely by chance. He was meant to do this. And the reasons for that meaning -- that very legitimate and pointed meaning -- have been a long time coming.
It's the stuff of epic legends, that reason. And Prentice is going to tell Straffer all about it, just before he lets the trigger go and ends himself, the cyborg, the machine the !@#$er was working on, and the whole !@#$ room.
As he walks closer to the door, Prentice can feel the weight of destiny alighting on his shoulders. He can feel the wheels of karma turning under his feet, and the brilliant shine of justice upon his brow.
Everything that has happened, up until now, has brought him here, to this moment, on this day. He will do what must be done, and perhaps be remembered for what others would see as a noble sacrifice, or a logical decision.
But that doesn't matter to him. It doesn't matter if no one ever remembers this, or hears of it. He doesn't mind if his name is expunged from the history books the children of Alpha Base Seven will one day write.
All that matters is that Straffer will hear the reasons for his demise at Prentice's hands. That will be obituary enough for him, and a monument to rival the Pyramids.
That will be all he's ever wanted; who would go on living after such a perfect moment?
* * *
"Oh, thank God," one of the Toons says as the satellites begin to materialize in front of the giant television.
"They're coming through!" Fred shouts into the communicator to B.A.S.E.C.A.M.P. 4: "Well done, guys! Is everything okay, over there?"
There's nothing but static as a reply. Fred looks at the Masked Leader of the Resistance for assurance or instructions, but the man shakes his head and points to the six machines coming through.
"Get them on board the rockets as soon as they're fully here," he says: "And then get the machine pad cleared, and send for a medical team. I have the feeling we may be getting casualties."
"That's what I said, son," he barks: "Do you need to be reminded of what that means?"
"No, not at all," Fred starts, never having been shouted at by this man before: "I'll call them right now."
"You do that," the man says, watching the machines wax full and solid as the Toon technicians prepare to zap them with tooninator guns -- the better to smack them into Toon rockets, which will then be turned back into real rockets just before launch.
And then, once launched, begin a wave of counter-Imago signals that will end this horrible war before it even really gets a chance to start.
But as the technicians begin working, and the medics run down to their ready stations, the man realizes that there's something else that needs to be done, here, if they're not only going to win, but be worthy of that victory.
Something horrible that he clearly can no longer avoid.
* * *
Moloch strides from the bloody, red ruins of the infirmary, watching as blood droplets quiver in the air, trying to reform themselves into something capable of giving into gravity.
It thought it had seen everything, more or less, but what just happened in that room defied all explanation. If it were not what and who it were, it might be toppled over, laughing itself to pieces at the thought. But it has no time for such things.
Not now that the end of the game is so tantalizingly near.
What happened was no less than the answer to an age-old question: what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? It never had a good reply to that conundrum, but now it does.
Those two things explode -- taking out the rest of one's adversaries if one is very lucky, or a god.
Moloch could not have coordinated the events any better. No sooner had it been denied the right to burn Mark Clutch from the face of this world, thanks to that Skyspear woman and her abilities, than it was attacked by the Fist. And while a single punch from her might not have been enough to destroy Moloch's mighty body, it was enough to cause some significant structural damage, and send it sprawling across the floor.
But it was not a clean hit. Moloch's body was incredibly hot, and whatever gifts the Fist may have been given at birth, withstanding high temperatures was clearly not amongst them. She got in three good hits, and then backed away from the fight, screaming at the smoking, melted ruin that were her hands.
Green Man had said some angry things at her, then, but his own attacks -- however embarrassingly precise -- were nowhere near as effective as hers. Moloch got to its feet quickly, hurling fireballs at the two of them, and the Green Man had entered into combat with it, again -- parrying all its blows and leaping out of the way from its fire, but unable to actually hurt its metal skin, or kill the human hero who'd been providing it with fire.
But the human's attacks had not been entirely ineffective. In fact, they kept Moloch from seeing that its objective -- that broken boy, Thomas -- was being snatched from its clutches by the same hero who had gotten Mark out of the way of its fire. And by the time it noticed what had happened, it was too late to stop Skyspear from taking him.
It was not, however, too late to lash out in rage, and knock the maimed Fist off her feet, and towards the door.
Which is where she ran right into the Wall, who was coming in to aid his friends.
The Wall's power was well-known: he simply could not be moved, and any who tried to move him would have their energy rebounded upon them. The Fist, on the other hand, could not be stood against, as even the slightest flick of her finger could send someone flying across the room.
In idle moments, the two would often joke about what might happen if she punched him, or he bumped into her. They often liked to say that their abilities would just cancel each others' out, but they never dared to test it.
A wise decision, as it turned out. When they hit each other, in that way, their powers multiplied and broke against one another. And the force of the resulting explosion all but leveled the infirmary -- blowing out its walls and windows, and causing that part of the building to crack, break, and warp.
When Moloch got back to its feet, there was nothing left of the Wall and the Fist but blood, and a strange, quavering, red mist that could not fully resolve itself into being liquid. There was no sight of the Green Man, either, so Moloch assumed that its boastful harrier must have been destroyed by the blast as well.
And so did Moloch -- now wiser, and facing fewer adversaries than before -- begin to make its way to the room where the machine stood. No doubt Skyspear took the broken boy there, and it would need the great machine to communicate with the real world, and SPYGOD.
The plan would work. Moloch would push through and persevere. And if the pieces weren't coming together the way Moloch had intended, that was merely a complication, and not a barrier.
For what right did errant circumstances have to tell a just god "no"?
* * *
"Well, I do appreciate your bringing these things to my attention, Prentice," Director Straffer says, looking at the readouts the man's handed him and scratching the back of his maimed neck: "Lousy timing, though. I just got the signal from Earth. The satellites are on the rockets and we're just about to launch."
"Well, I got them here as quick as I could, sir," Prentice says: "I'm sorry if it wasn't fast enough."
"I'll fix it," Straffer says, hobbling his spindly, metal legs towards his machine: "And under the circumstances, I'll even overlook the fact that you didn't care to knock."
"Well, I had to press the issue at the door, sir," he replies, smiling just a little at the thought: "You instructed Carlson a little too well."
"Well, I'm told I have that effect on people," the cyborg says, winking, and then turning to fiddle with the massive device he's slapped onto the side of the main communications hub: "So, if the Van Allen belts are up, it might distort the signal enough to be worthless. So should I boost the signal, or try to widen it out to compensate for that?"
"I'm afraid that radio engineering isn't my specialty, sir," Prentice says, getting ready to pull out the weapon and have his say.
"Ah. Well, why don't you see if you can get Carlson in here?" Straffer says, turning his back on the assassin: "This was his baby, after all. He should have a better idea."
Prentice blinks, flabbergasted. Does this man really have no idea that he's come to kill him? Is he that dense?
"I'll go and ask," he says, turning to head back to the airlock, the plan changing with each step.
"You could, but I think that'd be kind of difficult."
"What do you mean, sir?" Prentice asks, turning around.
"I mean that I can smell his blood on you," Straffer says, most pointedly not turning around.
"I don't know what you mean, sir-"
"I can also see the cylinder you've been trying to hide under your arm this whole time."
"You're not very good at this, are you?" the Director says, finally turning around and looking at him: "If you were, you'd have just detonated that thing the moment you got close enough to hand me the papers."
"Maybe not," Prentice says, no longer caring to hide the object in question. Instead he brings it out and holds it up, his other hand on the trigger: "I think I wanted to tell you why, first."
"I really don't think I care," Straffer says, stepping between the bomb and the machine he's been working on: "But you need to understand, and you need to get this !@#$ quick, Prentice, because we don't have time."
"No, it's you who need to listen-"
"If you destroy this, Earth is doomed. The Imago are-"
"No, it's you who need to listen-"
"If you destroy this, Earth is doomed. The Imago are-"
"Oh I am so sick and !@#$ing tired of hearing about the Imago!" Prentice shouts, holding the bomb aloft like it was a rock, or a knife: "Who cares about them? We are alive, here! We live! And you're trying to get us all killed!"
"I'm trying to save you, you !@#$ idiot!" Straffer shouts: "I'm trying to save the world!"
"By killing us!"
"Do you even know what's coming? Do you know why the Imago are building a spaceship in Earth's orbit? There's something worse than them on the way, Prentice."
"I'm not lying. It's coming-"
"It's coming here, Prentice. It's a million times worse-"
"And if we don't stop them, we won't be able to defend ourselves, and that thing will walk all over us-"
"Shut up shut up I was going to tell you everything-
"And when it's done with Earth what do you think it'll do to the Moon? You will not survive it, Prentice-"
"I was going to tell you why I was going to do this and you ruined it! You ruined it!"
"Your only hope is that machine! Put the bomb down-"
"You ruined it!" Prentice shouts, letting go of the switch: "You ruined it..."
Straffer shouts and tries to knock the cylinder from Prentice's hands. Prentice narrowly avoids the attack by the stumbling, stick-figure of a man, but trips over a pile of scrap parts and goes sprawling. The bomb bounces out of his hands and across the floor, over by the wall with a brilliant view of the Earth.
And when the device goes off, it's all Prentice can do to not scream in rage and frustration.
So close. So close and yet so far.
* * *
Without warning, six holes open up in the surface of the desert sands. Within seconds, six large rockets fly out of them, streaking towards the clouds, and then the dark blue sky beyond, and then the black beyond that.
And victory, hopefully.
In a fantastic treehouse on a parallel world, a young man who's too smart for his own good, and too aware of the timing involved, assumes a proper firing stance. He raises a gun that's just a little large for him, and starts firing down the dark, wooden corridors at a flaming, metal monster that's heading his way. He knows he can't really hurt it, with this gun, but he hopes to slow it down, any way he can.
And lord knows -- hope's gotten him this far.
In the secret underground of a colony of living cartoons, an old man switches one disguise for another. He does this knowing that this may well be the moment he's been left here to attend. If so, he's going to go out fighting the way he began, all those decades ago.
And he can only hope the fight will succeed, and that he'll be able to come back to see if the plan worked.
And on the Moon, in a chamber that had been securely filled with air, warmth, and gravity just a few seconds ago, a severely-damaged man-machine hybrid hangs on for what's left of his life, and knows that his part in the plan is finished. The device he'd been lovingly tending for the past few months is gone -- a pile of broken wreckage -- and with its passing also dies any hopes of ending this invasion with less bloodshed than it started with.
He'd curse if he could hear himself do it. He'd pray if he believed. And he'd kick the spattered pieces of the pathetic man who tried to kill him if his legs were just a little longer.
But all he can really do is feel shame and anger at how stupidly this all came apart, and, hopefully, use that anger to fuel his next, critical moves.
And force himself to do the one thing he really did not want to do, ever, but now may have no choice left.