Myron looks up at the well-dressed, sweet-smelling person who's sitting at his kitchen table, talking to him. He hasn't shaved in a few days, and stinks of bad sweat and sour alcohol. His bathrobe hasn't been washed in forever.
And a cloud of despair floats over him, like stinky lines over a cartoon character.
"I do," he finally admits, putting his head back down on his kitchen table. There's barely enough room on it for all the beer bottles he has to shove aside to do this.
(And as for the messy floor in this darkened room...)
"Well, I'm listening."
"I know. But you don't understand."
"What don't I understand, Myron?"
"I want to talk about it. Really, I do."
"Well, I'm here-"
"I can't," he says, looking back up through red eyes: "I !@#$ing can't talk about it. That's what's !@#$ing killing me, here."
"If you're worried about certain... things coming to light, I should tell you they're already out into the open," the person says, leaning in close: "No one is going to threaten you for telling me. No one is going to harm you, or fire you. All that's done, now. It's just you, me, and this room that you haven't left for too long."
"I know," Myron says: "I know all that. But I... I just can't, okay? I saw... I saw. I was !@#$ing there. And I can't talk about it. Not now. Maybe not ever."
The psychologist nods, puts his papers back in his smart, leather briefcase, and gets up.
"Just so you understand, though?" the man says, turning to look behind him before he leaves: "This is our last conversation. I'm no longer assigned to you."
"What?" Myron says, sitting up a little.
"The COMPANY doesn't exist, anymore, Myron. I'm... well, I'm not certain what's going to happen, now. I'll probably be given an assignment in this Compagnie that the TU have created to replace it. But I'm not sure. They might just give me the boot."
"Then why the !@#$ aren't you out running up your COMPANY Card?"
"Who says I'm not?" he replies, smiling: "It's the day before Christmas. I have things to be and places to buy. So if you don't want to talk...?"
Myron looks at the man for a second. He weighs the options about throwing an empty beer bottle at him, just as a final !@#$ing mark of contempt. But then he closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and decides not to end this that way.
"I appreciate you trying," he says.
"I'd appreciate you trying," the man says, taking a half-step back towards the table: "I'd appreciate you actually taking steps to get out from under this rock you've crawled under. I'd appreciate you taking a !@#$ bath once in a while, or maybe eating a bowl of cereal instead of drinking its fermented components down by the !@#$ twelve pack."
Myron smiles: "I got to you?"
"Officially? I don't care. I'm not !@#$ing supposed to. For all I'm supposed to care, you could wipe your !@#$ with mashed potatoes and try to hump the vacuum cleaner and I'm just supposed to take notes and make sure you don't hurt yourself."
"The vacuum cleaner probably would..." Myron mumbles, wondering if he even has a !@#$ vacuum cleaner.
"But as a human being?" the man goes on, gesturing around: "As one person to another? Jesus !@#$ing Christ you've gotten to me. I'm disgusted at you. !@#$, I'm disgusted for you. I've never seen someone just... fall, like this."
"Have you talked to the COMPANY Director, lately?"
The man glares at him. Myron smiles.
"You know," he says, reaching for another beer, and finding that -- oh thank God -- it's still unopened: "This one girl I was seeing, for a while? She saw something that really !@#$ed her up. It messed her up @#$ good and ugly, broke her !@#$ brain like a wine glass.
"But she dealt with it by pretending nothing was !@#$ing wrong. She worked like mad, !@#$ed me red and raw, late at night, just carried on, either making sure to not remember or not letting herself remember. I guess there's a difference?"
"There can be," the psychologist says, slowly putting his briefcase down on the floor.
"And then, one night, it came to her," Myron continued, opening the twist-top and having a slug: "I don't know why. Maybe it was just !@#$ing time, you know? But she remembered it all. And she was ready to talk about it. And then, well... she didn't need to work like mad, she didn't need me, anymore. It was all out and done."
He takes another slug, and cradles the bottle: "So, I think maybe I'm not ready to remember it, yet. I think I don't want to face it. I think I would rather crawl under a !@#$ rock and watch bad TV, now that I can, again, and just... not deal with it."
"And this is not cowardice because...?"
Myron looks at the man: "Because if it was okay for her, it's okay for me."
"Well of course you feel that way," the psychologist says, shrugging: "I mean, you were getting some because of it-"
Myron screams. He throws the bottle at the man. Then he charges out of his chair, ready to punch that smug, well-meaning face until it looks like he feels.
He doesn't get that far. His !@#$ falls straight onto the floor the moment he hits a nasty, wet spill and he goes down into a field of glass bottles. It's only luck -- or maybe a thick bathrobe -- that keeps him from having more broken glass cuts than he gets.
The man towers over him as he lies there, weeping and whimpering.
"I didn't come here to listen to you cry like a kid with a skinned knee," he says: "I came here to find out what !@#$ing happened in the Ice Palace, that day."
"You already know!" Myron screams, wiping blood off his chest and knees: "You already !@#$ing know! Why the !@#$ do you want me to tell you!"
"Because you're the only one who can really tell us what you went through," he says, kneeling down and getting his face an inch away from Myron's: "I know what SPYGOD said, and what the !@#$ President said, and what that !@#$ magician would probably say if we could !@#$ing find him.
"But you're the one who's broken," he says, putting his hands on Myron's shoulders: "You're the one who saw it and repressed it the hardest. You're the one who held on for as long as he could, through the trial. And then, after what happened at the White House..."
He doesn't want to say. No one really does.
"So you need to !@#$ing tell me, because you need to say it to yourself in a way that means something," the psychologist goes on."You need to get out of this hole you dug for yourself. But you can't get out if you don't climb.
"Can you climb?"
Myron looks at him, and then-
-smashes down on the communicator button: "Come on! Answer me! Can you at least climb out of there? Can you !@#$ing climb?"
The only answer from Team 10 is static.
"!@#$!" Myron shouts, tossing the communicator at the stone floor of the top chamber of the Lost City. Its breaking echoes all around, momentarily enveloping the sounds of heavy machinery that have been dominating this area since his team moved in, three days ago. They have small hover-pods, drone swarms, powerful excavation equipment, anti-gravity isolation cubes -- everything you'd need to explore and exploit an alien city.
Everything but luck, it would seem.
"So what do we do?" the leader of the next team asks, looking at the massive, circular hole in the floor that the last five just vanished into. They've been suited up and ready to go all this time, but he's clearly not caring to follow their lead.
"I'm all for cutting our losses," the leader of the team after that says, shaking her head and kneeling by the lip of the hole: "We got all the Imago, right? We don't need to go any further-"
"Wrong," Myron hisses, grabbing his gear and getting ready to go down: "We need to get our people out of there, and then we can cut our !@#$ing losses."
"Sir, be reasonable-" she's about to say, but then he just stares at her, and she shuts the !@#$ up.
"Reasonable doesn't apply, here, people," he says, looking at her, and then at everyone else: "Reasonable went out the !@#$ window the moment this thing came up out of the Pacific. Reasonable is in !@#$ing Bora Bora having a drink on the !@#$ beach and a moonlight swim. It's just us and whatever reasons we bring to the !@#$ table.
"And I say my reason is that we leave no one behind. Ever."
"There may be no one left to leave behind, sir," the leader of Team 11 says, clearly hating to take Team 12's side: "We don't know what all's down there. The !@#$ probes don't work after a certain depth, and reports have been confusing at best. And this was a prison-"
"Didn't you ever !@#$ing see 'Escape from Alcatraz'?" Myron snorts, all suited up and ready to go: "And didn't I mention I used to be in charge of a prison, once?"
No one has a good answer to that.
"You, what's your name?" he says, pointing at Team 12's leader as he puts on his sunglasses.
"It's Lt. Mekkelson, sir-"
"Your name is now Lt. Chicken!@#$," he snorts: "Isn't that right, Lieutenant?"
"Yes, sir," she says, standing up and snapping off a salute: "Lt. Chicken!@#$, reporting for duty. Sir."
"Lt. Chicken!@#$, your orders are to stay up here and tally up everything that wasn't a loss. Call the Heptagon and tell them I'm going down, personally. If I don't physically make it back up here, then you call this a loss, and tell them I said not to send anyone else down there, even if they hear from me, or anyone else. Is that clear?"
"And I mean that, Lt. Not until I'm back up here do they send anyone down, and even then they better crawl up my !@#$ fat !@#$ with a DNA sniffer to make sure it's !@#$ing me. Is that clear?"
"Yes, sir," she says, still at attention.
"One more thing. There's a black box in the main gear stowage. If it starts blinking, then there's a button in it. Press it, and get the !@#$ out of the way of the massive storage box I brought with me. Is that also clear, Lt. Chicken!@#$?"
"Yes, sir. All clear. 100%. Like crystal."
"I sure !@#$ing hope so," he scowls, turning away from her: "Because you just earned a lifetime of !@#$ from me, just now. I might give an opportunity to work it off, but until then? You're Lt. Chicken!@#$, in charge of cutting losses."
"And what are we doing, sir?" the leader of Team 11 asks, taking a step forward: "We're ready to go-"
"Team 11? You're with me. We're going down in the pods and running the probes ahead of us once we're inside. Bring the viewers with us. Their signal might not be getting out of there but I'm willing to bet they'll work fine for us inside."
"Yes sir," the leader of Team 11 says, snapping his fingers at two of his men, who get the equipment in question.
"We go down at least an hour," Myron says, heading for the team's brace of open-air hover-pods, like sci-fi rocket sleds with the engines on the bottom: "If we find the previous teams, we get who we can, record what we see, and get the !@#$ out. If we find no one, we record what we see, and get the !@#$ out. The moment it goes weird or nasty? We get the !@#$ out. No heroics. But we're not giving up until I say we're giving up. That clear, everyone?"
"Yes, sir!" the rest of the team says, getting into their sleds, each one made to handle three people. Two men get into Myron's, and strap themselves down to the sides.
And then the four sleds are up, and off, and going down into the large, dark hole in the floor that swallowed up the other teams.
As they pass through the lip of the entrance, Myron can't help but think that maybe he should have stayed back up top. Maybe he should have just taken the leader of Team 12 seriously and called it off. He should have cut his losses and run, and told SPYGOD that they wouldn't be getting any tech salvage or intel from this thing the Imago broke out of, however long ago.
He could have, and maybe he should have. But that wouldn't be him, now would it? Not anymore, anyway.
The circle of light above them gets smaller with each second. The stone tunnel they're floating down becomes damp, and the air within it starts getting heavy. He can sense the strain on the engines, and knows how this might end.
But then the smooth walls of the tunnel become something else -- something he didn't see up top, because all the probes stopped transmitting, and the sled cameras wouldn't broadcast, and the descriptions were only every fifth word, at best.
And as he looks at what they've flown into, and feels the sense of the unknown come back to him -- the thrill of adventure that he's missed for so long -- he can't help but think of that fateful day, not too long ago, when he was called upon to embark on another, further adventure. One at the South Pole, in the Ice Palace.
And what happened because of it.
And what he had to do...
* * *
... well," Doctor Power says, looking down at the broken body on the floor: "There is something I can do, but-"
"Then do it!" Mr. USA shouts, balling up his fists: "We didn't come all this way to fail! Not like this-"
"We didn't fail," Yanabah insists, gesturing to the screens: "We won, didn't we? We got the Imago. The war's over. We beat them."
"But we lost this," Myron sighs, looking down at the dead body: "And boy, if we'd just been a little sooner-"
"Well, we weren't," Mr. USA says: "But if there's something we can do? Something..."
"But... the cost," Doctor Power sighs: "You don't know what you're asking. I shouldn't have even said anything. This... this could be really bad."
"Bad is us coming this far and failing," Mr. USA says, putting his hands on the old magician's shoulders: "If we won back the world, and yet couldn't save her, SPYGOD's victory will be for nothing. The relationship he's built with the President will be over, again. And... you don't want to know what happens next."
"You might not want to know what happens if I do this."
"I think we can take that chance," Myron sighs: "I mean, what? Does someone have to die for her to live? Are we all !@#$ed to !@#$ for even watching, or something?"
Doctor Power looks at him. He looks into the other room, where Skyspear has taken the other two to help them calm down. He hears them weeping and wailing, their hearts broken, their minds shattered by the brutality they've witnessed here, today.
He makes his decision.
"Get me room," he says, pulling something out of his coat. Something that's on a chain around his neck.
"Oh, thank God," Mr. USA says, going to move tables out of the way: "I knew there was something-"
"God has nothing to do with this!" the magician shouts, not looking in the old hero's direction: "This is... this is a bad thing I'm doing here, (REDACTED). A terrible thing. I can only hope that it'll buy us time to try something different."
"Wait," Myron says, getting up: "What exactly are you going to do, here?"
And then, through eyes suddenly red and shaking with fear, Doctor Power tells them. He tells them exactly what he is going to do, and how, and why.
And then, !@#$ them all, they agree to let him.
(SPYGOD is listening to Question (The FIXX) and having a Black Magic)