Tuesday, March 11, 2014

12/31/12 - Black Christmas (Randolph Scott)

Neo York City, New York
9:05 AM

The first thing Randolph Scott thinks when he hears a voice, rousing him from sleep, is that Helen's come back to him, somehow. He smiles and rolls over onto his back, smiling at the thought of opening his eyes and looking into her face. And maybe then he'll get up, and maybe they'll just stay in bed for a while, just to start Christmas Day off right.

But then he opens his eyes, and he sees that it isn't Helen waking him up, after all.

(How could she? She's dead. She died right in front of him, right there in his arms. And he still doesn't know if the last words she said are something she said through dying, bloody lips or something he just imagined, however strongly...)

No. It's Karl and Jana. And they look really worried.

"Randolph?" Karl says: "You have slept through three awakenings, now. Are you not getting up to cover the story?"

"What...?" Randolph asks, sleep still trying to pull him down: "What story?"

"There is fighting in the streets," Jana says: "It is all over the television."

Randolph's about to ask what fight, and what streets. But then he remembers what's been going on, here in America. He remembers that there's been a powderkeg, right under their feet, since before the Imago left.

And he remembers that the fuse got lit just under a month ago, right the !@#$ in front of him.

"Jesus !@#$ing Christ," he says, leaping out of bed: "You should have pulled me out and dragged me up, Karl!"

"We were just about to," Karl explains, holding up a computer pad: "There is movement in every state capitol. Shots are being fired and Governors are being seized."

"Secessionists?" Randolph asks as he heads for his closet to get his clothes. As he does he almost trips over Jana, who -- quite helpfully -- already has them out and ready to go. He looks at the closet, looks at her, thanks her with a smile, and starts pulling his black, padded gear on, one leg at a time.

"Karl, are they Secessionists?" he repeats, getting his shirt on.

"Of course, Randolph," Karl says, a little taken aback: "I thought you were having fun with me. Who else would it be?"

Randolph looks at his adopted Nazi clones, and smiles: "If it was anyone else? I'd be !@#$ing grateful."

* * *

By the time he gets downstairs, the other kids have a ton of information to give him. 

The attack started at 8:55 AM, EST, and was coordinated to go off simultaneously. The major targets seemed to be state Capitols, with an aim at either taking hold of the Governors, or else securing the Capitols against their coming in. In states further out West, there was word of elected officials being rousted from their homes, along with their families, and being roughly transported elsewhere.

And, based on what the live video feeds were showing, it was the Secessionists, alright. The "Remember Eben" shirts and pins gave it away, as did the presence of some individuals with obvious powers, high-tech weapons, or both. The leftover Legion members, come down from their compound to do their mighty thing at last.

But Randolph notes with sadness that some of those powers he sees smashing buildings, throwing police cars, and breaking guards and cops in half were members of the new crop of heroes: all the color-coded kids that SPYGOD had brought out for the Reclamation War. The ones he'd since deputized to police the cities and render aid in the absence of real Federal aid or authority, only now some of them are clearly on the other side of it.

He recognizes some of the faces from documentaries on the revolution, and knows that some of them were people he was cheering on, once. He may have even watched one or two of them at work, and seen them cry when they learned what their battle had cost them. 

Watched them mourn their dead friends and loves, just as he had at the end.

Of course, this would not stand. The National Facilitator -- Mr. USA -- was already on television, dressed in his new uniform and explaining that the might of the Terre Unifee was already on its way to America, ready to deal with this "disgraceful behavior." He, himself, would soon be heading out to deal with the bands that dared to come into Washington D.C., itself. 

"To those persons engaged in rebellion, I tell you now," he says, looking into the camera and glowering for all it's worth: "Stop this. Surrender. Lay down your arms and surrender. You will not be harmed if you cooperate. You will be given a fair trial. You have my word on this. 

"But you also have my word that should you continue fighting, there will be no mercy for you. None. I can guarantee you no shelter or aid when Le Compagnie arrives. I see you as my wayward countrymen. They will only see you as enemy combatants. And you've seen how they handle them, around the world.

"Surrender now, and be saved."

And with that, he waved a hand, levitated over the podium, and flew out of the Rose Garden, ready to make good on his threat.

"Well, you go, Mr. President," Randolph sighed, having his third cup of strong coffee in five minutes: "What else we got? Any obvious flashpoints we can get to from here?"

"We could go to the Governor's Mansion," Gunther offers, pointing to a screen showing what's raging outside the Executive Mansion, up in Albany.

"We could also go downtown," Helmut offers, holding up still photos of a battle raging in Times Square.

"I think there is a bigger problem," Karl says, looking at his pad and holding it up: "The compound in Montana. It is being attacked, now."

"How do you know where that is?" Randolph shouts, grabbing the pad out of his hands: "I told you not to look into that, Karl. We have to protect our sources."

"Yes, protect them," Karl says, tapping what the satellite imagery is showing: "And here is what we are protecting them from, yes?"

Randolph doesn't have an answer for that, now. All he can see are superbeings crashing down into the wooden palisades and temporary structures and bringing down the wrath of Heaven. Or at least France.

"Why them first?" Randolph says, having a sinking feeling as he remembers the people he met, there: "Why them first? This doesn't make any sense."

"Maybe they want to kill the head first?" Helmut asks: "If it is possible?"

"It's not even the head, really. They're important, but they're too decentralized."

"Unless they aren't," Jana says: ""You always said there was something strange about it. Perhaps this is where we find out what?"

"A long way to Montana, though," Helga says, consulting the map: "Do we know anyone who can fly us there in time?"

"I got something better," Randolph says, opening a nearby desk, rifling through his disposable, one-use-only cell phones, and finding the one marked India.

* * *

There are mountains. There are trees. There are buildings made of wood and metal.

And there is fire and screaming, everywhere.

Not far from what's left of the compound's gates, there's a noise like markers on a whiteboard. Five people appear from nowhere: Randolph, dressed for a fight; Karl and Jana, padded up and set to record it on camera; Dosha Josh, still in civilian clothes; and Anil, his face recently scarred, and his black trenchcoat in need of repairs.

"This is the last time we are doing this!" Dosha shouts above the screaming and explosions: "I made you one promise!"

"And I appreciate it!" Randolph shouts back, ducking as someone built like a tank goes sailing over their heads, trailing blood and teeth from what used to be his mouth as he goes: "You can !@#$ off if you want! Just come back when we call, okay?"

"Oh no," Anil says: "I'm not your Taxi service, you gaand."

"Anil," Dosha says, putting up a hand, and then glowering at Randolph: "One more ride, outlaw reporter. Straight home from here. And then we're quits."

The Indian pointedly extends a hand. Randolph looks at it, and then shakes it, knowing this is the end of their working relationship. And, with that, the two Indian men vanish, and it's just Randolph and his kids. 

Alone again.

"This is gonna get ugly," he says, unfolding a Tec-9 and striding forward: "Keep 'em rolling, but don't be afraid to duck and cover. I got my mike."

"Oh, don't worry," Karl says, holding his own weapon at the ready and looking around as Jana adjusts the focus on her shoulder-camera: "We'll be happy to go to ground."

And then they're through the burning, wooden gates, and wishing to God they'd just stayed at home. 

* * *

How does Le Compagnie make war? 

Ideally, they start by sending in their quick people. Speedsters zip through the target area, disarming where possible, and disorientating where not. Teleporters appear in key areas, turning off power grids and shutting down larger weapons, the better to keep their allies from being blasted by artillery, laser grids, or the like. 

Then the infiltrators make themselves known. Shape-shifters and disguise experts, doubtlessly there for days, rip off their masks and illusions and take high-ranking prisoners. They also free the prisoners and hostages of the enemy, if any, and see to their escape just before all !@#$ breaks loose. 

That !@#$ comes from above. Fliers and powerhouses, streaking or crashing down from the clouds without much warning. The tall towers, communications arrays, and any remaining weapons are gone in seconds. The gates smashed down. The way open and clear.

And then, everyone else swarms in. Fighters and brawlers, come to pummel and pulverize anyone left standing. Furious fists and feet, strange weapons, and strange abilities that make the average collection of armed thugs and mercenaries fold within minutes, if that.

That's the ideal procedure, of course. It works great against tyrants, dictators, slavers, mercenary camps, arms bazaars, and the like. It works fairly well when there are a few opposing supers to contend with, too, or maybe an entire army of them.

It breaks down a bit when there are non-powered -- though mostly well-armed -- civilians in the way.

The first thing Randolph sees when he rounds the corner into the main staging area is a man on fire. He can't scream any longer, but he can still run. And he's running away from the person who's set him on fire (some guy from Sweden with white skin, black lips, and eyes like burning rubies), but not getting very far.

Randolph watches as the man takes three more panicky steps, stumbles, and falls down dead. He had a six-shooter in his hand. His wife is screaming and trying to raise hers, getting their child behind her as she tries to fire.

The white-skinned pyrokinetic hisses something, his voice making heat ripples in the air. It might be to not be stupid, and surrender. It might be insults or mockery. But he either doesn't speak English or doesn't care to, and she's too scared and grieving to puzzle out what he's saying.

"!@#$er," Randolph spits, shooting his gun at the guy's feet.

The man turns around, surprised.

"You!" Randolph shouts to the lady: "Drop your gun, get down, and go find the other prisoners. He can't kill you if you surrender."

She's crying too much to respond, but she seems to understand. She drops the gun and kneels down, crying. Her daughter won't stop screaming.

The hero glowers and stomps over to Randolph, clearly not happy. But Randolph points to the cameras and smiles: "Press, !@#$-o. Care to comment on how you're doing, today?"

"Fan ta dig," the guy snorts, turning around and pointing to where the lady needs to go, which she eventually does. Once she's up -- and being bundled off by someone less ready to kill her -- the hero takes her weapon in his hands, reduces it to slag, and drops it into what's left of the man he just burned alive.

"So, you couldn't have just touched his gun and melted the barrel, huh?" Randolph asks him as he stomps off, looking for another fight: "Did anyone !@#$ing train you in dealing with people who don't have powers?"

No answer from him. But seconds later there's another scream as some guy with a pair of guns too large for him to use gets flattened into paste by a woman who's two sizes too tall. And then a rain of red follows as some poor woman gets picked up and hurled to the ground, hard enough to vaporize the body. Buildings full of well-armed men and women are set afire, turned to ice, disintegrated, or superannuated.

And while the super villains are still there, fighting alongside their underpowered charges, none of them seem to be caring about their welfare, any longer. They're fighting to save themselves, now. 

It's every cape for himself.

And Randolph strides through the thick of it -- ducking where he has to, firing when he must. He sees it all happen. He intervenes where he can. He asks questions of those who are still able to answer, and tries to get answers from those who think they are above question.

He is spattered with blood and less identifiable things. His face is streaked with dust and soot. Halfway through his mike cuts out and he has to shout to be heard.

But he does not stop. He can never stop. He has to go one more step, peek around one more corner, drag one more wounded survivalist idiot to where the prisoners are being held, berate one more "hero" for using their powers first and asking questions later.

He sees people die, all around him. He knows some of them from the time he came here, but many are complete strangers. But he sees in their eyes the same exact thing: anger and fury at the death of their dream. 

And it isn't until it's almost over that he realizes he hasn't thought of Helen this entire time. 

* * *

"So," Tempete Bleu says, putting his nose in a delicate, bone-white cup of strong coffee as he stretches his legs: "Did you see enough, here, Msr. Scott?"

"I did, yes," Randolph says, wiping his face with a towel some hang-faced functionary was kind enough to bring him.

"And what will you say?" the French hero asks, looking down the way at the smoldering pile of ashes that was the compound, just an hour or two ago.

"I'm not sure," he admits, looking at Karl and Jana, who are doing their best to stay strong in the face of it.

They're sitting on folding chairs in a TU basecamp that didn't exist until ten minutes ago. One of the speedsters set it up between heartbeats: assembling metal huts and reinforced tents faster than anyone could see. And then came a few dozen white and blue-garbed relief workers, ready to tend to the stricken and set up basic food services, as well as take charge of the living and the dead.

All members of Le Compagnie have a trailer of sorts. Randolph and the kids are sitting outside Tempete Bleu's,and being guarded by some well-armed, beefier fellows wearing red and white. They don't have their reporting equipment or weapons, anymore. 

All they have is coffee, warm towels, and what may be an understanding -- dependent on what happens next.

"You are not sure," the French hero repeats, putting his hand under his chin and looking askance: "Now, are you saying that to me because you are afraid of what I may do? Or is that the truth?"

"Stories don't always write themselves," Randolph says, having some of that coffee: "I came here to see what would happen. I figured it could go one way or the other. I'm not entirely surprised it happened this way, but I am shocked."

"Shocked?" Tempete Blue asks, a little amused: "Has your SPYGOD not told you about what happens in a war where those with powers fight those without them?"

"Is this a war, then?" 

"Yes," the French hero insists, his eyes flashing: "We are not kindly disposed to those who would brandish arms against us, Msr. Scott. I do not know what you may think of us, but we are not going to parlay with armed insurgents in a time of global crisis."

"No, I don't suppose you can," Randolph admits, sipping a little more of the coffee.

"And I am not sure I care to parlay with so-called outlaw journalists who enter a warzone, shoot at my people-"

"Shoot near your people," Randolph says: "People who were killing civilians-"

"If they had a gun, they were not a civilian any longer!" Tempete Bleu shouts, knocking the cup of coffee right out of Randolph's hand: "I do not care if it's men, women, or children! If you raise a weapon against us, you are a criminal! If you declare war against us, you are the enemy! And in war, the enemy is fought!"!

Randolph looks at his hand. He doesn't think it's broken, but it's going to smart for a few days.

"And in war, truth becomes the first casualty," Randolph says, looking the hero in the eyes.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean I don't know what my story is, just yet, but I'm sure it's not just 'Le Compagnie defeats American secessionist and super villain alliance.'" he continues, gently taking a Karl's cup -- as he's not having any -- and sipping from it: "There's something strange going on here, Mr. Blue-Storm-"

"Tempete Bleu."

"Something really weird. Because I don't think you didn't know this was here, up until today. I don't think you didn't know this was happening. And I don't think you didn't know what these people were planning, especially if you had infiltrators inside this camp for the last few days, or maybe all along."

"We struck at the moment when all heads were out of the sand," the Frenchman says: "If we struck too early, they would go back underground and we would lose them."

"Point taken," Randolph said: "But I don't think the Governors, State Legislators, and people who were caught in the middle of this would see it that way. They might even say you were reckless with their safety for not shutting this all down when you could."

Randolph smiles, and Karl chuckles. The French hero does not have any emotions on his face, but it's clear he's not very happy.

"So I let you leave, and you accuse us of poor handling?" he asks, returning to his own cup of coffee.

"You let us leave, give us back our equipment, unmolested, and we don't send the whole kit and kaboodle out into the world, unedited," Randolph says, smiling: "I've got it all saved somewhere else. I don't make a deadline, it goes out. All of it. 

"And I don't know about you, but I think I might want to keep a tight lid on your Swedish barbeque boy, at the very least."

"Ah, Helvete," Tempete Bleu says, smiling: "He is quite excitable, is he not? Still, a worthy addition to the team."

"You pig," Jana shouts, throwing her coffee at him: "You sickening pig! Did you not see what your people did? Did you not hear the screams?"

The French hero looks at his dirty suit, sighs, and gets a towel from the functionary: "I think this interview is over, Msr. Scott."

"Do we have an agreement?" Randolph asks, getting up and looking down at him.

"You may take your equipment, but not your weapons," the man says, not looking back as he towels the stains: "And you will ask permission to be at all such combats in the future. If you are not there with us, and you are armed, you will be treated the same way we treat all such people. And you have seen that, here, today."

"We sure have," Randolph says, bundling up Karl and Jana: "We'll show ourselves out?"

"You will be escorted out," Tempete Bleu says, getting up and pointing to the red and white guards: "
Messieurs? Ces imbéciles sortir d'ici. Tirer sur eux s'ils font des problèmes."
"Cochon ridicule," Jana hisses under her breath as they walk away, hoping he heard it.

On the way out of basecamp, after getting their things, they're marched past a  flimsy-looking pen for prisoners. It was quickly constructed just after the trailers were set up, and the less-wounded, non-powered prisoners were ushered in, there to sit and wait to be picked up. They're all wearing thick, metal collars, and the walls of the pen are blinking. 

The threat isn't even needed.

Randolph looks into the throng of dirty, bloody people and sees the woman whose husband was set on fire. She's sitting with her child and singing to her, trying to get her to sleep.

She doesn't look in his direction. He couldn't handle it if she did.

* * *

"Dude, what the !@#$ is your problem?" someone at SPYGOD's Christmas party asks Randolph. 

That brave soul gets a fist in his face for his troubles, and that's not the only thing he throws over the next thirty seconds -- most notably a can of beer at the television SPYGOD's attending his own party through. And thirty seconds after that Randolph's out on the wet, snowy street in front of the inn, on his face, with his coat being tossed after him.

"!@#$ you all," Randolph says, getting up: "!@#$ all of you! You hear me?"

No one does, at that point. So he stumbles to his feet, feels his face to make sure nothing's broken, and begins to walk home before he remembers he has no idea where the !@#$ he is.

Just like life, really. 

He shouldn't have come to the party, tonight. That much was certain. He got the invitation a week ago and just sort of snorted at it, all things considered, but as the night wore on, and the story began to wear upon him -- as it often does -- he began to think that maybe a drink or two with people who weren't journalists was just what he'd need.

Unfortunately, he was wrong. Because he wrote, and he drank, and he drank as he wrote. And once the story was done, and the monumental truth of what he'd actually written -- the story, itself -- smacked him upside the head with all the force of a sledgehammer, he was really in no fit state for any kind of company.

The kids tried to tell him. They did. They told him to stay home and relax. Have a warm bath. Sleep it off. 

He told them to !@#$ off. He screamed at them. He said horrible, hateful things that he never meant to ever say, about their naivete and innocence and wide-eyed wonder and the like.

He told them that if they loved him they'd leave him, just like everyone else, and go find their own way for once.

By the time he realized that was not the right thing to have said, he was already in a cab and getting out at the party. And it just got worse from there, because everyone there was either a Strategic Talent or a hanger-on, or someone from the COMPANY. And none of them were in a mood to talk about anything but what they'd just been through.

And, as is the custom of such people at such times, they got through the horror and the pain by trying to get plastered and make light of it -- things that Randolph was in no way able to handle seeing, right about then.

Especially when his story started going around the world, and people -- not realizing he was actually at the party -- started commenting on it.

He could handle being told he was a troublemaker and a putz. He could handle people wondering which side he was on. He could even handle it when some moron with more muscle than brains decided to expound on his opinion of "outlaw journalism."

But then some douche had to go and say the magic words: he said they had it coming.

"They did, huh?" Randolph asked the guy, who he'd maybe seen at one heroic function or another. Long green hair, big muscles, bad taste in holiday ties.

"Yeah, well, if you're in a war zone and you've got a gun, it better be pointed the other way," he said, smiling over his martini like it was some kind of !@#$ing joke: "Amirite? Amirite?"

"You stupid dog!@#$er," Randolph said, slamming his own drink down: "Did you even watch what I did? Did you? Or did you just catch the main parts and then tune the !@#$ out?"

"Hey, man," someone says, putting a hand on Randolph's shoulder. He shrugs it off and square up toe-to-toe with the other guy and asks him once more: "Did you?"

"Maybe not all the way through," the guy admits, clearly not too concerned.

"Then maybe you should watch it again, you !@#$," Randolph says, poking his finger in the guy's massive chest: "Especially the bits where I showed that there were kids in there. Did you see them?"


"Did you !@#$ing see them?"  Randolph screams, smacking the guy across the face: "Did you see those kids, hiding behind their parents? Did you see the old people being turned into giblets? Did you see those scared, stupid idiots who thought they were going to be protected, and then found themselves in a !@#$ war zone? Did you? Did you?"

The guy just looks down at Randolph, not sure what to do or say, here.

"My god," Randolph says, turning to harangue the crowd: "Don't you get it? That wasn't a good thing that happened up there. This is not a good thing that happened today. You didn't win a victory. You put down a sad and sorry thing that could have been handled nonviolently_''

"Pfft," some COMPANY Agent snorts: "Did you want us to talk them down from an armed rebellion?"

"You didn't have to !@#$ing kill anyone today!" Randolph screams: "You people! You've got powers, don't you? Didn't anyone teach you how to use them creatively? Ever?"

He looks at the television, from which SPYGOD is staring. It's the only way he can be here, tonight, due to house arrest.

"Didn't you teach these people anything?" Randolph shouts, walking closer to the camera in front of it: "Didn't you tell them that the American people are worth making exceptions for? That they're worth saving? Worth going the extra mile to help? Didn't you?"

"Well-" SPYGOD tries to say, but someone steps in front of the television before he can answer.

Someone rather big.

"Dude, what the !@#$ is your problem?" that guy says, and something about how he says it -- the total, buzzed vacuousness of it -- makes Randolph decide to stop talking and start punching.

Hence the fight. Hence the ejection. Hence his walking home in the snow and the cold, drunk and angry and bloody. No wonder the cabs won't stop.

At some point, he sits down on a park bench. He maybe dozes off for a bit, then. Someone tries to wake him up but fails, and he gets the sense that someone's moving him, but he doesn't !@#$ing care, anymore. Let them rob him, kill him. He doesn't !@#$ing care.

!@#$ it all.

But when he wakes up the next day, he's in his own bed. He's been cleaned up, put into his night clothes, and tucked in. They've even left breakfast, water, pain pills, and a bucket by the bed.

He smiles, thinking he knows who got him out, last night. But as he gets showered, and moves around the house, he can't help but realize that there's no one there but him.

At some point, he thinks to check by the bedside. There's a letter there, inside an envelope. It's signed to him.

And !@#$ him, but he already knows what it says.

"I love you," he says to them as he sits and gets ready to read his kids' long-overdue goodbye letter. To his credit, he doesn't start crying until the end.

And doesn't start drinking until he's read it three times, and is absolutely certain this is not goodbye.

(SPYGOD is listening to Stagger (Underworld) and having a Shut The !@#$ Up Ale) 

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