Monday, August 17, 2015

Dis-Integration: 8/10/15 to 8/16/15

"Your Words Recall to Mind / Your Short Sweet Life"
Chinmoku, Red Wrecker, Shining Guardsman, Hanami
Myron, Mr. USA, Red Queen, Yanabah, Blastman
(Art by Dean Stahl)
* * *


* * *

Monday: 8/10/15

"Good evening America. I'm Randolph Scott. And This... Is Bull!@#$.

"The big news this week has horrifying hair, an ego that won't quit, and a sizable percentage of the Republican vote in his hip pocket after last week's debate on FOX News.

"In a nation that clearly desires glitz and glamor over sense and substance, Donald Trump's undeniably shallow, bombastic, and at-times offensive performance has made him the undisputed leader of the GOP race. However, as more candidates drop out, and the field gets more serious, Trump's inability to actually answer questions and give specifics about his plans will no doubt hurt his chances of securing the nomination.

"That said, Trump has delineated one of his plans. He's said that, should he fail to get the GOP nomination, he'll just run third party. I guess if you're worth billions it really is nothing to break your own toys and go home?

"But in a nation that's tossed out the Electoral College, what does that even mean?

"As of today, there's no less than twenty third parties vying for pre-election media attention. Some of them are splits from the Republican and Democratic party, and I'm sure most of you know of the Greens and the Libertarians. But there are a lot more to contend with, both old and new, and from all edges of the spectrum, running the gamut from principled splitters to the genuine lunatic fringe.

"And, thanks to the new campaign laws, you're going to get to see their ads, and will hear the top ten eventual nominees duke it out on primetime.

"It almost reminds this reporter of California's special recall election of 2003, when 135 people vied to be the Governor. Now, there wasn't any real question that it would go to the late Arnold Schwarzenegger, but if there'd been a candidate with real star power, as opposed to, say, the also late Gary Coleman or Gallagher, who may as well be late, well... what might have happened then?

"So is Trump's brazen threat to make a new party a credible one? Or is he hoping to blackmail the party into accepting him by tacitly threatening to drag the yee-hah contingent of the GOP's voter base with him, thus weakening it just that much more?

"That question forms the backbone of our special report, tonight. There's word from within the party that, should Trump get the nomination, there may indeed be a split, only from the opposite direction. Word has it that the more "dignified" candidates will leave to form another, supposedly truer GOP.

"There's also talk of this hypothetical real GOP clustering around Interim President Quayle as a candidate, though he has expressly ruled out running for office once more. And, given how deftly his long-promised Human Life Amendment -- hoped by many within the American Right to be the defining achievement of his interim Presidency -- was all but scuttled by a Supergod with powers over human fetuses, late last week...?

"Well, not running might not be such a bad idea, Mr. Quayle. Unless it's back to whatever bunker you sat and hid in while the Imago were killing your allies, friends, and fellow-travelers.

"Or did you think we !@#$ing forgot about all that?

"We'll have more on that, along with an update on reports of people attempting to engineer a race war in Ferguson, signs of lingering official racism within the heart of the New European Union, a look at the latest environmental red alerts...

"...and this just in! Accusations of a cover-up of the death of one of the strategic talents involved in destroying the Decreator, just over a year ago. Apparently, the French hero known as Disparaitre was found dead in his Parisian apartment, yesterday, under circumstances that are being billed as 'highly mysterious.' No one wants to comment on whether it was suicide, murder, substance abuse, or natural causes, and the French authorities have apparently cleared and closed down the entire apartment building, citing 'environmental hazards'...?


"We'll have more on that, plus 'What Would Jello Do?' with San Francisco's own Jello Biafra, later in the show.

"All happening tonight, on This Is Bull!@#$ -- the only real, live news program left in America."

* * *

"What the actual !@#$, Helga?" Randolph says, coming off the set and into the camera pit as one of his readers comes on to talk small stuff before one of the big stories can be read: "He's dead?"

"Yes, he is," she says, shivering: "But I just got more information while you were reading it. And..."

"And what?"

"Well, it's hard to tell," she admits, trying to make herself heard over the audio and the news coming in: "FAUST and the COMPANY do not get along. And as Disparaitre was liaised with the COMPANY during the effort to save Earth, well, he was something of a football between the two agencies. I think that's the word."

"That works," Randolph says: "So, a lot of cross chatter? Back and forth?"

"And in that back and forth... it was not suicide. It was murder."

"Murder? How the !@#$ do you kill a teleporter like that?"

"I do not know. But it was messy. And it took time. And they think it is the same person who killed the First Lady of the Terre Unifee, two and a half years ago."

Randolph Scott blinks -- once, then twice. Then he slowly nods.

"Get Velma to read for me," he says, taking off his mike: "I'm getting on the horn."

"I thought you might say that," the Toon says, walking by and grabbing the object out of his hands: "And I've already taken the liberty of scrubbing your gratuitous hyperbole."

"Yeah, !@#$ you, too," he says, giving her a quick kiss and then booking it back to his office.

"Should I hold on a story for an update?" Helga asks as he goes.

"No," he shouts back: "If this is what I think it is, and it probably is, I'm going to be out for a while."

Inside his office, behind a large picture of Nixon being marched out of the White House, is a huge, triple-locked safe. Inside that safe is a bulky, black bag that houses his travel kit. Inside that kit is everything he needs to uncover a story, bust it open, and report it: laptop full of cracker software; cameras of every size; bugs and recorders; lockpicks and decoders; bribe money in several currencies.

And guns, guns, guns.

"'Go big or go home,'" he says to himself, making a call to a friend who can smuggle his ass into France -- hopefully as soon as tomorrow. If he gets there any later than that the ragged edges of the story will start to vanish on him. The witnesses will circle their wagons, the sources will have found their exclusive marks, and it'll be that much harder to persuade the truth out of them.

Time is not on his side, right now, and all he can hope for is to get there before fact turns into fiction...

Tuesday: 8/11/15

To his credit, New Man had taken the news about Disparaitre as well as one could expect someone in his position to handle it -- which is to say, better than he took the news about his son, but not without quickly regaining his direction and resolve.

"This changes things," he'd told Josie after a few moments of staring out the Flier's windows, down at DC: "I want everyone here in 48 hours to talk assignments and strategy. How long until he's buried?"

"I think they're making arrangements for this Saturday," she'd said, checking her wristpad: "Yes. He's being interred at Père Lachaise."

"I thought there was a waiting list a mile long for that?"

"They've got an open space for their heroes, sir," she replied, smiling: "Kind of like our area in Arlington, over by the Torchbearer."

"Good," he said, smiling a little: "He deserves that."

That was all he'd said before going back to looking out the window, and she'd wisely allowed him some space to process. It wasn't every day you had to deal with not only the fact that your long-missing son might not only be alive, but also be engaged in superscience terrorism. But that whoever killed the former Second Lady of the USA may have just assassinated one of the most powerful strategic talents on the planet -- right under their noses, no less -- and that the former President had apparently been on the scene to call it in?

Well, that took some handling, to say the least.  Dealing with his son's apparent defection, and association with this "Metal Plague" would have been hard enough, but at least it would have been fairly straightforward. Disparatre's death was going to be anything but. 

48 hours later, right on the dot, and Josie's standing at New Man's side as he looks down at every Strategic Talent, analyst, and specialist the COMPANY has on hand -- with a few notable exceptions -- and reads the shock and confusion on their faces as he finishes giving them his report.

"I know this all sounds incredible," he says, raising a hand before the murmurs turn into actual questions: "It also sounds pretty daunting. But we've put out bigger fires and handled worse crises. As long as we remember we're a team, and act like it, we can lick anything this crazy world wants to throw at us."

There are nods and the occasional "yes" whispered out there. It's all he needs to see.

"So this is the way it is," he says: "This is the closest we've been to this monster in more than two and a half years, and we are not letting him go this time. From this point forward, all principal action, goes towards finding our friend's killer.

"All other cases, except for those marked Ultra-One or Triple Black, become secondary until further notice. There will be some exceptions, of course, but if you don't hear directly from me or Second in the next hour, I want you working an angle on this.

"Case in point -- Hanami," he says, pointing to the android who's floating above the front row, right behind the majority of the Freedom Force: "You and your team will continue looking into this Purple Demon situation. If we're right about this, it could go critical at any time, and I want you all ready to deal with it."

"Yes sir," she says, snapping a very smart salute. If she's sad or disappointed, she does not show it.

"But make yourselves available to be in France for the funeral this Saturday, circumstances permitting. You're going to be our public faces there."

She nods, understanding that even if she can't feel it.

"And that's that, folks," Second says, stepping up as New Man steps back: "Your section leaders have your assignments. Get with them now, and get on them as of yesterday. I want hourly progress reports on my pad from all sections. Do not make me come asking for them!"

That gets people's butts moving with a purpose. She tries not to smile, at least until she turns around and looks at New Man.

"Well said, Josie," he says, looking at his own wristpad: "Now, we've got a hacked preliminary autopsy and forensic examination to go over..."

"Sir," Red Queen says, stepping out of a nearby alcove, her huge, round goggles glittering in the dark: "I need to speak to you."

"Is this about your assignment?" Josie asks, stepping between the two of them: "If not, we're a bit busy-"

"I should be helping in the hunt, sir," she insists, looking up and past Second: "Not on some chicken!@#$ ticket run-"

"You mind your place, Agent," Josie snarls: "You've got an order to follow, you do it. We don't have time for theatrics right now."

"Josie, go ahead," New Man says, nodding at his Second: "I think Red Queen and I need to talk."

"Yes, sir," she says, giving Red Queen one more withering look before heading away to their impending meeting.

"Sir, please," Red Queen all but begs as soon as Josie's out of sight: "He was my friend. I owe him to help in this."

"Yes, you do," he says, nodding: "But you've got an order, too, soldier. And I know you know which is more important."

"Yes, sir," she says, trying not to sigh: "But this one... I mean, it'll keep."

"Is that what you think?" New Man says, maybe a little more sternly than necessary: "Because I think we paired you up with this situation because it's the sort of mission that needs you on it. And that means it's a mess that needs cleaning up, preferably with a bullet the size of a baby's head. Do you disagree with that assessment, Agent?"

"No, sir," she says, standing at firm attention. If he's calling her "agent" instead of "soldier" she has clearly pissed him off.

"So when you say it'll keep, what you really mean is-"

"Sir, with respect, I get the picture," she says: "Let's not drag this out any further than it has to go."

He blinks, and then scowls: "Oh no, Agent. You opened the door, I'm walking through it. You have a problem with that?"

"No, sir."

"Good," he says, putting a hand on her shoulder: "Because I am not heartless. I know you two had a bond. I know that he didn't open up to a whole lot of people, either, and that makes that bond a special thing, worthy of avenging. You got no argument from me there.

"But right now, I need a plan to go forward and catch this !@#$er, and get him to talk before we make him pay. And to do that, I need cool, clear heads on this thing. I need the best analysis I can get. And I need them now.

"Now, be honest with me -- I mean really !@#$ honest. Do you think you can sit there, sifting through info until your brain's about to melt, looking for the needle in the haystack that's going to find this bastard? Or are you just going to sit there playing with that gun, feeling like you're helping, but not really helping at all?"

She sighs, nodding: "I'm... yes. Yes sir. I wouldn't be any help at all. I'm too angry and too focused on shooting him through each and every bone in his spinal column."

"As you should be," he says, taking the hand away: "That's your job. That's why we keep you here. And when the time comes to do it? You have my promise that you will be the one to take him down and out."

He extends a hand for her to shake, and looks at her intently: "Unless, of course, you'd rather keep lipping off to me, in which case I'll have them yank that gun out of your pocket and send you off to demob."

"Thank you, sir," she says, shaking the hand, and then saluting: "I'll go work on punching that ticket, sir."

"You do that, soldier," he says, saluting back: "And then hurry back. We'll have another ticket waiting for you."

"There's always one more ticket in the jar, sir," she says as she leaves, faking a smile.

And New Man watches her walk away, hoping to God he hasn't just made a big mistake by trusting her...

Wednesday: 8/12/15

"You let that Japanese bi help out?" Tubian shouts as he flies over the burning warehouses, changing the fire back into its elemental components, and then into water.

"Yes I did," Hong Lingxiu says from down on the ground, using his mental powers to command the fit to combat the fire, and urging the sick and wounded to leave the area as quickly as they can: "She was here, and she knows the face of our enemy."

"I don't trust her," their transmutationist mutters, his red tabard flapping around him as he soars above his work. But then he scowls as his attempts to put out the fire with water just make it worse.

The flames are burning too hot for this to work. He needs a better plan.

And before he can come up with one, he has to duck a hail of bullets, fired from some warbot on a nearby, burning warehouse.

The attack started just a half an hour ago, in Tianjin. Explosions rocked the industrial district of the port city, causing horrendous fires that have spread out of control.

And walking ahead of the waves of fire are large mobs of war robots, shooting as they come.

The People's Red Guard appeared on the scene as soon as they could, but soon got tied up trying to fight the seemingly-endless groups of warbots rather than the fire. Thankfully, the Japanese android from America's Freedom Force soon arrived, and volunteered to deal with the robots so the others could help fight the fire.

They're just not having much luck with it, so far.

"We could use some help, here!" Hong Lingxiu shouts into his communicator, barely able to control as many people as he's commanding right now: "Hong Ying? Shouwei? Xunsu Shibing?"

"I can bring my people in fairly quickly, if you would like!" Hanami shouts as she smashes group after group of warbots, her eyes glowing each and every time another line of them falls down, smoking and sparking: "They're in Seoul! I can have the fliers here in minutes-"

"I think we've had enough of your meddling for one day," some snarly voice tells her as he runs past almost too quickly to see, knocking over dozens more robots as he goes: "We can handle this."

"Don't be prideful!" she castigates the voice: "If you want to be helpful, find the machine that's making these robots and put it out of action!"

The speedster doesn't have anything to say about that, but she gets the idea he's decided it's a good idea, and headed off to comply.

A few moments later, Tubian has the bright idea of turning the oxygen into something that won't burn. He's working on the exact chemical compound as another explosion comes -- this one from the very center of the disturbance.

"Hey, I found the machine!" the speedster says: "But it's boobytrapped. I'll try to attack it from a different angle-"

More explosions. A haunting, horrible scream. Someone shouts a name that Hanami doesn't quite get.

The rest is a chain reaction of fires and explosions -- one that increases almost exponentially as the number of robots decreases.

* * *

Some time later, when the normal rescue squads have gotten the horrible mess under some semblance of control, Hanami stands in front of the melted slag that was once a Metal Plague machine, and does her best to search for information. 

"He was twenty," someone tells her. She turns and sees a young man in a very stylized Chinese army uniform -- one with bronze pads of armor in strategic locations. 

"I do not understand," she says.

"Xunsu Shibing!" the young man shouts, the bronze pads growing and lengthening as he does: "The man you ordered into the fire! He was only twenty and now he is dead! And you-"

"And she made the correct decision, Shouwei," Hong Lingxiu says, appearing from seemingly nowhere, his white, long robe flapping about as he walks: "The machine had to be destroyed. The menace had to be contained. He gave his life for our people, as was his duty. He should be showed respect, not argued over."

"I'll do more than argue with this riben gou-"

"Enough!" the middle-aged man shouts, and the sound of his voice makes the younger man stand perfectly still, shivering as if afraid: "Leave here now and await my command!"

"I hope you can forgive him," Hong Lingxiu says as the young man walks away from them, as if in a dream: "He is young and proud, and he and Xunsu Shibing were great friends. This is a terrible thing."

"It is," Hanami says, looking around: "No evidence remains. I came here too late to learn more. And now, it is certain this will happen at least once more."

The leader of the People's Red Guard raises a long eyebrow at that remark: "I was referring more to the loss of life."

"Yes, you were," the android says, kicking one of the warbots' heads some distance away in frustration: "My concerns are more strategic at this point. I will leave you to mourn your dead."

"You know, I met you, once before," the man says before she can leave: "It was many years ago. Decades, even. I was young, and another commanded this organization."

"I remember," she says, trying to hide her annoyance: "He kept trying to put his hand on my ass."

"Yes," Hong Lingxiu coughs into his fist: "He was a troubled man. You have my apologies for his behavior-"

"Is there a point to this memory, Hong Lingxiu?" Hanami asks, still not turning to look at him: "Because I also remember that your organization was late to the battle. Even the Koreans arrived before you did, and they hate us. And I remember that my people took the majority of the damage, and suffered the highest losses.

"And when it was all over, you all just nodded, bowed, and left without saying a word, as though you were stars on a stage and the show was over."

"I was just going to say that when we fought together, against the foe of that day? I was both amazed and made glad by your innocence and kindness. You were a ray of light in a dark hour, lighting the way to victory. And I was very glad of that light."

She turns, then, if only to glower at him: "Do you want to see me light up, again? Is that it?"

"No, of course not. I only mean to say that something happened to you in space, Hanami. You have changed, and in changing you have lost more than you have gained. If I were you, I would find it again."

"If I were you, I'd ask your Ministry of State Security what they know about these machines," she says, turning to go: "And given that you can do more than ask...?"

With that, she flies away, leaving him speechless.

On the way back to Seoul, she thinks of who all she lost, up there.

Brightstarsurfergirl, immolated by that thing.

Dr. Fuller, killed by its stare.

Mr. Chaos, lost while keeping them safe in its innards.

Dr. Heila, turned into something truly horrible.

(And Night Phantom was... what, absorbed by a god? Is that the word for it?)

And Faraj? Where was he? Where was that incredible, impossible man who took a broken, young girl and made her a woman, again?

"Of all the things I lost in space, I miss my heart the least," she mutters to herself, wondering where complete strangers get off telling her how to feel.

Thursday: 8/13/15
 "I'm trying to be nice about this, gentlemen," Abdullah Ismail says, wondering how much trouble he'd be in if he just started hitting them: "But my answer is still no. And you need to leave."

"Please, be reasonable," the well-dressed and bulbous representative from the NEU says, not making any moves to get up from Abdullah's kitchen table, which is stacked high with piles of Le Front de L'Espoir literature. 

"I am. I'm asking you both nicely."

"Look, can't you see you're the best person for this?" the man says, looking from Abdullah to the middle-aged, black Englishman who's come with him -- the one in the black suit, monocle, and bowler hat who isn't saying much of anything, preferring to stand and observe in silence.

"How so?" the young man asks, only mildly interested. Maybe this answer will be different from the others he's gotten, thus far.

"You see, France needs heroes. Now more than ever, especially since we've lost this latest fellow. And the heroes we need... we need French heroes who look like France. Modern France, in all its colors and creeds... and... um..."

"Religions," Abdullah says, trying not to sigh: "And I'm just the token Muslim you need to round out the roster?"

"I think that's rather harsh, young man."

"I think it's the truth," the man says, tapping his fingers on the table. Two and a half years after the attack and they still haven't really healed up. On good days he thinks it's Allah using his wounds to further the cause.

On bad days they just hurt.

They tried to shut him up -- they did. They all but acknowledged that the late Foudre Blanc used him as a punching bag for no reason, and then demanded he keep quiet about it in exchange for his freedom. When he called merde on that, they had him followed and harassed, at least for as long as the Terre Unifee lasted.

And when all that was over, and the full and shameful extent of the TU's partnership with racist organizations like the Front Nationale was exposed? And when their sinister plan to leave Earth to the mercy of that space monster was front page news all over the world?

Well, the new government had bent over backwards to try and apologize, and make it up to him. Abdullah always got the feeling they were more engaged in damage control than actual contrition.

So now that Le Front de L'Espoir was larger than ever, and Abdullah was telling his story to packed halls of young Beurs -- all incredibly disgusted and angry at what happened, and why -- here was the new government, making him an offer that was both strangely generous and extremely grotesque.

They wanted him to become the new Foudre Blanc.

"Look, I don't see why this would be so hard for you to understand," the man says, still not moving to get up and leave: "Your cooperation would be a massive boon for all involved! We would finally show that this new France is moving forward! That a sense of reconciliation had been achieved..."

"Look, this is what you don't seem to understand," Abdullah sighs, trying to explain one last time: "Even if I wasn't a pacifist? Even if I did know anything about the law, other than how to avoid looking like I'm breaking it when I'm just walking down the wrong street for a Beur to be on? That suit, that name... it's poisoned."

"How so?" the man in the bowler hat asks, finally deigning to speak. He speaks French with the kind of upper-class accent Abdullah normally associates with BBC shows involving English playwrights.

"Because it's a symbol of evil, mssr. It stands for oppression masquerading as the law. It stands for racism masquerading as justice. All the things our country stands for -- liberty, equality, brotherhood? It takes those ideas and smears them with merde. 

"I know these things, gentlemen. I have been a victim of them, both in general and in person. I was beaten to a pulp by the person who wore that suit, jailed for supposedly being a terrorist, and then while I was there someone tried to turn me into a hateful madman so I would fit his story!

"And you have the nerve to come here, to my place, and ask me to wear the same mask that my people have come to hate and fear? The same costume that once send our children fleeing into the night, more scared of him than of any criminal?"

"Well... we could change the name," the Frenchman says, coughing: "Possibly also the shape of the suit, so long as we maintain the color symbolism. We already have a rouge and a bleu-"

"How about Foudre Noir?" Abdullah spits: "That's what you really want, isn't it?"

"Now, please-"  

"Ta gueule!" He finally snaps, pounding his still-crooked fist down on the table, rattling the coffee mug he was sipping from before these official lackwits came around: "What do I look like? Some kind of moron?"

"You look like an angry young man," the English fellow says, adjusting the bowler hat on his head: "A victim of the previous government's regrettable policies, not to mention the rather execrable social environment that's been allowed to fester too long within this country. And so long as you continue to be an angry young man, you will achieve next to nothing except for fomenting more anger in your wake."

"So what should I do, then?" Abdullah asks, rising up to look the man in the eye: "Lick the shoe of the man who steps on me?"

"Of course not," the man says, smiling: "You should wear the shoe."

"Get out," Abdullah says, weakly: "Just please leave."

"Are we... yes, we're done here," the man from NEU says, getting up and finding his own hat: "I am very sorry we could not come to an arrangement, young man. Perhaps you will change your mind?"

"I will not," Abdullah says, not about to hobble to the door to show them out: "And if you send anyone else? I will forget I'm a pacifist. Or I'll have someone here to kick your con!"

They have the good sense to leave after that. The man from BOWLER can't resist tipping his hat and saying "Au revour, mssr," on the way out, but he doesn't stay along longer than necessary in doing so.

Abdullah Ismail doesn't bother to get up and lock the door. No one comes here, anyway, unless they're friends or idiots from the government.

"Why?" he asks Allah: "Are they really that stupid?"

God has nothing to say about that. But he also has no balm for Abdullah's soul in regards to what that man from BOWLER said about his achieving nothing.

Because it's true -- every !@#$ word of it.

He wanted to raise awareness by sharing his story, but all he seems to have done is made people angry. The more he tries to channel that anger into positive action and change, the more people want to march and protest.

And the more he tries to tamp it down, the more people he loses to more extreme philosophies...

He feels trapped in this Hell of his own making. He wishes he could go back and not have said anything about what happened to him. Just leave his disappearance and run-in with the law as another murky mystery from the end of the TU -- one of far too many.

But it's too late for that now. And now he has to taste his own foolishness, as his grandfather would have said.

"You'd know what to do, Abu," he whispers, reaching for his coffee -- doubtlessly cold by now. But his fingers brush something else, instead.

It's a small, grey box -- a cube, four inches to a side, and quite solid from the looks of things. He's not sure if it's metal, ceramic, or plastic, but when he picks it up it's both more and less heavy than he thought it might be.

And he gets the sense there's something inside of it...

He sees there's something written on the bottom, in a small, cramped hand:

  Every Prison Is A Puzzle, And Every Puzzle A Prison.

Solve It And See Me.


For a moment, Abdullah thinks of that !@#$ty British horror movie a friend made him watch, a long time ago. But the more he turns the box this way and that -- and the more he wonders how the !@#$ it got here -- the more he thinks he wants to find a way to open this seemingly-solid object, if only to show whoever left it here that he can actually achieve something.

It would be nice to feel like he wasn't beating his head against a wall...

Friday: 8/14/15

"No, I don't care what he says," Director Straffer tells the harried staffer at Mt. Sinai's Cybernetic Prosthesis Surgery, just outside the door of their secure wing's star patient: "He gets three meals a day. Shove it up his ass if you have to."

"Well, it's just that... he is rather strong," the fellow says. As if to illustrate this, there's a loud crash from inside the room, followed by a bout of cursing that could make paint peel.

"He's also sleeping most of the day, and out of his mind the rest of it," he says: "How hard can it be?"

"He's rather determined when he's out of his mind."

"Don't I know it," Straffer sighs, handing the man a wad of bills: "And this is for bribing people to do their jobs. Understood?"

"Yes sir," the man says, pocketing it as discretely as possible and nodding: "I'll get my best people on it. Immediately."

"See that you do," the patient's lover says, taking one last look at the doors: "If he's still that gaunt the next time I come here? I'm going to shove something up your ass, only it won't be nutritious. Got it?"

And then he stomps off before the guy can say anything more.

(A weird role reversal. The last time Straffer was here, undergoing surgery, SPYGOD was the one doing the threatening. Now he's here, getting help for his many physical problems, and Straffer's the one having to muscle his way around the corridors.)

"The things we do for love..." he sings, chuckling in spite of the situation.

"Sir?" someone in a COMPANY uniform says, walking up to him and saluting-- young man, somewhat fey, hair frosted pink: "I'm Agent Hammond. COMPANY liaison with the Space Service."

"Good to meet you," Straffer says, shaking his hand before the man can salute him again "Are you handling arrangements for the funeral, then?"

"I am, sir," the man says, walking for the exit along with him: "I need to know if there's anyone else from your delegation going?"

"The only other person who knew him is my second in command, and he needs to stay down in Pontianak while I'm away. So it'll just be me paying my respects."

"Okay, that makes things a little easier," the man says, tapping notes on his wrist pad: "The Director has asked if you'd be willing to stand alongside the Freedom Force, rather than being on your own?"

"Oh? Well I'd be honored," Straffer says, genuinely touched: "Who all is making it that would have known him from the Egress? I'm not up on who's in the team these days."

"Well, I'm not sure who all on the team knew him from before. But all we've got up and running right now is Hanami. Underman's still being a sorry, useless drunk, somewhere in Washington state."

"A useless drunk?" the man asks, suddenly feeling his blood run cold, then hot.

"Yeah. He's holed up somewhere east of Bellingham, apparently. We drop by once a week when he can't see us, just to make sure he's okay and no one's !@#$ed with him. Apparently it's pretty !@#$ sad."

"Did they tell you what happened up there... Hammond, was it?" Straffer asks, slowing his step just a little, and moving a little closer to his liaison.

"Well, I read the reports, sir-"

"!@#$ the reports, Agent," the man says, rather abruptly: "I was there. I survived. And the only reason I survived is because of that useless drunk."

"Yes, sir," Agent Hammond says, realizing he's in the !@#$, now.

"And also? The only reason that mission succeeded at all? Him. He made things that gave us a fighting chance. And when the ship was burning he's the one who got us into that thing and took us out again."

"Yes, sir-"

"No. You don't affirmative your way out of this," Straffer says, putting a finger in the man's face: "Because I'm going to tell you something else. That man has saved the world twice, now. Once from the Imago. Twice from the Decreator. And I'm willing to bet you that the next time we need him? He'll do it again."

Hammond almost says 'yes sir,' again. Luckily for him, he says nothing at all.

"So you just remember that, Agent," Straffer says: "He's got his problems, yes, and maybe I don't agree with how he's dealing with them. But he gave his all to save this whole !@#$ planet.

"And if he needs to fall apart, right now? Then we're going to let him, and be glad he's still alive to do it. Got that?"

"Can I say 'yes, sir' now, sir?"

"Yes you may."

"Yes, sir. I'm sorry, sir. Will there be anything else, sir?"

"Yes there is, Agent. Next time I hear you call that man a sorry, useless drunk? I'll see you're demoted so quickly you don't even have time to blink before you're in housekeeping, scrubbing toilets for radioactive superheroes."

With that he walks away, turning only to add: "And be sure to tell the Director I said thank you for the offer, and I'll meet them at the funeral, tomorrow."

All the way to the airport he thinks of Myron. How he took the junk of three worlds and made everyone on board a personal VR unit. How he retooled his tunnelator to be able to handle the intense gravity fields of a space monster the size of a large planet.

And how he piloted that machine into and out of the insides of that thing, screaming as he held onto his sanity just long enough to get the survivors out before it all came down.

Survivors like his lover, still raging and broken from his own, horrible ordeal...

Saturday: 8/15/15

The thing that strikes me the most about Disparaitre's funeral? How staid it was. How antiseptic. 

Not a tear anywhere to be seen, at least for most of it. 

And at the end, well, I'm not a hundred percent !@#$ing sure what took place, there... Maybe because I'm really out of touch with my superhero politics since I wound up on the outside looking in. 

But yes, I was there. No, they did not see me. How and why that could have happened is a secret I'm taking with me, so don't ask. But I got a front-row seat to the whole !@#$ thing. 

Who was there? Pretty much everyone. And by everyone I mean everyone European. 

The French strategic talents they're trying to make into a winsome replacement for Les Trois Grandes, still missing a color. The weird English agency they call BOWLER, all wearing their eponymous hats, along with monocles and dark suits. The Union, with one hero from each member of the NEU. 

And, of course, FAUST was there. Agents everywhere, making no attempt to blend in whatsoever. It was their way of saying "!@#$ you -- we're in charge."

In some ways, this was their show. Even the Freedom Force, who came out to pay their respects, seemed dwarfed both by placement and numbers. There was also clearly some bad blood between them and FAUST, though it didn't erupt into anything more than long stares and grumbles.

And as for the Space Service, only one person came. Director Straffer, standing next to an empty chair meant for someone no one's seen anything of since he came back from space. 

SPYGOD, that is. Who should be here to say goodbye to the man who, more than anyone else, made the destruction of the Decreator a reality. 

And yet, still, there's no sign of him. Unless he was kidding about being able to see all...?

The eulogy is delivered by a man that most people outside of Europe have never even seen. He's German, maybe in his late 50's. Quite beefy and very grey. 

And his hands are made of silver. 

They say that he's the son of the former head of West Germany's strategic talents organization -- the one famous, or maybe infamous, for doing absolutely anything to stop Soviet incursion past the Iron Curtain. That man, rumored to be a missing Nazi war criminal, died sometime in this last year. His son, long groomed to replace him, has moved into his position, and seems to have either inherited or absorbed his powers. 

Word is that the old man and SPYGOD were allies, of a sort, and this facilitated a sense of cooperation and good feeling between the COMPANY and the other, nameless agency. That sense seems to have died with the old man, as his son's new agency, FAUST, has been openly hostile towards the COMPANY, and, by extension, the Freedom Force. 

This all makes for some !@#$ing interesting political theater. The eulogy is half remembrance, half celebration of his having been French. Having a German deliver such a speech is strange, given the history of the last century. 

Having that German not look at the guests from America once -- even when he briefly namechecks them -- is the ultimate snub. 

Eulogy delivered, people line up by row to walk by the grave and pay respects. They drop roses, notes, photographs, and occasionally just speak, or contemplate as quickly as they can before the rest of the line insists they move on. 

What's really interesting, though? At the very end, as there's hardly anyone there but FAUST agents and a few stragglers, the missing guests finally show up. 

Teleporters, seeming come to pay their last respects in private, except that their sudden appearance scares the !@#$ out of FAUST.

I recognize Anil and Skyspear. There's others I don't know, and maybe they're old faces in new masks, or entirely new talent. 

The second they appear, the FAUST agents all go ape!@#$ and start shouting orders. And that's when something really !@#$ strange happens. 

One of their number vanishes, just for a second. And the moment he comes back he's screaming in rage. 

"He's not here!" he shouts: "He's not here!"

And, at that note, they all leave.  

Clearly, something weird has happened with the man's body. Given the state they say it was in, this could be a logical thing. The investigation is still ongoing, after all. 

But on the other hand, this could be a sign that something has been done to Disparaitre's body.  Something really !@#$ing ugly. 

Something bearing sticking a big !@#$ gun under someone's nose to find out what. 

-- Randolph Scott, Père Lachaise., Paris

Sunday: 8/16/15

"Sir, I don't think you should see this," Jess Friend says as soon as the former American President gets back to the safehouse he keeps for him. 

"What is it this time?" he says.

"It's... oh god, it's not just what he sent," the man says, sighing and gesturing to a desk: "It's the letter he wrote. I found it in the dead drop along with... that..."

"He wrote us a letter?" the man says, blinking and heading over to the desk. Sure enough, there's a letter, there. Black envelope with white writing in a curving, looping hand.

The name of the person it's intended for. 

"I... I read it, first, sir," his servant says: "And... I threw up. I did. It's horrible."

"I'm sure," the man says, looking at it and then at the hermetically-sealed jar sitting next to it. The kind that can keep human tissue fresh and transplantable for years, if necessary.

Floating on the inside of it is a round, wrinkled, ringlike thing. It takes him a moment to realize exactly what it is.

And then, almost without intending to, he opens the letter and reads it.

Hello Mr. President.

Sorry it took so long to get this latest present to you. To tell the truth I was having to much fun with it that I didn't want to cut it out and send it to you. But a promise is a promise, and I can assure you she is going to miss this. 

But you know, the more I hurt her, the more she likes it?

Not that anyone likes colostomy bags, of course. But I genuinely think I'm winning her over, one night at a time. She used to struggle to stand at attention when I came into her room, and now she leaps up, almost eager to see what we'll do today. What new tricks I'll teach her. 

What new ways I'll make her bleed and ache. 

Of course, that gets harder to maintain the more I take things from her. Sooner or later she's just going to be a mute, blind stump. 

Sooner or later I'm going to have to cut more holes to fuck her in because I'll have taken everything else, or sewn it shut. 

Whether that happens or not depends on you, Mr. President. I thought we had an understanding. You would do well to keep to it. 

Remember -- I know what you're up to. I know where you go, who you meet, who you make deals with. There's nothing you can do or say that I won't hear about. And every time you do, well... 

Be Seeing You

ps: Now that your daughter's down a hole, I'm wondering how she'll look with an eyepatch. Just a thought!  

The former President scowls. Then he folds the letter back up carefully, puts it into the envelope, and places it on the desk.

To his credit, he doesn't throw up. He's too angry to be nauseated. Too furious at imagining what this evil copy of SPYGOD is doing to her daughter.

Too busy thinking of new ways to make him pay for this.

And too caught up in considering who he might need to talk to in order to make it happen as fast as possible.

* * *

Meanwhile, in Paris, after days of trying to open a box that simply will not open, Abdullah Ismail finally realizes he's going about it the wrong way. 

He puts the box down on the table. He takes a step back from it. And he says, rather loudly: "I can't open it with my hands, or my mind, or by speaking to it. And if I used tools, or smashed it, that would be incorrect.

"So maybe the box isn't what's supposed to open, here? You said a puzzle is a prison, and a prison a puzzle. Maybe the prisoner is supposed to figure something out in order to be free?

"Maybe I'm the one that's supposed to be opening, instead?"

The box doesn't answer him.

"Ah, it was too much to hope," Abdullah sighs, sitting back down in his chair and regarding the object: "Too simple a thing. Too philosophical."

But when he picks it back up to try it again, he notices two things:

1) It's not rattling, anymore. Whatever was inside is gone.

2) The writing has changed. 

Musee de la Magie. 

Three Days from Now.

Expect Nothing, See Everything.

"Well then," Abdullah says: "Alhamdulillah."

Thunder booms outside his window, through a clear sky. He wonders if Allah is really to be praised for this, after all. 

(SPYGOD is listening to Eyes Be Closed (Washed Out) and having a Colon Brown Ale )

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