Monday, February 16, 2015

1/13/13 - Seven Days of the Con Job - Pt. 2.0

Prisoner 52 and Absent Friends
(Art by Dean Stahl)

Dreaming is Easy 
Life is Tough

* * *

It's 6:30 in the morning in Korhogo, in northern Cote d'Ivoire, and the dead are whispering to the bone-white man they call their king.

Prisoner 52 sits in his unlocked cell, surveying the large, gently-curving cellblock beyond. From his makeshift throne -- a stool from what used to be the Warden's office -- he can see across and down three floors, and most of the sides.

And what he can't see, he can hear with obscene and total clarity. 

The superslam is buried underground. There are no windows on their cells, and no contact with the outside world except for the ever-so-tiny vents in the ceiling that let in air, and occasionally rain during a truly torrential downpour. 

It's always a little too cold, in spite of the climate, and always too tightly-packed, regardless of how open it actually is. Smells linger for days, mold grows riot at a moment's notice, and even the warmest blanket -- stolen from the guards' quarters, after the revolution -- can't keep out the clammy damp. 

They are, however, excellent for hanging oneself, as the most current occupant of his cell can attest. 

The king of the dead is a big and burly fellow with skin the color of freshly-fallen snow. He's well-muscled and bald, with no eyebrows to speak of. His teeth are sharp, as are his fingernails. His eyes have small, black skulls for pupils. 

And no matter how much he tries to remember -- and he has tried, over the last thirty-odd years -- he simply cannot remember his name.

That might not be so odd in a place like this. So many of his fellow prisoners are incredibly damaged -- insane,  traumatized, or merely broken. It's a wonder some of them can even remember their lives before they were sentenced here.

A greater wonder that, after what happened when the Imago took over, they were able to survive as well as they did, before the Terre Unifee appeared to "rescue" them...

He smirks at that thought, listening as the solid, white walls of his cell begin to vibrate ever so slightly. The sound of a TU transport landing on the roof -- a big one, from the sound of things.

And that means that someone's getting out of here.

The whoop and cry goes up from all corners of the block -- a savage ululation, somewhere between defiance and supplication. All plans, pains, and punishments are stopped as the inmates return to their unlocked cells to make themselves ready, hoping this might be their lucky day.

The day they get to leave their past mistakes far behind them, and begin a new life somewhere well away from this place.

A day that will never come for Prisoner 52.

The ghosts that float near him begin to whisper louder, some strange echo of their hopes and dreams coming back now that so many people here are so excited. Their misplaced enthusiasm annoys him, but only slightly. He can't blame the dead for being confused, any more than he can blame a steer for defecating on the way to the slaughterhouse.

He rises from his stool, cracks his back and neck, and clenches his large, powerful fists. He strides past the piles of weapons, drugs, and other contraband his fellow prisoners have given him, hoping that when their time comes, he will be merciful. And he stands at the bars of the balcony, looking down at the surging mass of super villains as they run every which way they can.

"Like it's somebody's birthday," he muses, his voice rattling and sepulchral, and his breath so cold it steams in the air: "But who gets the surprise?"

The ghosts that float beside him have no answer. But then they never do. 

* * *
"Really?" the President of the United States sighs, looking down at the action plan he, Josie, and Ben Franklin have spent the last few hours coming up with, here in the Oval Office, since he got back from France: "How is it we can lose track of the leader of Team Alpha?"

"He goes where he wants to when he's off-duty, sir," Josie says, checking her datapad: "And, well, since it's 2 in the AM he's really off-duty by now."

"I thought we had them tagged by satellite?"

"We did, but he's a metamorph. He has a complete sense of every cell in his body. I suspect he found the tracker as soon as we implanted it."

"We suspect?"

"Well, if I was him, I'd leave it in during the day, and then take it out at night," she says, smiling: "That way we don't know where he goes, and don't know he's even gone."

Ben Franklin laughs at that: "A cunning fellow! I simply must meet him."

"Well, that's the plan," Mr. USA says, leaning back in his chair and looking somewhat dejected: "So if we can't rely on SIGINT?"

"Well, that's why I use HUMINT, sir," Josie says, holding up the pad and smiling: "I've got it narrowed down to a couple bars between Neo York, Trenton, DC, and Baltimore. We'll find him soon."

"I certainly hope so, my dear," Ben Franklin says, steepling his hands before his face as he leans forward in his chair: "He is the leader. If we take him out of the picture, the others will waste time deciding who's in charge. That's time we can use."

"Agreed," Josie says, putting her pad down: "Now, have we heard any more from the TU President about what he meant by "muscle"?"

"Not yet," Mr. USA replies, getting ready to order up yet another round of coffee, and being very glad he insisted the kitchen be open at all hours to accommodate those with odd metabolisms and weirder sleeping schedules: "I suspect he's rounding up some of his top Compagnie folks."

"That seems a little unlikely, good sir," Ben interjects: "This is the sort of thing best done quietly, in the dark of the night and the gloom of the shadows. If he sends in his brightest lights, it will attract too much attention."

"I agree," Josie nods: "It'll be strategic talents, but no one we'll have heard of before."

"Which means we won't know what we're dealing with until it actually begins to happen, unfortunately," Ben adds, leaning back and gently patting the sides of his chair. 

"Well, that's just great," the President glowers: "I'm getting really !@#$ tired of these magic mystery tours when it comes to anyone in a cape and a mask. I'd just like some straightforward planning for a change-"

"Trenton," Josie quickly says in response to what she's reading: "Wild Bill's Cowboy Bar. They stop serving at 2 but the party goes on until 3. If we hustle, we can nail him before he gets a block away."

"Excellent," Mr. USA says, standing up so quickly his chair almost breaks: "You get the troops rolling. I'll get with the Press Secretary and prepare a statement."

"What is the plan, my dear lady?" Ben asks, leaning forward as she starts tapping in orders.

"We're going to get the Cape-Containment Squad on it. Stunners only, we want him alive for questioning. And then a total containment unit."

"You mean those airtight balls?" the man shudders: "Rather medieval, I should think."

Josie looks up and smiles: "Sir, that man existed as a loose string of homosexual molecules for months on board the Flier. If we lose him, he's in the wind -- literally." 

Ben smiles and nods: "In that case, may I make an alternate suggestion? I have been working on something quite intriguing lately..."

* * *

"Quite something, is it not?" Khalil asks the beautiful woman standing next to him as they look down at the bottom of Ngorogoro Crater from the safety of the lodge's observation deck. 

"It is," Farashuu says, quite impressed by the view. From up here, the tiny world in the extinct volcano seems like a child's toy, complete with its own wispy clouds and flocks of birds.

"How many jumps would you have to make to get down there?"

"Oh, just three," she says, tracing the progress of a safari jeep, down by the lake.

"Only three?"

"Well, I'd leap from here to the center, and let myself fall," she explains, pointing to the air: "And then when I got close enough, I'd jump again and come out at a different angle, so as to slow myself. And then one last jump at the right angle, so I landed softly, and on my feet, rather than my punda."

They laugh at that, and then, nodding, turn to look around for their extraordinary contact, who said he'd be meeting them here.

The fact that this person would meet with them at all was something of a shock. That he wanted to meet in the middle of an overpriced, tourist-laden place like this safari lodge was even more impressive. 

But then, given his reputation, nothing should have really surprised them at all. 

"When did he say he'd be meeting us?" Farashuu asks, wondering if she'll need to change into her costume, or just stay in civilian dress, today.

"Right about now," Khalil replies, looking at his watch and wondering when he should ask her for a drink, after all this. 

"Indeed," a gravelly voice says, not far from them. Farashuu, to her credit, doesn't so much as jump, but Khalil has to work to avoid looking as startled as he is.

The timeless black man walking towards them is almost regal in appearance. His features are dark and stern, his hair is close-cropped to his skull, and his eyes are both commanding and terrible. He wears a metallic-grey suit so sharp it seems to cut the air as he walks, and a tie made of shimmering gold and green. 

"Sir, it's an honor," Khalil says, stepping forward to shake his hand. The man just looks at him, and then his hand, as if he was handing him a pile of monkey @#$# instead of a handshake. Khalil slowly retracts his hand, and takes a respectful step back, not wanting to anger this man in the slightest.

"Sir, please," Farashuu says: "I know there's a long-standing feud between your two agencies, but we have a bigger problem."

"A problem, young lady?" the man says, shaking his head: "There is no problem for me. I no longer have an agency, thanks to recent events. I and my remaining colleagues are, as you say, independent operators. And as such we are happy to cooperate with this sorry man, and his sorry masters, for the greater good. But I wonder if either of you appreciate the true nature of this transaction?"

"Sir, as I understand it, you have access to something our mutual friend requires," Khalil says, wondering why time seems to be going so slow, all of a sudden: "He's willing to pay you handsomely for its temporary use, and then return it to you safely and secure."

"I am certain that he is," the man nods, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a small, white box with a complicated lock: "Just as I am certain he will return it. He knows what will happen if he does not."

"Then what else is there to speak of?" Farashuu asks, trying to be as polite as she can.

"There is the matter of debts, young lady," the man says: "Three times, now, this mutual friend has been aided by me."

"Three?" Khalil asks, suddenly realizing that time has stopped, here and now -- birds caught in mid-flap, tourists' drinks frozen halfway to their mouths: "I thought this was the second time?"

"No," the man replies, handing the box over to Farashuu, who is clearly surprised at how heavy it actually is: "This makes three, as I hand over this box, and you inform your paymasters that they should, in turn, pay me. Before this was the sending of assistance during the fight for freedom, a few months ago. These two are the ones you must be referring to?"

"They are, sir, yes," Khalil says: "May I know of the first, so that I may explain this to our mutual friend?"

"You may, yes," the man says: "Tell him that when the Object was moved, and he thought he had infiltrated his way into where it had been moved, I was less than two feet from him the entire time, and yet I did not kill him."

Farashuu and Khalil just look at him, as they obviously don't know what to say.

"So you tell our mutual friend that, young lady," the man says, turning to go: "And you tell him that I said that three is a dangerous number. I will soon come to call upon him for aid. He would be wise not to refuse me."

And with that, the man turns completely, walks away, and vanishes between heartbeats. 

The birds begin to fly again. The tourists talk as though nothing had happened. And Farashuu -- aka Skyspear -- and Khalil both take a very ragged and uneven breath, realizing that the most powerful spy in all of Africa just threatened their employer.

And if you were going to assemble a short list of people you just don't !@#$ with, the Wandering Shadow would be right around the top of the list.

* * *

The inmates scatter well ahead of Prisoner 52 as he slowly strides from level to level, taking in each and every cell and office along the way.

The guards' offices are always of interest to him. The badly-battered ghosts of the men and women that used to toil there -- keeping a careful eye on the superpowered population of this hole -- remain there still, watching long-smashed screens as though they still had something important to say, or do.

As he passes, they stir into increased motion, perhaps rehearsing the last moments of their lives. Knobs are turned and monitors peered at intently as they relive the early acts of the horrible, red day when the riot swept from floor to floor, as the essentially-abandoned villains realized they would all die a lot sooner if they didn't do something about it.

All the guards had died, that day -- not a one of them in any way that could be described as good, or gentle. There had been brutal and sudden ways to die, as well as slow and torturous. There had been rape and murder, sometimes not in that order. Many inventive means were employed, either devised entirely on the spot or else done in accordance with long-imagined fantasies of revenge.

And in that paroxysm of blood, bone, brain, and bowel, Prisoner 52 -- never the most mentally engaged or aware of convicts -- had truly opened his eyes for the first time in decades, and knew, at long last, what he was.

Just not why he'd been sent here, or, more importantly, who he had been.

Other names have appeared in his mind, along with some sense of their place and personality. The ever-bountiful Aegio, fecund and full. Lordly Seranu, commanding from his throne of stars and night. Kanaan, ever-dicing with the lives of men.

And primordial Hoosk, from which all things spring fully-formed...

Those, and still even more -- a pantheon of mysterious, half-formed images and ideas. Sometimes he imagines what his relationship to them must be. Was he their brother, perhaps? A father, or a cousin? A lover of one, an enemy of another?

All of those things at once, somehow?

But try as he might, the nature of their web, and his place within it, remains a murky and uncertain thing. All these months later, all he knows for certain is that he is here, and they are not.

That and he knows what he can actually do. 

On his way to the floor, he comes across a younger fellow, dying out on the walkway -- clearly beaten to the point of death by his enemies, and abandoned by his friends. Such a thing happens a lot when the transports come, so as to eliminate competition.

(El Azul, he called himself. Some emotional pirate or some such. Apparently it did no good, down here.)

He kneels down before the young man, holding his cracked skull with one hand. The boy tries to talk, but no real words are coming. Spanish stutters and bloody bubbles as his eyes stare in two directions, their pupils widening.

"You must be calm," the prisoner says, stroking the boy's hair with his free hand: "This is not death. Death does not exist. It is merely a metamorphosis. Relax and let it happen. Nothing worse can happen to you, now."

The boy seems to take comfort at that, perhaps. Or maybe he's too weak to fight anymore. He slips away, then and there, and as the rattle comes from the back of his throat, Prisoner 52 feels a small surge of power building within him -- rising from the base of his spine to the roof of his skull, and then back again.

His pale skin begins to glow, just then -- the bones beneath revealing themselves as black, backlit structures. His eyes go wider, the skulls within them seeming to scream. And all around him that fear death are urged by the most primal portions of their brains to get away from him as quickly as they can.

And something in his mind begins to whisper a word to him -- an answer of sorts, preparing to reveal its full glory at last. 

But as soon as it's noticed, it's gone. The power dials itself back and down. He realizes that he's breathing, again, and his heart is starting to beat its familiar tattoo.

And whatever voice he'd heard, even the barest remnants of what it was preparing to say are gone from his mind, as though they'd never even been spoken. 

He looks about him, wondering if his spectral entourage has grown. It has not. Clearly El Azul was meant for a different place, after his demise. Or perhaps his presence, here at his end, kept him from being condemned to wander the stark white halls of this prison for eternity.

Prisoner 52 isn't sure. His actions are largely trial and error -- a daily voyage of discovery that seems to lead nowhere, but always gives him one more puzzle to chew over.

One day, he knows he'll get it right. Until then, he'll just have to endure.

That and be glad his singular diet is so well-sated in a place like this.

* * *

"Oh God, you're too !@#$ing gorgeous," Gosheven mutters, burying his lips into the cologne-drenched neck of the man he's left the bar with. 

"So are you," the leather-clad man says, running his hands through the pudgy fellow's hair, and then up and down his back: "I can't wait to have you."

"Why wait?" 

"What, here?" the man asks, looking up and down the almost-deserted street, just up the way from the club they left.

"No, silly," Gosheven says, gesturing to a nearby alley: "Just there."

"What, up against the wall?"

"Why not?"

"You pitching or catching?"

"I'm a big fan of 'and,' honey," the metamorph grins, and gently pulls the fellow over that way. 

Gosheven loves this sort of thing. It's still a massive turn on for him that he can go somewhere and not be recognized, even after the silly thing he said and did yesterday. And the fact that he can just go to a club and be wholly and completely anonymous -- especially when it comes to a no-strings hookup with young leatherboy -- is just the sloppy on the seconds. 

(Not that there's going to be any seconds. As soon as he's good, he's gone. And he wouldn't have gone out the door with this guy unless he thought he was on the same wavelength.)

The alley is dark and smells of old trash and wet newspaper. Two cats run out of a box before them and skitter away like the devil was after them. Gosheven grins as he adjusts his eyes to see in the dark and then debates whether to take it or give it. 

But then, as he's shifting his eyes over, he realizes they're not alone back here. There are men in No-Suits, trying to blend into the landscape. 

And they're carrying the weird, long guns with orange-and-purple lights that can drop a charging rhino for hours on end, to say nothing of most supers...

"Oh !@#$!" he says, ducking the volley that swings his way. His paramour is lucky enough to follow his lead, just then, and dive behind one of the trashcans. But no sooner does Gosheven seek to join him than he sees there's even more weird, human-shaped blurs coming down the street.

"Honey, listen to me," he says to the man beside him: "Just stay the !@#$ down, okay? They won't hurt you. They'll ask you a bunch of questions but you did nothing wrong, here. It's all about me-"

"I know," the man says, and then does something with his wristwatch that Gosheven doesn't quite see, but feels all too acutely a second or two later. It's like every inch of his body has been dipped into fire and then ice. He tries to scream but can't. 

And when he tries to shift himself -- maybe into a gas, or at least a fly -- he discovers to his horror that, for the first time in his life, he can't change his shape.

"Ohmy!@#$inggodwhatthe!@#$didyoudotome..." he stammers out as he falls down, shivering and shaking as every cell in his body utterly refuses to leave its place.

"I said I couldn't wait to have you," the man says, standing up and revealing the badge he had shoved into the front of his pants: "And now I have."

The cape-catchers. He'd been had. 

"GosheventoallTeamAlpha," the metamorph croaks out as the men in the No-Suits appear around him, stunners ready to fire: "Gameon! Run! Dear!@#$inggodrun-"

And then it's all bright lights and chittering sounds, and he's gone. 

* * *

The President throws something across the Oval Office. He doesn't care what it is, even after it shatters against the other wall, sending pieces every which way.

He can track the arc and fall of each one, but doesn't care to. He's too !@#$ angry, right now.

"I've got no excuse, sir," Josie says, radioing in from the location: "I told the agent to zap him before the others moved in. I guess he must have seen the agents, somehow-"

"Those No Suits are complete and utter !@#$, Josie," Mr. USA says, avoiding the temptation to pound holes into the desk that Teddy Roosevelt used to write upon: "Compromised six ways to Sunday, in fact."

"I'm sorry, sir. I thought we'd overcome that design flaw."

"Apparently not," the President says, sighing: "Well, I guess we have to catch the rest on the run, now. I wonder how we're going to do that."

"Did you ever find out what the President meant by muscle, sir?" Josie asks. Mr. USA's about to answer, but then he realizes he's not alone in the room, anymore. 

Floating above the center of the Oval Office, looking right down at him, is a man with long, red and blonde hair. He's wearing a blue suit with bright lightning coursing over the lengths of his arms and legs, and crossing over at his chest. Electricity crackles between his fingers, and plays from tooth to tooth inside his overly-friendly grin. 

"Mssr. President," Tempete Bleu says, slowly coming down to the ground: "You will please forgive the intrusion."

"Of course," Mr. USA says, cutting Josie off for a moment and stepping over to shake the man's hand: "I didn't know you were coming. Are you the muscle the President was talking about?"

"No," the man says, some strange humor playing across his features: "But I bring news of that matter... amongst other things."

"Well, I'm all ears," the President says, smiling: "We both are, actually-"

"Actually...." Tempete Bleu interrupts as he waves a hand at the screen on the desk, making it go blank and dark: "We must speak of this in confidence. My apologies."

"I see," Mr. USA says, somewhat astounded by how forward this man is: "What do I need to know?"

"The muscle, as you put it, is being assembled now as we speak," the man says, clasping his hands together as though there was some secret there: "You do not need to know who they are. In fact, it's better if you do not ask too much of them. They will be new, and raw. This will be their... baptism of fire, if you will."

He seems to smile a little too widely at that notion, which makes Mr. USA very uneasy. 

"I presume we're to give them every courtesy as they hunt down the rest of Team Alpha, then," he asks after a moment. 

"Yes," the man says, grinning: "And once they're done, they shall become Team Alpha. We'll find some interesting explanation as to why. Perhaps we can say the others were all killed in some horrible, secret battle with a long-lost villain? I understand that's a convenient excuse."

"Yes," the President says, really not liking this conversation at all: "Well, you can assure the President he has my full cooperation."

"Good," the man says: "Then I'll go back to France, and..."

He seems like he's about to say something, and then changes direction a second later: "I must ask you something, Mssr. President. Something important."

"Please do."

"Do you know what's about to happen?"

Mr. USA looks at him, and then blinks a few times, wondering why he feels so strange, just now: "Which something? There's a lot of things going on, right now. Some more important than others-"

"You'd know this one," the blue-clad French hero says, taking a step forward as he does: "It would consume your mind and chill your heart. It would demand your attention, every step of your day. You would awaken to the fear of it, and refuse to sleep because of it. And each new day, as you watched the clock count down the hours, you would be aware of just how little time there actually was left."

"Do you mean (Unintelligible Concept)?"

Tempete Bleu just looks at him for a second, and then, ever so slowly, rises from the ground and begins to float away.

"We'll speak of this again, Mssr. President," the man promises, and then zips away to the door in the ceiling they had built for fliers, however many decades ago.

As he watches France's greatest hero leave his presence, Mr. USA remembers a terrible feeling he once had. It was last Thanksgiving, in fact. And somewhere between the turkey and the pumpkin pie he felt as though someone had hammered cold, iron nails into his soul, making his spirit bleed from within. 

And then, just after dessert, something truly terrible had happened out on the lawn...

"Jesus Christ," he says, taking a step back as he realizes where that feeling was coming from, just now. 

The words are like tacks on his tongue -- sharp and dangerous. 

* * *

"Oh you have to be !@#$ing kidding me," The Commander says, looking down at what's left of the person they were about to kill, themselves.

The three supervillains are standing on the upper loft of a nice, A-Frame chalet, out in the boonies of Upstate New York. Up until maybe an hour ago, it was the home of a rather florid fellow who called himself Mr. Mental. And, up until a few second ago, their plan was to come here, do away with him as quickly as possible, and then replace him with a psionic of equal power.

Except now they don't have to do all that, apparently.

"Okay, this is !@#$ing weird," the purple-clad teleporter known as Klute says, pointing to what's left of the triangular, floor-to-ceiling window that used to make up the wall of this loft: "Someone shot him through this."

"That's hardly weird, Klute," the Organ Grinder sighs, wrapping his white smock around his knees as he evaluates the body for digestion.

"Well, how about this," Klute says, pointing to the wall across from the window, and the gore-strewn floor before it: "I know from splatter patterns. He was standing about... here, and then they shot him at a downward angle, which is why the spray goes over there, rather than up against the wall."

"And that's weird because... wait," the Commander says, figuring it out: "There's nothing out there for someone to shoot from, is there?"

"No there is not," the Klute says, gesturing to the clear, wide vista, and the hill that slopes down for as far as the eye can see: "And I can't see what else they might have done, except maybe made a trick shot from a plane."

"Maybe they did," the Organ Grinder says, thinking he's found the right end to start from: "But do we really give a !@#$? We're kind of on a time crunch, here."

"I guess we are," Commander sighs, leaning down to take a DNA sample from the cooling corpse, and then feed it into the curious, transparent mask and gloves he's wearing: "I guess someone did us the favor of nailing his !@#$. I wonder who we have to thank?"

"Who cares," the Organ Grinder says, pulling off one of the nearly-headless corpse's shoes and getting ready to chow down: "Can I have a moment here?"

"Sure," Klute says, taking Commander -- now looking a lot like the late Mr. Mental, thanks to the mask and gloves -- and teleporting him well out of range of the anthropophage's rather loud and messy eating.

They may be supervillains, but even they have some limits.

(SPYGOD is listening to Metamorphosis (Pet Shop Boys) and having a Kill 'Em All)

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