Though the city may have been all but leveled during the Civil War, it's come back up from the rubble and ashes to become a near-perfect mixture of old and new. Picturesque, historic buildings share the same space as more recent constructions, without either seeming out of place. It's calm and peaceful, efficient and clean, and tranquil to the point where even the most cynical of visitors -- if they listen to the true stirrings of their heart -- would perhaps think of moving there, someday.
It's everything you could want in a State Capitol, and that's what makes this day especially sad.
By the time the Neo York City crew gets to their landing zone, just outside what's left of the State Capitol Building, itself, the immediate area has already been wrecked beyond recognition. The buildings are on fire, the streets are shattered, and heavy objects are flying through the air like rocks thrown by small boys. The calm has been broken by the sounds of sirens, shooting, and screaming.
Lots and lots of screaming.
The secessionists have taken the Captiol area, using the muscle of the turned Strategic Talents and leftover Legion Supervillains to hold and enforce their position. The Governor has been abducted from his mansion, along with his family, and is being held at the nearby Museum of the Confederacy. All available emergency services are too busy fighting fires and dealing with the wounded to mount a real rescue, to say nothing of rolling the armed belligerents back.
And -- just to make things worse -- a large number of the police have joined with the attackers, sensing that a chance to grab hold of their long-denied neo-confederate destiny has come 'round at last.
As for those in costume? They preen and pose, strutting upon the smoldering mountains of rubble like cockerels in near-human shape, and cheering like beasts baying over a kill. The ones long-known to be villains have merely revealed themselves for what they've always been, however hidden or dormant those personae were. And the so-called heroes have shucked their assigned uniforms and codenames for things more befitting their new, chosen identities.
Meanwhile the true heroes of the day -- the ones that held true to their oaths and their station -- lie dead or broken around them, lashed to signs and bolted to walls as warnings to some, and examples to all.
The appearance of much-needed, strategic intervention does not signal the end to the conflict, but merely a different stage within it. Speedsters whirl around the slow-moving, only to be outflanked by other, quick-moving types, and lured into near-endless races of doom. Powerhouses trade blows and fling weighty objects at one another, hoping to wear their defenses down. Those that can fly turn the sky into a protracted dogfight, those with strange offensive powers draw at fifty or more paces, and those with more interesting abilities find their foils and test them.
And as the colorful and the costumed rage on earth and in heaven, the real work gets left to those whose skills lie within darker avenues.
Call them the shooters, if you must: you wouldn't be the only ones. They're the Strategic Talents whose powers and abilities lie not within altered DNA or grossly enhanced bodies, but in their aptitude for ranged combat -- the magic that happens in the space between their eye and index finger. On a normal day, in any other fight, they'd be using their signature weapons to bring down their overpowered foes, knowing full well that they could take what damage they could do -- or maybe not, as the case may be.
But here, today, they are under orders to stun, only, if only because the eyes of the new world are watching.
And so, while the proud and the powerful clash loud enough to shame thunder, the sneaky and underhanded quietly unleash their F-guns on the enemy combatants. The chittering, swirling rays of orange and purple that overwhelm the senses of anyone caught by them, and bring them down in seconds. Lines of traitorous police officers fall collapse where they stand, still trying to use their now-useless authority. Waves of hidden survivalists and secessionists are likewise brought down to the earth, as even their well-padded boltholes and improvised cover will not protect them from this.
And as they fall down, they are quickly disarmed, disrobed, and left tied up for eventual collection.
That accounts for most of the shooters, but in any battle there are always exceptions. One of those exceptions is stalking through the burning buildings and shattered ruins, carrying two large guns filled with ammunition meant to be used on the new breed of superhuman. Her orders are a simple-sounding task -- one she is uniquely suited to handle, given both her skills and temperament.
Find the new supers and kill them, no matter what.
Yanabah's been on the ground for exactly ten minutes. In that time she's shot no less than three of these turncoat newbies. Each time, she's carefully aimed for the eyes, making sure to put a spent uranium bullet through each pupil, the better to blow their brains out the back of their heads.
Because, while supers may be dense of skin or fleet of foot, eyeballs are hard to armor or protect, and brains are as fragile as a first kiss.
She's been careful, of course. She hasn't engaged anyone who's currently tussling with another Super, just to make sure they don't get any more blood on their uniform. And she hasn't shot anyone in such a way as to get the slaughter on camera. She finds a worthy target, slinks into position, takes careful aim, fires twice -- once from each gun -- and then slides away before anyone realizes where the shots came from.
Three volleys, three corpses, zero sightings -- so far, perfection, and she should be proud.
But as she creeps along, watching her fourth victim as she pummels one of her colleagues down, and preparing to line up that perfect, paired shot that will end her, she can't help but wonder why she isn't feeling more -- or even anything at all. Her heart isn't racing, she's breathing normally, and every time she pulls the triggers (and watches the front of their face blossom violently) she doesn't experience any of the emotions that she should. There's no joy, no pity, no hate, no revulsion.
It's as if she's moving through a scripted introduction for a videogame she's played a million times, and knows too well to be excited, anymore.
Something is missing. Something is wrong. Yanabah knows this, assuredly, but she can't figure out what's happened. And as she ends the life of her fourth victim -- blowing her up and back the second she stands up from her now-unconscious victim -- it's all she can do to go find victim number five, and hope that the answer presents itself in due course.
That's what her father/grandfather/great-grandfather would have told her, she's sure.
If only he was here to say it.
* * *
"You know, you might want to put that gun somewhere else," Wayfinder says, looking the strange-looking Russian fellow in the eyes.
"No, my friend," the SQUASH operative says, re-adjusting his grip on the very large, Soviet-made pistol -- its barrel just out of the hero's reach, but aimed right at his forehead -- "I am thinking I will keep it on you for as long as we are talking, here. I think it will persuade you we are being serious, and should it not, perhaps I will aim it at your daughter."
Yanabah growls. It's not a pleasant sound, and the two large men standing on either side of her raise their guns reflexively, wondering where that came from.
It's the mid-eighties, and they're in a !@#$ty, chain hotel in southern Iowa, of all places. The COMPANY had them flown in to help with a rather curious missing-persons case -- one that resolved itself a little too neatly for anyone's liking. And, after it was done, the group paid them for their time, and then put them up here for the night so Wayfinder could get some rest.
Only there were three Russians waiting for them when they checked in.
One of them seems to be able to phase through objects, if their rather disorientating rush through the wall is any indication. He's the one doing most of the talking. The other two seem to be standard heavies, complete with staid, Soviet stares and handguns large enough to kill an elephant at 50 paces, and a lack of conversational skills.
But one of them brought a big, heavy briefcase. And Wayfinder knows enough to know what that means. So he knows he has to play for time, at least for now.
Yanabah stands there, dressed in the same kind of work shirt and jeans that he does. Only now she wears the silver and turquoise jewelry, all around her neck. It's both therapy and restraint, at this point.
(But they don't need to know that, do they?)
"So, this case we were working," Wayfinder asks: "That was your doing?"
"Of course," the man says, grinning to reveal a mouth full of bad, brown teeth: "We needed to get you out of hiding, and so we have. How convenient that you must always rest after such an exertion! So we brought you here, where there is only one hotel, and laid in wait."
"I'll tell them to be more careful, next time," the man says, rolling his eyes.
"Except that there will not be a next time, not for your COMPANY, anyway," the Operative announces: "We have a waiting transport. You will come with us, and get on board. You will travel with us back to our space, and we will use your unique skills to our purposes."
"Like !@#$," Yanabah spits: "I don't think you could afford him."
"You see?" the Russian says: "This country is all about money. There is no vision, here, my friend. You seem to be a man who understands about vision?"
"I also understand about freedom of choice," Wayfinder says, leaning up against the dresser. The Russian clears his throat and re-aims the gun.
"It's okay," Wayfinder says: "Just resting. I'm not really able to do more than stand here and talk, if you're scared."
"You will come with us," the man says, apparently not very afraid: "This is a surety. If not for your own sake, then for hers."
The two heavies pick that moment to raise their guns and aim them at her heard. Yanabah growls again, but has made no move to take her jewelry off. Maybe she's thinking they can get out of this without her having to kill them.
Wayfinder realizes there probably isn't, though, and -- cursing himself for doing so -- begins to bring the conversation down a darker, more doomed path.
"And if I say no?" he asks, standing straight up.
"Then we kill her," the man says: "Slowly, in front of you. We have privacy and time. You will watch the whole thing."
"She knew the risks when she signed up," Wayfinder says: "And I won't betray my people for anyone."
(He sees the look on her face. She's aware of what's going on. She's pleading with him not to do this -- not to make her go backwards, to what she was -- but he's steadfast in this.)
"Well, we have also brought the Machine," the Russian says, cocking his head towards the briefcase: "It will be crude, and painful, but we will ensure that we will have a map of your mind, and how it works. Not as good as the real thing, perhaps, but enough to replicate it surgically."
Yanabah growls again -- deeper and lower. The Russian's starting to wonder what's going on here.
"And I suppose you'll make her watch?" Wayfinder asks.
"Oh yes," he says, no longer as sure of himself: "If you wish to go that route, I am certain we can let her hear you scream."
That's done it, then. There's a clinking, almost wet sound as the jewelry falls from her neck and hits the floor. And then there's that howl that has no business coming from a human mouth...
Wayfinder's outside of the hotel room before the screaming starts. He hears a gunshot, maybe two, but then nothing but wet noises. Rending and ripping, tearing and chewing.
The howl that makes his blood run cold.
"Yeah, it's Wayfinder," he says into his communicator, which -- if he'd been thinking -- he would have found a way to tap the moment he realized they'd been ambushed: "We need help. We got held up in our room by three Ruskies. SQUASH Agents, they said. Yanabah's dealing with them right now, but...
"Yes, Yanabah," he repeats as something heavy gets slammed into the wall, just before a new wave of screaming erupts: "Maybe give us a couple hours before we go in, but you better get people here now. I think there may be more of them, nearby. They spoke of a waiting transport. Maybe check the nearby airfield, any airstrips within a ten mile radius..."
The screaming gets too loud to talk, then, so he turns it off and goes back to watching the door.
They had the curtains closed. They're being soaked with blood spatters. He can almost imagine the scene inside the room, right now: pieces of Soviet agents flying all over the room, the wet squelching noises.
"Creator, forgive me," he prays, knowing that this might just take her therapy all the way back to square one, but not knowing how else he could have ended that. Sometimes you just have to use what's there, and make amends later.
That and hope the cure wasn't worse than the disease.
* * *
Not far from the State Capitol, there's some buildings that haven't been set afire, yet.
Some of them are the Museum of the Confederacy, where the Governor's being held, and a firebreak has been established to ensure his safety (until it doesn't matter, anymore). And others are just outside the conflagration, at least for now. No flaming cars, wayward bolts of lightning, or gouts of fire have been lobbed their way, just yet, and any eyebeams have been focused on targets closer to the actual fighting.
So when trio of (mostly) bruised and battered secessionist supers use it to try and escape, they're reasonably sure they're safe in one of those alleys, for now.
"Man, that sucked," a tall, well-muscled woman in a red and white suit says as they walk along: "I can't believe we actually thought we could win."
"Shut it, Red," a long-haired man in black, riding leathers -- covered in Confederate patches -- and a pitch-black, handlebar mustache commands: "You knew there was a risk, here. This is just a battle, not a war."
"They say we're losing," a skinny, blonde man in purple and white says: "I hear the West Coast already went down in flames-"
"Just a temporary setback. You watch. I bet they're pulling the reserves out, now."
"And we're bravely sneaking away to meet them?" the woman says, turning to smirk: "Face it, bro. We got hosed."
The man in black takes a swipe at her, but she parries the blow with something approaching a languid gesture and leaves him to nurse what may be a broken wrist.
"Truth hurts, Confederateer?" the kid in purple and white asks.
"I told you, it's the Black Rider!" the man insists, stopping to stick his finger in the kid's face: "And the South is going to rise again!"
"Yay, racism," the kid sigh.
"Sneer all you want, Purple Haze, but this is a White Man's nation! And the sooner you get with that-"
"Remind me again why we shacked up with losers?" the woman in red interrupts, amused to see the steam rising from their supervillain's head as he walks right through him.
"Orders, hon," the kid says: "And not the kind you can ignore-"
He'd have said more, but then twin bursts from a pair of well-used 50 calibers turn the woman's head into a wet mess, making further conversation irrelevant.
"What the !@#$?" the Black Rider says, ducking behind some trash cans and looking around the alley. The kid just stands there, staring at what's left of his fellow hero on the ground.
Another pair of shots ring out, and the wall behind the kid explodes out at eye-level. He just stands there, looking in the direction they came from, and smiles a little.
"You know, there's a reason they call me Purple Haze," he says, turning just slightly invisible: "That isn't going to work too well on me, whoever you are."
"Where are they coming from?" Black Rider asks: "Can you see?"
"If you shoot that !@#$er, I'll consider us even and let you live," the kid says, taking a half-step away from him.
There's laughter at that, somewhere up the alley. It's not very comforting.
"You little !@#$!" the villain says: "If you weren't untouchable, I'd-"
"Run," the owner of the laughter says: "Now."
He does just that, without saying another word. He gets about as far as the other end of the alley before a single shot gets him, right in the !@#$. To his credit he keeps running, but the howling and pain echo for quite some distance.
And then Yanabah comes out of her hiding place and walks up to the kid in purple and white.
"You're the one who was killing people like me, back there," he says, looking at her.
"I was, yes," she says, smiling, her guns still pointed at him.
"How many have you gotten?"
"With your friend, there? Twelve."
"And I'm going to be lucky thirteen?"
"Well, you're the last one," she says, lowering her guns just a little and cocking an eyebrow: "I guess I'm going to have to try something different with you, since you got phasing powers and all."
"You don't seem afraid of me," he says, dropping into a defensive stance: "Do you just not think I can hurt you? Is that it?"
"Passing through things isn't much of a power," she says, putting the guns away and pulling out a rather large knife.
"Oh, but I can do more than that," he says, grinning as he moves his hands past each other in successive, sliding motions: "Imagine someone reaching into your chest and squeezing your heart valves shut. Or maybe just punching into your brain after passing through your skull. I can do a lot of damage, lady. And all I have to do is touch you."
"Yeah, about that," she grins, putting the blade up: "You come and try, wasichu."
"Now that doesn't sound like a nice word."
"It's not," she says, and lunges forward.
The man just stands there, his arms outstretched, expecting her to pass through him. Imagine his surprise when the knife slams into his breastbone, breaks on through, and cleaves his heart.
He tries to speak, but coughs up blood. He falls to his knees, disbelieving. And the moment he does, she lets go of the blade, pulls out her guns -- faster than anyone should be able to -- and pulls both triggers.
Only one goes off. Shooting the racist idiot must have emptied the clip, clearly. And so the kid falls down with one ragged hole where his eye was, and yet most of his head intact.
"Oh, right," she says, looking for a fresh pair of clips as she realizes the blade's slipped position a little "Phasing powers. But I bet I can shoot all day, wasichu. I got nothing but time, now."
"Why...?" he whispers, his mouth full of equal parts blood and air.
"Orders," she says: "Not that I owe you an explanation, you little piece of !@#$."
"But we're... following..."
"What?" she asks, looking down at him: "What are you saying?"
"We're following orders... also..."
She scowls, leaning down just out of the range of his hands: "Whose orders, pal? The Legion? The Secessionists? They don't count, you little !@#$. You had your own orders, and they were given to you by the COMPANY."
"So were these..." he says, the life fading from his eyes: "SPYGOD... told us..."
"Told you what?" she demands: "What did SPYGOD tell you?"
"To help... revolution... said it would come, and we'd... need to help it... join with Legion... fight the power..."
"Bull!@#$," she stammers, watching him die: "That's bull!@#$! You're lying!"
"No..." he insists, almost choking on his own blood: "SPYGOD... ordered us to... defect..."
She looks at him as he says this. She remembers what Wayfinder told her about the last words of the dying, when lies have no profit, anymore.
She realizes that everything this man had said is true.
It doesn't stop her from blowing the top of his skull completely off the second he dies, but she's screaming when she does it.
(SPYGOD is listening to Cold Warning (Gary Numan) and having a Betrayal Imperial Red)