Sunday, March 1, 2015

1/13/13 - Seven Days of the Con Job - Pt. 2.5

Team Omega
(Cataclysmo, Friendly Fire, Underman (original), The Technocrat, Suzi Slam, Glimmer)
(Art by Dean Stahl)
* * *

There's a room in the White House basement that cannot be found on any map or floorplan, past or present. 

It's a small thing, that room -- barely noticeable for its absence. People walk by what used to be its door every day and never think that the rhythm of the hallway is slightly off, or that its proportions seem a little out of kilter. 

If it had a function before it disappeared, it was clearly not a greatly-important one. 

Behind the wall is a thick slab of metal that has replaced its door -- an impregnable alloy forged on another plane of existence. Behind that door is a fire so bright it could blind half the world in seconds, yet so cold it could freeze it shortly thereafter.

An eerie fire that pulses from a glorious, golden sword that has been thrust halfway into the pale grey concrete floor -- both as sign of an empire’s dominion and protection from its opposite number.

A protection that has remained, though the yoke of its dominion has long since been thrown off.  

Once the fire was as golden as the weapon it emanated from, but for the last eight months or so its light has been less like the summer sun and more like an autumnal moon. Now it more closely matches the color of a bulbous, inedible gourd, festering in pallid and unhealthy soil.

It almost seems as though it’s been poisoned, somehow. Lord alone knows how that was even possible.

For some reason, at or around 7:25 in the morning – just as the morning sun’s rays strike the stately building that houses this unearthly, wounded wonder – the light changes once more. It wavers between a bilious orange and a darker shade, almost red, before steadily sliding over to that alternate hue.

And as the change occurs, a strange feeling begins to radiate out from that room that no one knows about. The feeling that something else is about to change....

* * *

… especially for Prisoner 52, who stops his stride through the superslam for a beat as he shivers a little, wondering why he feels so absent.

For a moment, he feels as though he almost sense the syllables of his own name, sliding across his tongue. He thinks he knows who he is, and why he’s really here.

For the first time in untold ages, he thinks he can see the whole picture, and his place within it.

But then, just as soon as he gets a sense of that picture – or at least the shape of its frame – it’s gone from his sight once again, leaving him blind and frustrated.

He hisses and pounds his fists on the metal railing. The sound is like a mighty boulder smashing against the hull of a ship, and the ringing causes the din to subside, suddenly and nervously – but only for a moment.

The Choosing is today, after all. And while the prisoners’ god might be angry, their new masters are here on a mission.

A mission that could mean everything to a lucky few.

* * *

“Yes, I’m aware of the privilege I’m being offered,” Foudre Blanc says as he stomps down the wet and dripping underground hallway to where the Maker holds court, really not wanting to talk to the person whose holographic head is floating above his wrist.

“Do you really, Bruno?” Julien asks, raising an accusing eyebrow: “Sometimes I cannot help but wonder. You do so say the most unkind things to us.”

“Maybe if you gave me reasons to say better things, I would say them,” the white-armored man growls as he approaches the man’s door.

“Now, see, that’s the kind of attitude I’m talking about,” the man says, sighing: “It doesn’t do our movement any good to have this kind of infighting between the people in charge-“

“Look, you putain,” Foudre Blanc hisses, stopping in his tracks: “The only reason you’re in charge is because the old man can’t get out of that bed and see what you’re doing in his name. And the only reason I don’t tell him is because it would kill him to know.”

“Now, that’s-"

“That’s the last thing I intend to say on the matter, Julien,” the hero says: “Now casse-toi or I’ll tell him, anyway, if only to see if he’ll tell me to deal with you before he has a heart attack. I will see you at the meeting on Friday. Goodbye.”

He cuts off the communication, sighs, and bangs on the door.

“Did you bring my Beignets?” the old man asks.

“Of course!” Foudre Blanc answers, holding up the still-warm bag. As soon as he does, the sound of magical, amazing gears and pistons tinkling and turning comes from within the door, and he is once more allowed into the magical cave of wonders beyond.

Pick any astounding invention of the last fifty years or so – record-setting vehicles, paradigm-changing appliances, or things once considered science fiction that are now so commonplace that no one wonders at their presence in their lives.

Now imagine their prototypes and forerunners – all invented ten to fifty years too soon, yet created with materials from over a hundred years in the future.

Now imagine each and every one of those magnificent things were housed here, with the man who either created them for someone, or else came up with them well before someone else did, and then went on to create something else, and then something else beyond that.

Here, in this seemingly-endless stone chamber, well below the sewers and catacombs of Paris, are all the unsung and unseen wonders of the modern world – all created by a single set of hands over the last century or so, all constantly repaired and dusted by a legion of clockwork, golden cherubs, flitting this way and that in an endless geometric pattern.

“Up here,” the wizened and tiny man says from a floating, square platform of bronze and marble, some distance away. As soon as he gestures, a set of bronze stairs clatters itself together, one step at a time, eventually reaching the ground just inches away from his visitor.

“Thank you, Maker,” Foudre Blanc says, quickly skipping up the steps: “I appreciate that.”

“I should hope so,” the old man says, scratching at the tuft of wild, white hair that grows between his two, large ears: “No electrical ports in here to fly through, eh? A bit difficult for you, yes?”

“All too true,” the white-armored hero sighs, surmounting the final step and standing before the man’s magnificent workbench, where he needs only gesture to have any tool he needs literally jump from its storage space and into his hand.

The old man reminds Foudre Blanc of that tiny, green Jedi master from the second Star Wars movie -- all head and hands, with eyes that see more than one might care to reveal. He wears a pair of overalls that seem as old as he is, stained with an age's worth of oil, grease, and less salubrious fluids. Beneath that, a shirt that proudly proclaims La Propriété Ce Est Le Vol!

“Put them over there,” the old man commands, not ceasing in his work on the oblong, wire-laden thing he’s working on: “And open the bag for me.”

“Of course,” Foudre Blanc says, doing as he’s told, and trying to get a good look at what the Maker is making. No sooner does he comply than he’s swarmed by golden cherubs – half of whom reach into the bag to take a beignet apiece, and the other half of whom place themselves between his eyes and the man’s work.

“Trying to get a preview, yes?” the old man cackles, happily taking a bite from what one of the cherubs offers him.

“An update, actually,” the hero says, taking a polite step back: “Things have changed a little.”

“Things often do, yes,” the Maker says, talking through his beignet: “I may have anticipated that. I have decided to kill two birds with one stone, yes?”

“You have…?”

“Yes,” the old man cackles, tapping the box: “This device will now do two things. The first will be to short out your Nthernaut, and take him right out of the system. The second will be to take over that system mere microseconds after he is gone.”

“It will?” Foudre Blanc says, blinking behind his mask: “That’s amazing, sir. Truly.”

“I should say so,” the Maker says, gesturing for a soldering iron, which duly leaps into his gnarled hand: "You will have need of it, now that your Eclat is gone, yes?"

"Yes, that's true," the white-clad hero says, quite surprised: "How did you know about that-"

“You may go now, yes?”

“Yes, of course,” Foudre Blanc says, realizing he's either offended or just overstayed his welcome: “And I can tell them it will be ready on time?”

“I should say so,” the Maker repeats: “You may go now, yes?”

“Yes, of course,” he repeats in turn, unable to help himself.

On the way down the stairs he feels as though a pair of large eyes are glaring a hole into his back. He can only hope the old man will be over his parting jest the next time he comes down; there are reasons he brings pastries from the world above, after all.

As if to answer his question, the stairs begin to disassemble themselves just as he’s on the final step down. He takes the hint and hastens his departure, trying to avoid breathing too heavily as he marches for the door, which is already closing ahead of him.

That it doesn’t slam shut right on his con the second he walks through it is either a miracle or a reminder of precarious their understanding with this tiny fellow is.

"More Beignets next time," Foudre Blanc promises, if only to himself. But he's so wrapped up in that litany that, as he strides back up the steps he came down, he doesn't realize he's being followed.

A lady in red lurks behind him, wrapped in ghosts and shadows exactly ten paces behind. With each step the anger within Ciel Rouge grows -- the desire to do justice upon him though the heavens fall.

Justice that will come, and soon

"More Beignets next time," Foudre Blanc repeats utterly oblivious: "And maybe some coffee."

* * * 

"That'll be six-fifty, ma'am," the skinny, pockmarked kid behind the Sixth Avenue Starbucks counter says. 

"Thank you," Martha Samuels says, handing him a ten and pretending to not be amused when he has problem counting out the change. She's heard that sometimes they do that on purpose to get customers in a hurry to say 'keep it' so they can add it to the tip jar. So she puts a dollar in the jar and smiles, which seems to miraculously trigger the part of his brain that handles mathematical calculations. 

After that, she puts her sunglasses down, takes her coffee, and walks out into the scrum of Neo York City's morning foot traffic.

She goes down one block, then over another, and then up yet another. She retraces her steps every so often, as if she's lost, but doesn't do anything to attract attention to herself. She stops into a chintzy Asian "souvenir" store for a time and leans over the long tables, pretending to be interested in their suspect, plastic wares. She watches a raggedy street performer busk for coins as he plays "Wonderwall," over and over again on a guitar that's seen better days.

(She does not, however, leave a donation. She merely hated that song the first ten thousand times she heard it. Now she truly loathes it.)

As she does her best to blend in without seeming too anonymous, she thinks she can hear the omnipresent street cameras whirl and click in her direction, every so often. But when she checks to look she sees they're not following her, after all. Just moving in random tracks, depending on what the mind behind them is choosing to focus on.

Much to her joy and surprise, she's not one of those things.

She smiles and taps the white button she's wearing, wondering what her son would think about all this. But then, Thomas -- now better known as the Nthernaut -- not only has no idea she's here, but he can never know she was here.

Not now, not ever. 

"Absolute deniability," she whispers under her breath, finally knowing the meaning of those words. The dire personal cost of each syllable.

At some point, she decides she's thrown off whatever eyes -- human, mechanical, or some combination of the two -- would have had cause to follow her, and moves towards her true goal. It's a small lockup, not too far from the Starbucks she'd gotten her coffee at. She ducks down an alley as though she owned the place, which she does (through a few shell companies), goes up to a door and puts her hand on the knob.

It unlocks, just then, and lets her into a small garage that no one outside of her small, crimefighting clan knows about. It hasn't been used in years, except as storage for various endeavors based in Neo York City, and even then it was more of a drop-off and rendezvous point than anything else.

But there has been something here, all along. Something that was meant to be handed off to someone else, quite some time ago, but that never quite got to where it needed to go in time.

Something wonderful, waiting under a dusty, cobwebbed tarp.

She pulls it off in one, fluid motion, sending a rapidly-unraveling cloud up to the naked lights in the ceiling. A line from an old song from her childhood comes to mind, and she quickly checks to see if the package has held up, after all this time.

It has, and why wouldn't it? Mark and her father worked on this, together. Assembled it in precious, spare moments in the Owl's Nest, ever-arguing over the precise placement of things. Each part laid down with care and precision. Each inch fought over and argued for, put together and taken apart, done and undone and redone until they'd gotten it just right.

And now, at long last, this masterpiece was going to see its moment come 'round at last.

She smiles a little, wiping away a tear at the thought of how her father had beamed to see it completed -- a good and worthy gift for the oldest of family friends -- and takes out a cell phone. It's a cheap, anonymous, one-shot job she's kept laying around the apartment for such an eventuality.

"Hello, hon," she says to Mark Clutch, who, wisely, does not reply: "Tomorrow's looking good. I'll see you at 8. And we'll have guests..."

* * *

And just like that, the Choosing is over, and the lucky few have left the building. 

It's always something of an anticlimax -- at least at first. The Terre Unifee's guards come out of the reinforced bunker at the bottom of the elevator to the outside, bearing weapons that could shred even the toughest amongst them, and carrying nuclear weapons on deadman switches in case those weapons do not work. 

One of them has a list. It is read off, with all the pomp and circumstance of a lowly and bored soup kitchen worker listing off the wares of the day. It's a sign that those prisoners should come forward, provided they're still alive, or in any shape to present themselves. Should they not do so in a timely manner, they read off from the list of alternates, which is quite extensive. 

It didn't take too long, this time: the ones they called for were hard cons -- tough, experienced, or at least well-versed in how to survive life in such a place. One by one they came down, and extended their necks to be scanned for the combination ID chip and micro-bomb inserted at the start of their incarceration. And after they proved they were who and what they said they were, they got lined up under guard, by the door, and waited.

Just a short wait, after having waited for so long. 

One of them had to be withdrawn from the vault, down below: the place where those convicts too powerful, unusual, or just plain weird to be locked up in a standard prison cell were kept. It's the one made of hard light, Prisoner 52 remembered. Sometimes he can hear him weeping -- even from down there -- to be so far from the Sun. 

Weeping in the dark, and slowly going insane. 

The other five were less exotic, but no less remarkable. The middle-aged human bullet eager to kill his arch enemy. A betrayed, octogenarian gadgeteer with a score to settle. A furious woman more muscle than skin. A morbidly obese man who could make machines with his mind.

And, most frightening of all, the smiling, blind assassin who hunts with maniacal laughter.

All of them had been useful assets, down here, once upon a time. After the Imago left them all to die, and the riot broke out, they'd been as instrumental in establishing their new community as anyone. They'd banded together for survival's sake, one and all, and while leaders and regimes may have come and gone -- and rivalries been forged, fused, and then settled in blood --- the simple work of life had gone on.

It was only when the TU came, afterwards -- bearing real food and poisoned favors -- that the prison truly fell to barbarism and anarchy.

And now that no one needs to be presentable, any longer, those states of being descend once more.

It's like someone threw a switch. Punches are thrown, and blows traded back and forth over seemingly nothing. Arguments become fights, beatings become murders, and long-planned assassinations become truly gruesome and degrading things.

Here, a pyrokinetic roughly violates a seemingly-indestructible man in the showers, highly amused as his burnt skin keeps healing over, second after second, as the ordeal continues. There, a man explodes as someone who can shrink to infinitesimal size flies into his gullet and then regains his normal proportions, reveling in how far his rival's remains spray across the cell block.

High above it all, Prisoner 52 stands watch. The death below feeds him, without his even having to be present at the moment where life ends and something else begins. He grips the railing tight as his bones glow from within his pale skin, skull-pupils rolled back into his eyesockets as he rides the edge of what he can know, and what still eludes him.

A name. His kingdom for a name. The world for a name, if need be.

And if the world must drown in burning blood to bring it to him, then so be it.

* * *

"You think that's enough for the gravy?" Straffer asks as he scrapes the pan under the roast.

"I should !@#$ing hope so," SPYGOD says, stirring the vegetable curry just fast enough to keep it from burning: "Not sure how the !@#$ yorkshires are going to turn out..."

"Magnificently," the blonde man says, kissing his lover on the cheek. They smile, pause a moment, and then go back to making dinner. 

"You know what's going to be nice?" Straffer says after a time as the gravy begins to gel.


"Eating dinner in a proper restaurant."

"Oh, !@#$ yes," SPYGOD says, taking an appreciative whiff of the curry: "Something someone else !@#$ing made for us."

"That didn't come in a !@#$ pizza box."

"Or a takeaway pack, for that !@#$ing matter."

"A long walk on a sunset beach, after that meal."

"!@#$ing like people who just !@#$ing met at a bar on that beach."

"Maybe we could do it at the meal?" Straffer asks, grabbing his !@#$ as he walks past.

"What, and get @#$ing arrested?"

"Well, we'll just have to do it somewhere it's legal," his lover chuckles.

They look at each other, then, and then over at the window, overlooking all the protesters. 

They look at certain bags and boxes that are stacked on either side of that window -- seemingly innocuous, but containing things that no one knows about. 

Secret things, meant to speed them to that special somewhere that no one can touch them. 

And they smile, just a little, wondering if they can get away with this, after all. 

* * *

"(You should not be here, outsider)" the beefy, salf-and-peppered Japanese man drinking alone at the mostly-deserted, bone-white bar says, regarding the strange thing that floats in his glass.

"(I know, Ju-San)" the shadowed stranger says, walking on up and putting away the taser he just used on the man's guards. They lie on the white marble floor, gibbering as the electricity leaves them. The few other patrons are getting up to go somewhere else, clearly terrified of the cyborg as he ascends the stairs to the bar.

"(Then tell me why I should let you leave?)" the former head of the Organization asks, swirling his drink so that the human eyeball in it floats to the top: "(This is not for the likes of you. You exist to expose the truth. But here, where all things are possible, we live with secrecy and lies to hide it.)"

As if to emphasize his statement, someone screams from a hidden room, nearby. A ragged, wet cry that ends as quickly as it began. 

"(All things are possible, here, yes,)" the man says, pulling out a short stack of photographs, but not yet showing them to the man he's intruding upon: "(Even the real truth, after a fashion.)"

"(Explain yourself!)" Ju-San snarls, downing his drink -- hooker's eyeball and all -- and then slamming the glass down on the bar's surface:  "(I can have you raped, killed, and eaten here, outsider. And not in that order!)"

"(I know,)" the man says, as respectful as possible: "(And I come to you with an explanation. But also a challenge.)"

"(What is that challenge?)" 

"(To become what you once were,)" the man says, flipping through the photographs like they were cards: "(Once, the name of the Organization was enough to cause even SPYGOD to be afraid. But now that the Terre Unifee has taken it from you, and confiscated the weapons and objects you once safeguarded?)"

"(Go on,)" Ju-San says. It sounds like a threat. 

"(They say you are a joke, weeping into a drink in a Tokyo murder bar,)" the man continues, shrugging: "(And, with all respect? I cannot say they are wrong.)"

"(You dare-)" 

"(I. Dare. Everything.)" Randoph Scott insists, banging his free fist down on the bar's marble surface, shaking the empty drink of the world's most dangerous man: "(I get the truth, Ju-San. I get it any way I can. And when I get it, I hand it out freely.)"

"(The truth can kill, Outsider.)"

"(So do lies,)" the outlaw reporter says, pulling up a white and silver stool to sit right next to him: "(And I think you've been lied to enough already.)"

"(What do you mean...?)" Ju-San asks, suddenly unsure.

"(Hanami,)" he says, pulling out one of the photographs in the deck. It's of the young woman he once commanded, but no longer has much contact with. The bright, beautiful, and immensely powerful android that saved Tokyo, but at a terrible cost to her mind.

"(What of her?)" the man says, trying not to show his true emotions, just now.

"(They told you they would help regain her mind,)" Scott says, pulling out photos of various members of the Space Service -- especially Faraj al-Ǧazāʼir -- and placing them down by the man's empty drink: "(But I believe they have been lying to you. I believe they have no intention of bringing her back to you. They've emasculated your Organization, after all. Why would they fix such a powerful weapon, and then hand it to you?)"

"(You have proof?)" Ju-San asks, his eyes growing darker by the second.

"(Not yet, but I know how you can get it,)" he says, handing him a card with a string of numbers upon it: "(Your access codes were rescinded. This will allow you to log back in under your old name, with all permissions given. You can look at all files, just as you once did. And I recommend looking at the personal logs and security footage.)"

"What will I see...?" Ju-San asks as Scott gets up from his stool, lapsing into English for the first time in decades. 

"The truth, Ju-San," Randolph Scott answers, bowing respectfully before he turns to go: "I hope you will know what to do with it."

And then he's gone, leaving only a mystery behind. 

* * *

It's night in Korhogo, and the killing has stopped. 

Prisoner 52 sits in his cell, unable to sleep. He doesn't need to, though he sometimes likes to close his eyes and pretend. And when he does, the ghosts around him walk into his dreams, as though they were the court of their king.

A new spectre has joined the other four: one of the ones who was slain, this afternoon, after the Choosing. He's weak and uncertain, muttering of pain he can't really feel anymore, and the horrible injuries his former allies wreaked upon him as they decided he was more fun dead than alive. 

He should be greeting him, tonight. He should speak to him of the things he must know, and the strange places that they will have to walk, together. All those kingly duties and responsibilities. 

But right now, the king of the dead doesn't care about that. 

What he does care about is something he realized, today, as the wave of murder and mayhem washed over his mind and body. The strange and bloody overwhelming of his senses acted to shake two things loose, within his glowing skull. 

The first was a single letter. S. 

And the second was an understanding -- crystal and clear -- that before long he would not only know the rest of the letters he'd been deprived of for so long, but that he'd be returned to full power once he spoke that word aloud. 

"A king in his kingdom, once more," he says, sniffing one of the sickly roses his living followers have strewn in his cell -- grown fat and wrong in the gardens where the dead have been laid to rest.

And he closes his eyes to dream of change, sweet and certain after so very, very long.

* * *

(SPYGOD is listening to Metamorphosis (Pet Shop Boys, remix) and having a Mephistopheles Metamorphosis) 

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