Sunday, May 10, 2015

1/18/13 - Seven Days of the Con Job - Pt. 7.5

"...It's Happened Before."

 Red Queen, Disparaitre
(Art by Dean Stahl)

* * *

"Heroes are wonderful, but even they can't be everywhere. 

"In these uncertain times, with so much at stake, we all need to feel a little more secure.

"And that's where American All-Star Security comes in. 

"Our protection goes around the clock, everywhere that police can't see, and heroes can't be. 

"Big disasters, small problems. Even just getting kitty out of a tree. 

"When you see the big AAS truck in your city, your town, your neighborhood, you know that you're safe."

* * *

"Yes, I'm seeing it now," the President of the Terre Unifee says, tapping his chin as Ben Franklin beams over the hologram in his darkened office. Outside, nighttime Paris flickers and glows.

"So what do you think?" the Founding Father asks, clearly hoping for some kind of complement.

"Well, I'm not sure," the President says: "I mean, the ad looks great. It's slick and seems heartfelt. I really liked the image of that guy in white armor getting the cat down."

"Oh good. I wasn't sure how that was going to play. The focus groups all contradict one another on things like that-"

"But, well... I know I approved it. I agree with the reasons for another Federal security branch, especially with this extinction-level event we've got coming."

"Indeed," Ben says, patting the top of his desk: "One that's coming right overhead in a matter of months, if the astronomers are right. And as the days get closer, and people get panicky, I fear many will turn to crime and chaos. And it will be very hard to have Le Compagnie everywhere, let alone Team Alpha here."

The President nods: "Especially given the makeup of the new Team Alpha. They're going to need a lot more handling than usual."

"Precisely, Mr. President. So, before we roll this commercial out, and deploy them ahead of SPYGOD's impending trial, perhaps you should tell me what reservations you have let?"

"I don't know," the President says, genuinely mystified at his own reticence: "It just seems somewhat superfluous, but I don't know why."

"How about this, then?" Ben Franklin suggests, steepling his hands before his face: "One year. We do this for one year. If, at the end of that year, it's not all that and a bag of chips, as the kids say these days? We quietly reshuffle it into one of the other security branches. There will be so many changes between now and then, I doubt it'll be noticed."

The President thinks about that, and then nods: "Alright, Ben. Roll the ads, roll the trucks, and let's just hope they won't be needed tomorrow."

"Agreed, Mr. President," Ben says, and then smiles as the hologram on his end goes blank.

"Thank all Gods, past present and future," he mutters: "The idiot went for it."

"You didn't think he wouldn't?" the person he's had on a communicator this entire time asks.

"I was worried, yes. It's a dangerous chance anytime you try to play someone. But I think the group's name caused enough confusion that he wasn't able to process his real concern."

"Which was?"

"That we never asked him for permission in the first place," Ben grins: "We've been playing him from so many directions that he has no idea how badly he's been led."

"Something about that disturbs me," the voice says.

"And what might that be, my dear?"

"It's working too well. In my experience, we should be having more problems. And don't forget that SPYGOD did train him, for a time. He should be better than this."

"Well, he has been having problems at home," Ben admits, sadly: "Having to sleep on the executive couch has a terrible effect upon the mind."

"True, but I'm still worried. This !@#$ could go right down the toilet at any moment."

"Well then, we'd better tell our lovely Antonia she can go ahead with the Big AAS Plan as soon as possible, then?"

"Will do," the voice says, and cuts out. 

"It's all coming together," Ben says, putting his feet up and looking at the pocketwatch he made for himself some 250 years ago: "Just a few more things, and then..."

* * *

"... done," the Maker says, sighing and leaning back at his fantastic desk

The wizened, little fellow accepts a glass of champagne from one of the flitting, clockwork cherubs that surround him, up here. He takes one more look at the oblong device he's created, and, nodding, sips at the drink. 

"If I had but more time," he says, looking around at all the other magnificent things he's created, all hanging up in this endless series of caverns: "Just a day more."

"But what is time to us, Hoosk?" someone asks him -- a voice he hasn't heard in a long time. 

The Maker turns to regard a rippling presence, there on the platform. A silver man with a silver mask, walking towards him. 

"Brother!" the wizened, old man says, jumping down from his chair and going to embrace the man, who kneels down to return it: "It has been so long. So long..."

"But you can't quite remember how long?"

"No," the old man admits, looking up at the fellow: "But now that I see you... the dreams I've been having, down here, since yesterday? They make sense, now."


"Things have happened," the silver man says, taking off his mask so he can look at the old man with his own eyes.

"You've changed," the Maker observes. 

"Yes," the young man says: "Two limited lifetimes, one immortal life. Such is our lot."

"Not all of us."

"No," Shift smiles, sadly, putting his mask back on again: "Satanoth woke up first."

"Oh, he would be the first," the Maker sighs, all but bouncing back to his chair: "But what of the others? Bountiful Aegio? Noyx and Rahmaa? Our lord Seranu? Or Kanaan, perhaps?"

"Some are stirring, some are asleep," Shift says, walking towards the old man and regarding what he's been making: "It is as childbirth, in some ways. Sometimes all we need is a good push."

"Well then," the Maker says, an evil smile playing across his face as his tools leap into his hands: "By all the worlds, my brother, let us give it to them!"

And there is laughter in the caverns of the Maker, magnified by the clattering of clockwork cherub wings and...

* * *

... a waddling tumor of a man, ringing his lover's Parisian doorbell with a bouquet of roses in one hand, and a stack of legal documents under his other arm.

"(Are you there, Michele?)" Jean-Jacques Excephir Geraud asks: "(I have the last pieces of the puzzle, here. And many other things for you.)"

The door opens, and his lover stands there, looking very haunted. So much so that he doesn't kiss him, right at the doorstep, and instead just lets him into his apartment. 

"(Michele, what is wrong?)" the large man asks, stumbling in behind him and closing the door on the well-appointed hallway: "(You look as though you have seen a ghost!)"

"He has, fatso," some blonde, bespectacled young man in black leather says -- in German-accented English -- as he steps out of a nearby room, gun drawn and pointed at the Minister of Justice's midsection: "A few of them, in fact."

"I demand you lower your weapon, sir!" 

"Please, put that away," Michele protests weakly, putting his hand over the top of the gun: "You will not need it. I promise."

The young man just glares, but then slowly lowers it. In the half-light of the apartment, Jean-Jacques can see he's been crying.

"I demand to know what is going on here, or I shall not take another step," the Minister of Justice announces, planting his feet together on the floor: "You have clearly threatened the life of my lover to get to me. I will not be a party to this."

"(Please, my love,)" Michele says, gesturing to the living room he was heading to: "(You need to hear what these people have to say. It is... disturbing, to say the least.)"


"We're in here, Minister Geraud," an older voice says: "And we're not going to pull out any more weapons. Not guns, anyway. You have my word."

The young blonde spits at that and goes back to guarding the door. The large man looks at his lover's eyes and, seeing the distress there, nods, and waddles forward where he's been bade to go.

Inside the apartment's living room, there's a large couch -- one specially made to accommodate the Minister's equally-large frame. Sitting around that couch are three other blonde youths, all wrapped in black leather, carrying guns and cameras in equal measure. One of them wears a black leather cowboy hat, worn well over his face.

None of them look happy.

Sitting on the couch is a man dressed in a similar fashion: his bald head a stitched-together ruin at the back, with wires and plugs running down like some weird, cyberpunk ponytail. One of the eyes might be cybernetic, but Jean-Jacques isn't sure. 

"Mssr. Randolph Scott, I presume," the Minister says, folding his hands before him: "And your coterie of outlaw reporters."

"That's us," one of the young women says, looking down her glasses at him. 

"And to what purpose have you broken many of our laws, Mssr?" 

"The same one I always break laws over," Randolph says, taking a sheaf of papers out from beside him and handing them over: "The truth, pure and simple."

"What is this conneries?"

"My love, please just read it," Michele says, clearly shaken: "It is a terrible thing, but it is true. They have the evidence."

"What's true?" Jean-Jacques thunders.

"That a certain branch of the Terre Unifee has been in league with racist organizations, all over Europe," Jana says.

"That they've concocted a scheme to get a number of world leaders, their families, and their followers away from the planet ahead of what's coming," Helmut announces, dour as ever. 

"A plan that would severely jeopardize Earth's defenses, if it went off," Helga adds.

"And there's more, still," Randolph says, shaking the sheaf: "And it's the truth, fat boy. Every. Ugly. Word"

"These are friends of SPYGOD!" the Minister stammers: "No doubt this is all some trick, done at the last minute to secure his release-"

"That !@#$er's no friend of mine, these days," Randolph snarls: "But you just read it. It's cost us dearly to get this to you, and more will probably fall before this is over.

"But we can't avoid it now."

"This is absurd," the Minister says, all but yanking the sheaf of papers away from Randolph's hand: "And I promise you, I'll have you all tried for this affront."

But he starts to look, anyway, his fat fingers sliding from page to page as he skims, and then re-reads, and then explores in depth.

And as he truly reads what's there, his face slowly begins to fall... 

* * *

 ... down the computer screen, as Henri looks over the autopsy results for one Colonel Roman J.  Richter

It's not the most complete of files, given the state they found his body in, after the Reclamation War. He'd died in captivity, apparently, and been tossed onto a heap of other bodies they'd deemed unsuitable for one reason or another. 

Given GORGON's propensity to absorb people into their collective, and add their skills and experience into their massive pool of information, that seemed odd. He'd been a military man, and heavily involved with The COMPANY in its last days of existence

So why wouldn't they want him? It was a good question, but not one Henri feels like asking Josie about, right now. 

And that's because, as he looks over the grisly, post-mortem photographs -- the rotting skin, and broken pieces -- he can see what the two people have in common. 

That strange spot, right along the spine, just above the buttocks. That weird, fleshy dimple, like an "outtie" navel. 

She had one, as he just discovered last night. And so did Colonel Richter. 

A chilly feeling goes through him, just then -- one magnified by the fact that the two people were so structurally similar. Big and tall. Extremely well-muscled, but not to the point of grotesqueness. Large heads and hands. 

In fact, if he squints his eyes, and imagines if she'd been black and male, he can't help but wonder if they hadn't been siblings...

He looks around Josie's office, which he's borrowed to do "private research" in. She's out at meetings all afternoon, and told him he wouldn't be disturbed in there. 

Henri can only pray she's right -- especially by her. 

He changes the Steely Dan he's listening to -- Aja, this time -- and looks at the autopsy reports, one more time. He notes the examiner's finding -- that the horrific damage to Richter's skull seems to have been self-inflicted by smashing his head against the bars of his own cell.

Then he closes that down and begins looking at the COMPANY's files of the man, which should be a complete rundown of everything and anything. His birth, his childhood, his adult life, his career. Relationships, acquaintances, people he just knew in passing. All known information.

Imagine his surprise when he finds the man's life a massive black hole.

"Merde," Henri mutters, seeing that everything about the man, just prior to SPYGOD's disappearance after supposedly shooting the former President of the USA, is just dates and places, with no real evidence to corroborate it. 

Almost as if he never really existed in the first place.

"It's over now / drink your big black cow / and get outta here..." the song says. He doesn't heed its warning, and keeps digging, knowing the truth is very close now.

He'll just have to hope it doesn't kill him...

* * *

 ... again, somehow, though Martha's lost track of how many times Mark has died in front of her, now.

Once when he bled out from what was left of his penis. Twice when their scarlet-robed torturer allowed his blood pressure to ebb too low when he started removing his intestines. Three times when he took his spleen out.. or was that after he made him eat one of his own kidneys?

She's not sure, anymore. She can't scream, anymore. She can barely look, now, as Mark weakly vomits up pieces of his lung, fed to him by El Inquisidor Escarlata.

"Still, you insist there's nothing to tell me," the man says, clearly bored: "Still, I say there is. Why not tell me everything, again? Maybe you'll stumble upon the truth before I make him eat his own heart?"

Martha tries to say something, but fails. And then the scarlet-robed man sighs, puts down the plate, and nods.

"Let's wind this !@#$ up, okay?" he says, his voice suddenly very different: "I don't think we're getting anything, today."

"What?" she asks, suddenly aware that something very weird is going on. Her perceptions are changing -- becoming sharper, and no longer dulled by pain and nausea.

She can feel something on the back of her head. It's like someone's scalped her, but then not. More like someone's taking off a hat from her head.

The second it's free, she sees she's in the darkened circular room, again. She's still trapped in the chair. But while she can smell urine, !@#$, and vomit, there's no blood in the air.

She looks over at Mark, and sees he's whole, again. Naked and messy, of course -- he may have !@#$ himself, in fact. But he's not in pieces, anymore.

"Oh, thank God," she mumbles, weak and unsure if she's hallucinating, or if they've both just died.

"Shut the !@#$ up," the person who took the bulky helmet off her head says, putting it down on a table in front of her in clear disgust: "Do you have any idea how much taxpayer money you've wasted, today?"

She looks up at the young man in front of her. He's wearing a crimson suit with a black tie, red rubber gloves that go up to his elbows, and a mask that vaguely echoes what El Inquisidor Escarlata was wearing.

"Oh God," she mutters, suddenly knowing what's been going on here.

"Martha, you're alive," Mark cries, sobbing in relief: "Oh honey... he took you apart. He made me watch while he.... while he took you apart..."

"An illusion," the young man in red says, waving his hands in front of Mark's face: "A !@#$ing magic show. With these helmets, I can torture you all I like, and get you spill your guts while you think I'm twisting yours around."

"And then... we forget all about it..." Martha says, suddenly afraid of how long this has been going on: "I remember now."

"Well, good for you, puta," the man says, slapping her across the face. The real pain stings and smarts, but she's too wiped out to do more than take it.

"You leave her alone..." Mark says, straining against his bonds: "I'll..."

"You'll what, pendejo? !@#$ yourself,  again?"


"God, you're pathetic," the red-clad man hisses, reaching between Mark's legs to grab a handful of the stuff in question, and then splatter it across Mark's face: "I should make you eat this."

"That won't help," someone else says, out in the darkness of the room. An older man, with wavy, white hair, dressed in a green, spangly uniform with a thin, silver headband just above his eyebrows: "Let them go back to their cells. We'll try again tomorrow."

"I know you," Martha says, looking at the man: "Mr. Mental, right? The Bright Bowman... he used to put you behind bars... twice a year..."

"Not anymore," the man smiles, gesturing to two guards, who release Mark and Martha from their bonds and take them away.

"Hose them down," the young man orders as they're hoisted out: "Toss them in their cells with no blankets. Keep it cold in there. And no food! I want them on the brink of collapse, tomorrow."

"That won't help, either," Mr. Mental says: "They're still holding onto something, but making them fall apart before you get them in the VR rigs won't help."

"And how would you know?" the younger man snorts, pulling off his gloves and tossing them into a trashcan: "My father spent years developing this technology, after his body failed him. If there's anything for them to tell, they'll tell it."

"I can sense it's there," Mr. Mental -- aka The Commander -- lies: "They just need a little more time. I'm sure of it."

"And then you'll just pluck it out, huh?" the kid says: "This sucks. They told me you could read minds. Why can't you just find it?"

"It's not that simple," the ersatz older villain sighs: "The human mind is-"

"Whatever," the younger Inquisidor mutters, stomping out of the room: "But just so you know? If we don't get it by tomorrow, I'm putting the helmet on you."

"Yeah, you keep dreaming, junior," the Commander whispers, carefully using a concealed signalling device to send a coded message back to their headquarters...

* * *

...  which is a whirlwind of motion, now that they finally have a plan to wrap themselves around.

A suitable WMD has been located, thanks to some sleuthing. An unstable nuclear device, buried somewhere in Siberia by the late Soviet Union, and long since forgotten. One good sneeze might set it off, if they're lucky.

And if not, well, having one of their suborned teleporters pick it up from its current location, and drop it onto Barcelona? Well, that should about do it. 

The Pusher's a busy man, right now. He's checking in with each and every operative they have, just to make sure tomorrow goes according to plan. When they go live with their demands, after Barcelona turns to ash and fire, everyone's going to need to be on the ball. 

He's a bit miffed that The Emperor of Pain decided to sleep in, today, of all days. But then, given how old and cranky the elderly villain is, he'd most likely be of limited help. He'd probably just get in a silly argument with the Lord of Spiders, or else grump in the corner and muse about days long since gone by.

And these are all brand new days, ahead. 

The Sound nods and smiles at him, raising a thumb up. The Pusher acknowledges, going back to looking at the big board, and looking forward to seeing it all lit up with obedience and fealty.

And fear. 

"Barcelona Delenda Est," he mutters, patting the sleeping head of METALMAID for good luck as the plan comes together at last...

* * *

... Henri thinks he has it, but he's not sure he wants to look. 

It came to him a moment ago, after searching though all of Josie's information. All the dates and pictures. All the pieces of a life lived in full.

All of which seem too neat to his jaded eyes. Too normal. 

And then, just as he was about to put in a call to Paris, he heard something on the CD he'd been listening to. Just a little thing, but it got him wondering. 

"Gonna shine up the battle apple / we'll shake 'em all up tonight..."

Wasn't there a Project: Battle Apple? Something need-to-know?

And wasn't the song that line came from called Josie?

The horrible chill is back, but he ignores it. Instead he uses his new, improved permissions to look into Project: Battle Apple. 

And as the information goes across his screen, and the photographs pop up, he feels a horrible pressure around his neck. He can't breathe, seeing what he's seeing. 

And then he realizes he really can't breathe. There's a hand around his neck. 

A very large and powerful one, like the one on his shoulder, holding him down... 

It takes Henri just under a minute to stop hitting his assailant, not that he can really get much leverage from the chair. Trying to stab her with plastic pens and assorted office things doesn't work either. His assassin can take it.

He should know -- he gave her all he could, last night, and she was still good for it. 

As he turns blue and goes still, Josie finally deigns to snap his neck. The sound is crisp and wet, and extremely satisfying.

She could have done it at any time. She just wanted to make the wormy little scumbag suffer. 

After that, she thinks of how best to dispose of the wretch. Maybe she'll just toss him in his luggage with his !@#$ty CDs and mostly-unused sex toys. Then she can just zip it up and place it in the secret room she just snuck out of -- alerted by his clumsy perusal of her files.

Just one more hidden body, there with all the long-lost things and unsolved mysteries...

* * *

 ... not exactly the fate Foudre Blanc had in mind for himself, when he took on the mantle of Paris' white knight. 

He'd come down here, to the Maker's cavern to collect the device the old man had been working on all this time. He said it would be ready at this time, today -- late into the night -- and never ever gave a false promise. So he'd come on down, bearing both beignets and coffee, expecting to be able to go back up to the world with the final piece of their plan to neutralize the Nthernaut, just in case he was going to aid SPYGOD.

The door opened, as usual. The way was laid down for him. But no sooner did he get within shouting distance of the old man's raised platform than the door slammed shut, right behind him.

And, with a terrible whining noise -- and the feel of being too close to power line -- Foudre Blanc realized he'd walked into a terrible trap. 

The ceiling had caved in. All those years of hidden history and impossible inventions tumbled down from their places.

And Foudre Blanc could do little more than try to run, as he could not connect with any electrical outlets. 

He supposes he was supposed to die, then and there. Somehow the rocks slammed down around his head, rather than on it, giving him enough air to breathe.

But the rocks weren't as kind to everything below his ribcage. 

If he doesn't move, he can't feel how badly he's been crushed, down there. If he breathes as shallowly as possible, it doesn't hurt as much. He supposes he'd bleed to death if someone tried to rescue him, now, or watch all his organs slough out of his chest just before he died. 

But he can't keep this up, and he knows this. He knows he is going to die, here and now, all alone in this collapsed cave of wonders. 

He isn't sure how he feels about dying, though. 

He often thought that, one day, when he was old and barely able to hold his own in a fight, Paris would !@#$ out some super-Beur to challenge him. Maybe they'd have a great fight in the city's center. And maybe, as he lay beaten and dying at the hands of such a grotesque and powerful negro, the city would lay down its weakness and diffidence, and at last take up arms against the merde that had invaded their white nation.

It would be, in the words of one comic book he always loved, a good death.

But now? Now that the great plan was revealed to him, and he realized his inability to fulfill his love's dying wish? Well, that had just taken all the wind from his sails. He had become a ghost in high-tech armor, going from day to day with no real conviction or joy, hoping that maybe his brown nemesis would emerge earlier than expected, and give him that hero's demise before some great space monster robbed him of that victory. 

Maybe he'd die a martyr, after all. 

But dying down here, like this? How sad. How useless. 

How disappointing. 

He opens his eyes, just then. He was unaware that they'd been closed. He breathes in harder than he should, and that hurts. Makes him cough, which hurts worse. 

Close now? Yes. Close. Soon he will be dead. 

Soon he will see her, again. His beloved. Sabine

He closes his eyes purposely now. Hopefully she will come, soon. Come and tell him it's alright. That he did the best he could to make them pay for what they did to her. 

That he did what he could for as long as he could, and would have done it for even longer. If only. 


There's silence, then. A blackness. Then light. 

When he reopens his eyes, he's still where he was. He's still trapped under rocks and unable to move, but somehow the rocks over his head are gone..

The cavern is open sky, now. Red, cloudy, and unhealthy. Weakly lit by a far-off sun, setting.

Around him, nothing. A hazy horizon that stretches forever. 

He is naked. He is also whole for the first time in years. No longer burned or scarred. 

"hello!" he shouts as best he can, though it comes out a whisper: "help me! Please..."

Noises are muted, here. But over time he can hear something. A weird humming, constant and deep. 

It gets louder. He becomes aware that something is coming for him. 

Someone. Three of them, in fact -- their approach heralded by a loose cloud of glowing dragonflies.

One of them is a tall man in a dark cloak and long hat, striding as though he should have a staff, but does not. His beard is long and unkempt, and he looks as though he's quite uneasy. 

The second is a large, Asian man in a white suit. He wears small, round sunglasses and walks with the utmost of ease, as if all this is normal to him.

The third is a short, large woman in a long, purple cloak, carrying a staff that's a foot taller than she is. She's got long, curly red hair and a weird smile -- one that collapses the moment they all see Foudre Blanc, lying there. 

"Here," the woman says, pointing at the broken soul in their path: "He'll do."

"What do you mean, Tombo?" the man in the hat asks. "What are we doing here?

"This path requires sacrifice, Eben," Chinmoku says, gesturing at the broken man at their feet: "I believe we have found a worthy one to carry us through...?"

"Oh yes, we have," the redhead says, staring at Foudre as though he were some nasty thing she'd found under her shoe: "This piece of !@#$ has it coming. We'll use him."

"Help me, please," Foudre whispers: "I'm... I don't know where I am..."

"You are dead," Chinmoku says: "This is the way to the afterlife. Apparently, something is holding you back."

"Gee, I wonder what," the redhead sneers, spitting on her hands. They begin to glow. 

"This is grotesque," the one they called Eben sighs, putting a hand up to his face: "Look, I know this man. He's a hero-"

"Bull!@#$!" Tombo shouts: "This man's a racist piece of trash. A killer and a thief."

"That... that can't be right-"

"Can't it? I've helped at least a half a dozen kids who died because of what he's done. Don't you dare call him a hero, Doctor. Even for you, that's a stretch."

The bearded man sighs, shakes his head, and turns around so he doesn't have to watch this. Chinmoku just kind of smiles. And the redhead leans over to reach down, and then puts her hands right through Foudre's chest -- taking hold of whatever he's made of here, and then twisting it around itself like yarn.

"And just so you know?" she says, looking him right in the eyes as she painfully crochets him into something much more portable: "Sabine won't speak to you, now. She's disgusted with you."

"But I did... what she asked..."

"No, Bruno. You didn't," Tombo insists: "She didn't say 'destroy them all.' She said 'forgive them all.'  You just heard what you wanted to, same as always."

He would cry, if he could. But as she's been talking, she's been winding. And before long he's just a ball of soulstring -- weakly moaning in her pocket as she leaves.

And then there's just the sound of ghostly dragonflies, humming...

* * *

... the Lord's Prayer as she tries to sleep. But after a few bars she knows it's not going to work.

Martha looks at the ceiling of her cell and smiles. She hears Mark, nearby, coughing, and waves a hand at her invisible love: "Hey."

"Hey," he replies, weakly: "How are you?"

"I feel like !@#$," she laughs: "You?"

"At least I'm not covered in it, anymore."

They both laugh at that.

"They let you keep your bed?" she asks.

"No. You?"

"No," she says, patting the floor she's laying on: "No blankets. No food."

"Hardcore guy, this... who?"

"El Inquisador Escarlata," she says, her dry mouth making a hash of the pronunciation.: "My dad worked with his dad, once. Real nasty guy."

"I think you told me that?" Mark asks: "Hard to be sure."

"I think we're hallucinating the same thing at first, then they switch it," she says: "So he makes me think he's torturing you while he makes you think he's torturing me."

"I'm sorry," Mark says: "I think I told him everything... everything I knew."

"So did I," Martha says: "I'd have told him anything I knew if he'd stop hurting you."

"I'm sorry," Mark cries: "I tried to be stonger. I did. I just couldn't..."

"Mark, don't cry," she says, putting a hand out to him, or where she thinks he is: "Save your strength."

"For what? More of this?"

"For us," Martha says: "For these times when we're not in that room. For you and me, talking."

"I love you," Mark says.

"I love you, too," Martha says: "We'll get out of here, one way or another. They can't deny us Heaven, right?"

"Will I go there?" Mark asks: "I don't know.... not anymore."

"God knows, but I have faith," Martha smiles: "Pray with me, Mark. Pray as loud and as true as you can. Mean every word. Imagine they're steel, building your soul from the ground up. And then you just know Jesus is with you, and will never desert you. Okay?"

"Okay," Mark says. 

"'Our Father, who art in Heaven,'" they both begin to say, but Martha suddenly stops praying as something grabs hold of her ankles and drags her into the darkness.

"Shhhh!" Night Phantom says, quickly pulling Mark down along with them: "Don't shout too loud. I think they've got something patrolling in here. That's what Myron said, anyway."

"You're a sight for sore eyes," Mark says, suddenly trying to cover his nakedness, and hardly noticing the strangeness of their new surroundings. 

"So are you," the floating body says, taking them both by the hands and leading them through the black underworld he calls home: "Now just be quiet. Trust me. I know where we need to go..."

How long do they travel? Is it hours or days? Martha isn't sure, after a time, but soon they come up for air, as it were.

A place made of metal. Grilled floors and armor plate walls. Numbers and arrows. 

Night Phantom gets them a pair of bathrobes and slippers. They're so warm and comfortable they almost cry, and he just smiles in his own, weird way, and floats them down to where they need to go. 

On the way they pass strange objects. Open glass and steel tanks, large enough to hold a human being, two of which still do. Wires and tubes all going in and out of them and the walls. 

(More arrows and directions, hard to read. Rusty.)

They're halfway down the next hall before they realize they knew those people. Wasn't that Red Wrecker and Yanabah, sleeping in VR bodysuits? 

And when they get into the room that hallway leads to, there's more surprises awaiting. 

There's the rest of Team Alpha, sitting at a table. Most of them are in bathrobes and slippers, some have put on civilian clothes. A definitely not-dead Blastman beams at them and waves. Shining Guardsman shows off his new, improved suit to Rakim, who's endlessly fascinated by its intricacies. 

New Man stands with Myron, conferring over something with a hologram of a man who looks rather mechanical. For a moment Martha thinks it's that Machinehead villain, but this person seems so much nicer, somehow. 

(No sign of Gosheven. Somehow that's not surprising.)

Past them all are large screens, all being tended to by large, short-haired women and equally large, bald black men. Martha gasps when she realizes the men all look like the late Colonel Richter. Mark realizes that, if the women had pink hair and tattoos, they'd all look like Josie. 

On those screens? Everyone. Mr. USA, reporting in from the White House. Jess Friend from somewhere. Antonia Crisp, out of her suit, live in Neo York City. Ben Franklin from the White House. The Sound from somewhere else. 

There's a white noise, and a pair of figures appear. One of them's Red Queen, holding a weird, long gun that seems to be breathing. The other is that weird French fellow with the bad cigarettes. The one who was supposed to be dead.

"What's going on?" Mark says, clearly astounded. 

"Ever get the feeling someone's been conned?" Director Straffer asks, walking towards them with his hands outstretched and a huge smile. 

"What's happening?" Martha asks, holding up a hand: "I didn't... I don't remember any of this."

"This might help," Straffer says, picking a comic book off a nearby table and handing it over to her. The Invisibles issue 12: Best Man Fall.

"It's only a game, Martha," Myron says from where he is: "Try to remember."

And suddenly, she does...

* * *

... remember who she truly is, at long last.

Venus. She's just passed Venus. A cloud of warships flew past her as she tumbles towards the Sun. They looked like crabs bred with rockets, one and all.

Her body is broken. She should not be alive. She has holes where there were none before, burned and painful. 

She has rage. Rage at the thing that did this to her. Rage at the Other who let it happen.

Rage aplenty, and so many targets for that rage.

So much retribution to lay upon them...

"Nemesis," the woman formerly known as Ciel Rouge spits out into the void.

Her body warps and shapes itself anew. 

Her red cloak burns like fire.

Her wounds heal, but the pain does not go away. 

And then, slowly turning herself around, she follows the Venusans back the way she'd come, heading for Earth.

And the retribution her name promises. 

* * *

Coincidence and patience
will mend this fatal flaw
Though it may seem a long wait
others have been here before

(SPYGOD is listening to Before (Pet Shop Boys, extended) and having a Founders Nemesis)

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