|The Tally So Far|
(Art by Dean Stahl)
* * *
Up Against it
The Longer You Hate - The More That it Grates
Up Against it
Look Left Then Right - Then Run for Your Life* * *
The first thing SPYGOD's captors do -- after wrapping his head in a locked, metal half-mask, so he can't use that eye on them -- is to frisk him, and this takes a long while.
Under the watch of well-armored men with all-too-familiar flechette guns, they take every single weapon he has on him. The pistol. The other pistol. The other other pistol. The knives and stunners and grenades. The parts of the build-a-gun he has secreted all over his person.
Each thing is taken, inspected, broken down, and put into a large box marked PREUVE. "Evidence."
At some point, someone points to his hands. He sighs and pulls something large, shining, and grotesquely swollen from thin air. It's his sword, except that it doesn't look like one, anymore. It looks more like a misshapen slab of iron dribbles, left over from a casting process.
He does something to it, and it eases open, raining an untold amount of things down onto the floor like a surreal metal pinata. Guns and ammunition, knives and grenades, passports and evidence, spy equipment no one can readily identify, and a number of bottles of high-test alcohol.
He shakes the shining, cancerous tree until they're all standing in a pile of bullets and bombs, and then, almost sheepishly, makes it go away.
After that, they take his clothes. Someone throws up when they see what's become of his genitals. He laughs and gets a kick in his backside for his backtalk, but that just makes him laugh harder.
That's when the beating starts in earnest, which he knew was going to happen at some point.
They start with their feet, and then work up to clubs. They swing at the meat of his thighs and upper arms, the backs of his legs and fingers. They crack his skull, and his ribs. Every so often someone kicks him in the junk, just because.
This goes on for a long time -- maybe too long. Throughout it all he won't stop laughing, even when they graduate up to stun-batons and start !@#$ing him in the !@#$ and mouth with them.
Though how much of it is a sad, manly kind of weeping is debatable.
* * *
"Stop being so !@#$ing macho about this!" Myron shouts at Yanabah as they run down yet another alley, trying to get away from the two costumed madmen that are trying to kill them.
"It ain't about being macho, you dumb !@#$!" she shouts back, ducking behind a protruding pile of trash and indicating he should do the same, giving her a chance to reload: "We'll do better on our god!@#$ own."
"Says you," he replies, badly out of breath, extremely confused, and wondering if he has a chance of making it out of this.
Especially with him on his tail.
They'd found them at the hideout they'd been at the last few days, bright and early this morning. If she hadn't been all grouchy from her period, and they'd actually showered together, they'd have caught them buck naked, instead of avoiding conversation and wondering about breakfast.
He was about to break the ice when she'd held up a hand. He'd almost snipped at her in return, but then realized she wasn't irritated with him. She had that look in her eyes, again -- the one that said she knew something was about to happen, but didn't know what.
And that's when they struck.
First there was laughter -- high, bright, and evil. They had just enough time to realize it wasn't the crazy !@#$hole who lived next door, and then bullets ripped through the window, narrowly missing them both.
They ducked to the floor and rolled for their things, and as they did the room started shaking, as if an earthquake was happening. But then the vibrations became different, turning Myron's head into a mess of jangled nerves and painful teeth.
Which was the point when Myron got really worried. He knew that shaking, after all.
He was about to say something, but Yanabah didn't feel like hearing it. She grabbed him by the arm and all but dragged him towards the bathroom, which they entered just before the wall the stricken window had been in exploded outward -- showering the room with large, sharp chunks of masonry and blades of shattered glass.
"It's him," Myron had kept saying, not sure how the !@#$ that could be: "It's him."
"!@#$ him," his partner in flight had said, punching out the cruddy, small bathroom window with a towel-wrapped hand, and then slipping through it as quickly as she could: "I know that !@#$ laugh."
"What does that mean?" Myron had asked, barely squeezing his frame though the window.
"It means he !@#$ing missed us on purpose," she'd replied, looking in every direction at once, knowing the attack could come from anywhere: "Which means if we're lucky, they'll just !@#$ing kill us."
"Oh," Myron had said, and then started running alongside her. A half-second later the maddening laughter started up again, and bullets raked the air around them.
A second after that, he realized he'd left his utility belt and weapons back in the room...
How long had they been running since then? Racing rackety-blam down alleys and backstreets, striding across busy roads and intersections? Ducking bullets and unable -- maybe even scared -- to look behind them as their harriers got ever closer, or seemingly vanished just to come at them from a different angle?
Myron had no idea. All he knew was that the crowded confusion of the city was no longer their ally. It was now their enemy.
"Alright," Yanabah says, looking down the way they've come, and then firing at something only she can see and hear.: "Here's how it !@#$ing is, Myron. They're hunting in a team. They've had time to !@#$ing plan this. They're figuring we'll stick together because that's what people like us do, right?"
"Right," Myron sighs, knowing where this is going.
"So we split up, and they don't know what the !@#$ to do next," she explains, ducking back as bullets fly their direction: "That means they'll either go after each of us, and !@#$ing fail at it..."
"Or go after one of us," he finishes for her, nodding: "And that gives one of us a chance."
"You, I figure," she says, shooting back at the white-clad assassin that's scampering up their way, laughing as he comes.
"Listen, that other guy," Myron says: "Not that weirdo with the blindfold-"
"Friendly Fire," she says, ducking back as the weirdo in question fires back.
"The other guy. He's bad news-"
"Well, so am I," she says, looking at him over the tops of her glasses. There's something distinctly wolfish about her stare: "I thought you !@#$ing knew that?"
"No, I mean he'll kill you to get to me."
"You mean he'll try," she grins, looking around the corner: "But if they get you?"
"What?" he asks, wondering what she means.
"You don't remember?" she asks, clearly concerned.
"Oh, just run you dumb !@#$," she says, taking a step out of cover: "God. I'm already regretting !@#$ing you..."
"You are one nasty !@#$, Yanabah," he says as he runs away, already planning how to go to ground, and really confused about what she means.
"Nastiest you've ever met, Myron," she grins, not really regretting a !@#$ thing as her quarry gets closer, and his bullets are no longer missing on purpose...
* * *
"It's alright," the man says, wiping the spilled coffee from his face and the front of his shirt. The guard who did the spilling just smirks and then leaves the interview room, locking it behind him.
"No, it is not," the man says, glaring at the door and then passing his own cup over to his prisoner: "You have cooperated with us. You are due respect for that."
"Cooperated," Straffer sighs, just sort of looking at the steaming cup of coffee in front of him: "That's a funny way to put it."
"Do you have another term?" Vipond asks: "The complexities of English still elude me from time to time."
"Well, let's just say I was persuaded to cooperate," the blonde man says: "I think that's as much as I'd like to say about it now."
"Mssr. Straffer, I hope you will be more forthcoming on other matters?"
"Oh, I do intend to," Straffer says, having a sip of the scalding liquid and smiling: "That's a good roast."
"We do pride ourselves on our refreshments."
"That's good. It's the little things, you know?"
"Oh, I agree," Vipond sighs: "This country! The coffee is too harsh, the pastries are too heavy."
"And the seafood is terrible."
"You see?" the Lt. says: "I knew we were men of a similar wavelength. Is that the word?"
"It works, yes," Straffer smiles: "So, you'll want to know why, but I'm leaving that alone for now."
"But there must have been a reason," Vipond presses, waving to another guard outside to bring him a replacement cup of coffee: "Here you were, planning and plotting with SPYGOD for all that time. And then, suddenly, you turn on him?"
"Well, not suddenly," Straffer explains, putting the coffee down and regarding it: "But..."
"Yes?" the Lt. asks after a time of sitting in silence.
"You see, when I fell in love with (REDACTED) at first, it was because I'd finally found someone so much like myself. He had his COMPANY, I had DAMOCLES. I was in charge of Deep Ten, he had the B.U.I.L.D.I.N.G. We were both so used to being men in high castles, looking down at the world and being in charge of all we surveyed. Having thousands of subordinates and hundreds of concerns, dozens of cases, God knows how many enemies. That's a lot to juggle, you know?"
"I can only imagine," Vipond says, quite genuinely.
"Well, we were so similar, we could commiserate. And then we could confide. And then, before long, we realized we'd found ourselves staring into the eyes of someone who could truly understand who we were. It was like we were brothers, of a sort. And, well, things happened from there."
The man smiles a little, and then looks down.
"When did it go wrong?" Vipond asks, somehow knowing where this is going.
"It wasn't anything... well, that's not true," Straffer says, holding up a hand: "Something did happen that explained what words could never say. It's when he started seeing Gosheven."
"He did?" the Lt asks, blinking a bit: "It was an affair?"
"Not exactly. We always had an open arrangement. We didn't have to worry about disease, being who and what we are, and we always thought that it was better to indulge curiosity and our appetites than keep them restrained. It just kills so many good things, you know?"
"I suppose so."
"Well, at some point, before we got put under house arrest, they started having sex," Straffer explains: "I didn't even know it was him at first. He's a shapeshifter, so he could be anyone. The ladyboy he brought up. Some actor or singer. He started using him for fantasy sex, and I was alright with it, at first."
"Two things. One day he confided in me that the only reason he was still !@#$ing him was to have a hold over him. And, to be honest, I kind of expected that was part of it. That's who he was, after all."
"And the other?" Vipond asks, finally getting his replacement cup of coffee from a different guard.
"One night, I came home early," Straffer says, steepling his hands before his face: "I snuck in, hoping to surprise him. That's pretty hard to do, you know. What with his eye and all. But this time I'd taken all kinds of precautions. Had a little help, too."
Straffer winks: "Maybe that one you don't get to know about."
"Very well. Go on?"
"Well, I got into the apartment, and I heard that he was having sex. I was a little disappointed, but I figured I'd come this far, so I might as well see how far I could push it. So I snuck up the hall towards the bedroom, planning to just see what was going on."
"Not to interrupt?"
"No. That would have been rude."
"I see," Vipond says, indicating the man can continue.
"Well, all the way up the hall, I kept thinking I knew the other voice. It sounded very familiar, but I just couldn't place it. Sort of like when you hear a song but it's so far away that you only get every other note?"
"Yes. That I understand."
"Well, I get closer, and it gets more and more familiar. And then I get to the door and look in. And there's SPYGOD, slamming into someone so hard it's a wonder they didn't put each other into the !@#$ hospital. And then they shift a little, and when the other person looks up... well, it's me."
"And that was, well... why would he be having sex with Gosheven wearing my face? He's got me. He doesn't need to pretend like he does with all those 80's rock stars he likes so much. Steve McQueen. Whoever.
"But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it wasn't about me. It was about him. It was about him being able to separate his sex with me from his love for me. It was about him being able to detach himself from the situation.
"And that's when it really began to dawn on me that we are all just pieces of machinery to him. Just cogs and gears in a big clock he can take apart and put back together any way he likes, time and again, just to make sure he likes the time of day."
Straffer stops talking, then, and looks down. He might be trying not to cry. Vipond isn't sure.
After a time of silence, the blonde man starts talking again: "So when I was... persuaded, I thought about it. And I realized that my love for him would never be anything more to him than just a part of the machine he's made of his life.
"And, God help me, I felt the same way. Deep down, I realized that the fact that I was even taking that offer seriously was because I would do the same thing, myself.
"And that's why I made the call and turned him in. Because I want my life back. And I want to matter again.
"And if I have to betray the man who loves me, and that I love, in order to do it? I will."
With that, the room falls into silence again.
* * *
JANET BELANGER: "Sorry about that, folks. We just had some technical difficulties from our feed in Neo York City. But in other news, we've received news that an apartment building in Fort Stanton, on the south side of the Square Mile, has actually collapsed, after some rather strange events, early this morning. Jorge Yanz is live on the scene with the WJLA news truck. Jorge, what do we have?"
JORGE YANZ: "Well, Janet, this is a strange one. The building at 1400 Pomeroy Ave had been, and I'm quoting the locals here, an eyesore for almost a year, now. It had been decaying badly, practically falling down in pieces and patches. But every time people complained nothing got done. They say it was like no one could actually see it, unless someone knew what to look for, if that makes any sense?"
JANET BELANGER: "Well, I'm sure it makes sense to someone. What happened there this morning, Jorge?"
JORGE YANZ: "Well, it looks like time finally caught up with the building this morning. As you can see from here, it's just fallen straight down. All seven stories have collapsed onto one another. Witnesses said it was like something just cut its strings, and down it went."
JANET BELANGER: "That's... wow, Jorge. That's just devastating."
JORGE YANZ: "It is, Janet. You can't really get a sense of it from here, with the cameras. But the whole area, it just feels wrong, somehow. It's like something out of a story."
JANET BELANGER: "Do we have an estimate on how many people may have been in the building when it fell?"
JORGE YANZ: "Well, that's the miraculous thing, Janet. The firefighters have been going through it all morning, and they haven't found anyone. Apparently most of the tenants have left the place, and those persons who were still there were all out of the building this morning. They said it was like something told them to leave, so they did."
JANET BELANGER: "Now, you said there were some rather strange events?"
JORGE YANZ: "Yes, that's the weird thing. I've got one of the people who was moved to leave this morning here with me. This is Mr. Atlan, and he's... what did you say you did, sir?"
ATLAN: "I am the voice of the people, sir. God be praised."
JORGE YANZ: "Right, yes-"
ATLAN: "A voice, for those who can no longer speak."
JORGE YANZ: "Is that why you didn't leave this building, even when everyone else did?"
ATLAN: "Yes. When the marriage of opposites took place, the others rightly feared and left. But I had to stay and be the voice. It is my duty. God gave it to me."
JORGE YANZ: "Okay, Mr. Atlan, can you tell me what happened? Before you left?"
ATLAN: "Before I left? Nothing. I merely heard the word from on high. A beautiful angel said unto me 'leave this place.' And I did."
JORGE YANZ: "What happened after?"
ATLAN: "I heard them coming from above. It was like the rolling of mighty thunder from on high, but yet not. And I felt them coming from below. It was like the churning of insects in the dirt, but yet not-"
JORGE YANZ: "Okay, but Mr. Atlan, can you tell me what you saw?"
ATLAN: "It was as it was written. The heavens opened, and the light shone down. And the ground opened, and the darkness rushed up. And as soon as they met halfway, at the top of the building, it fell down like a man accursed. God be praised!"
JORGE YANZ: "Alright, thank you-"
ATLAN: "And I beheld when he opened the sixth seal, and lo, there was a great earthquake-"
JORGE YANZ: "Yes, thank you Mr. Atlan. Thank you. Anyway, Janet, I know that sounds a little incredible. But other onlookers say there was a break in the clouds this morning, and a beautiful ray of sunshine was right on the building just seconds before it collapsed."
JANET BELANGER: "I see! Well, thank you for that, Jorge. I'm sure we're all glad no one was hurt."
JORGE YANZ: "Same here, Janet. I guess it's the little victories-"
HOODED BYSTANDER: "Hey! !@#$ her right in the !@#$!"
JORGE YANZ PUNCHES THE MAN IN THE FACE.
* * *
I don't understand the problem, the Nthernaut says, looking at projection of the fat, waddling tumor of a man, who's all but dancing in glee.
"You do not?" Minister of Justice Jean-Jacques Excephir Geraud cries: "Oh, I am certain you must be joking with me, Mssr. Samuels. How can you not see the massive conflict of interest, here?"
I do not, the digitized young man says, calling up an image of his mother and his uncle in his hand, as they sit in separate cells: If they are accused of breaking the law, they should be detained, pending an appearance before a judge for arraignment. I can oversee that, and would do-
"You will do nothing of the sort!" the man exclaims: "They will be transported to the Heptagon, there to be questioned for their part in this nefarious plot to remove SPYGOD from his imprisonment. Once the full extent of their guilt has been determined, there will be more arrests, and more questioning! And then we shall have the full measure of this man's perfidy exposed, the better to convict him at his trial!"
You are rather taking a lot for granted, the Nthernaut smirks: The last I checked, much like America, the Terre Unifee believed that a person was innocent until proven guilty.
"And the last I checked, the law was upheld by officers, and not men and women in strange costumes."
Which does not explain Le Compagnie, sir, the digital boy says, smiling a little wider: But I take your meaning. I assume that you believe I may have something to do with all of this?
The smile on the fat man's face wavers just a little bit: "Well, no. I am not suggesting that at all."
That's certainly a relief, the Nthernaut says: After our last meeting, the other week, I was not sure if we truly did away with the notion that I might be aiding SPYGOD at this time. And now my mother and her brother in law stand accused of doing just that. If I were you, I'd be very surprised if I wasn't somehow involved, after all.
"Yes," the man says, ready as ever to lie: "Well, Ciel Rouge vouched for you. And the President was sincere about being allies, going forward."
And yet you don't trust me to look after my own family, the Nthernaut says.
"Young man, need I remind you of the importance of everything looking, as you say, above board?" the fat man says: "This may well be the trial of the century-"
I thought we already had that.
"Well, yes, but this will be quite something. Here we have the man who has protected the world for so long, or at least claimed to, turning out to be little better than one of the monsters he supposedly protected it from. Surely that must be handled with the utmost of care?"
I agree, the Nthernaut says, after a time: Well, I suppose we can overlook my concerns, going forward.
"Indeed," Jean-Jacques says, very glad his ruse appears to be working.
And I suppose, if you have any lingering doubts, Ciel Rouge can check me out? the young man asks: She will be coming to interrogate them, yes?
"Well, actually I think she's attending to something else," the fat man says, trying not to grin: "We have a different person here to work upon your mother. A specialist that's very thorough, very efficient."
"No, nothing of the sort! Simply persuasion. Gentle, at that."
Oh good, Thomas says, knowing he's in some serious trouble, now: I do enjoy dealing with professionals.
* * *
"Oh God," Myron says. It's all he can say.
He came to this room, in this !@#$ty uptown hotel, because he thought he could hook up with one of his other allies. He thought he and Shining Guardsman might be able to regroup and take the fight to their pursuers.
He should have known better.
He should have known that, just as those two human monsters found him and Yanabah that morning, and just as two other monsters had found Night Phantom and Blastman the other day, someone would find his ally.
He's never seen the man out of his armor. He thinks about that, somewhat absently, as he sees the man writhing up against the wall -- crucified on a high tech cross made of floating pieces of what used to be his armor.
"Get out..." Shining Guardsman whispers, hoping the fat man who's torturing him doesn't notice. Of course, he does.
"Well hello," the Technocrat says, turning around and fixing Myron with his protruding metal and plastic eyes -- like evil camera lenses, focused on Hell.
"Hi," Myron says somewhat weakly, wishing he had even the smallest of his shake-guns on him.
The fat man reminds him of the comic book store guy from the Simpsons, only even more slovenly. His SAVE MANIMAL t-shirt is filthy with stains he doesn't want to identify, as are his shorts. A belt full of deep pouches barely holds the latter up, their insides filled with circuits and wires that move with a life of their own.
"You must be Underman," the Technocrat says, taking a long, deep slurp from the jumbo rainbow slushie he's holding in his left hand: "Well, not the real Underman. He's after you now."
"Yeah," Myron says, looking around for a weapon of some kind. Anything...
"And if I do the obvious thing, well, he'll kill me," the fat man says, chuckling: "He's got it in for you, buddy-o-mine. Something about how you turned states evidence on him, after you joined up with the good guys. I guess he was a little disappointed."
"Well, he'll have to live with it," Myron says.
"Run, Myron," Shining Guardsman says: "Please-"
"Yes, run," the Technocrat says: "I'm about to have some fun, now. This isn't for you to see. Unless you'd rather just wait here for your death to come?"
He grins. His teeth are rotten black and green posts in diseased gums. The bits of Shining Guardsman's armor that he didn't use to make the cross -- or the things that are skewering his hands and feet -- float up like angry snakes, ready to strike.
And Myron crosses the room in three swift strides, brings up his fist, and smashes it right into the bridge of the man's nose.
The effect is instantaneous. Every electronic thing in the room falls down and goes THUNK on the floor. It takes a half a second longer for the fat man to follow suit, though the groan he makes as he hits the ground is extremely satisfying.
"Oh man," Myron says, cradling the naked body of his friend, who's even more frail than he'd supposed.
"It's okay," the man says, whispering: "My suit... it's what keeps me alive. Can't move without it... barely breathe."
"What can I do?"
"You can't," the man says: "You leave now. Leave me. It's Game Over for me."
"No," Myron says, shaking his head: "We have to keep fighting. You know that-"
"You go," he says: "Take that fat !@#$'s phone. Call 911."
"Yes. They'll make such a mess getting here you can slip away."
"Then I should stay-"
"You should go," Shining Guardsman says: "Let me go. It's okay."
"No It isn't-"
"Hey, It's only a game, right?" the man says, his eyes lightning up all of a sudden: "I think I remember..."
"What?" Myron asks, trying to think: "What do you remember, man? What?"
"Heh... Game Over, man," Shining Guardsman breathes.
And then it is, and he's gone.
"!@#$," Myron sighs, looking at the fat man's phone and wondering what he was about to remember.
He thinks he hears laughter, out there. It's enough to make him get up and run like the Devil was after him.
As far as he's concerned, he is.