|"I want to peer over the edge and see in death / If we are always the same"|
Abdullah Ismail, Mister Freedom (Restriit), Foudre Blanc (RIP)
(Art by Dean Stahl)
* * *
* * *
O'REILLY: "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to a special edition of the O'Reilly Factor.
"Tonight, I don't have any talking point memos, or mail, or anything of the sort. Tonight, I just have a live interview. Possibly the strangest I have ever done. Possibly the most important.
"Tonight, live in the studio, I have a man who says that he is a God. A man who says he is actually the King of the Gods, in fact.
"And, as we've seen over the last couple years, this is a claim that cannot be dismissed out of hand.
"His name is Seranu. Up until mid-2013, he was simply one of the wealthiest men in America. One the wealthiest in the world, in fact.
"He is the power behind S-Corp, which runs S-Mart, S-Food, and S-Industries. And if you've never heard of him, before, well, it's because he's wanted it that way.
"Not anymore, though. Not once the so-called Supergods began to appear on the scene, back then. They arrived not long after we learned the truth about the Terre Unifee, and that the Decreator was coming. They helped us rebuild, they kept us safe, and all they asked for in return was that they be acknowledged for what they were.
"Not mere superheroes. Not strategic talents, or aliens, or anything of the sort. But gods.
"Now, your humble reporter calls himself a Christian. I'd love to meet my god, or his son, before I die. But I know that's not very likely.
"So when someone tells me that he's a god, come to Earth? Well, I start to get skeptical.
"And while I might be one of the few people in the media who are willing to be so skeptical, I might point out that, had people been a little more skeptical when the Imago first showed up, a lot of very ugly things may have been avoided.
"Let's not forget that they claimed to be here to help, too.
"So, having said all that-"
SERANU: "And that was quite a lot to say."
O'REILLY: "Well, maybe you're not sure how we do things here. But this is my show, so I get to say something before you do."
SERANU: "Of course. And I am very glad that you have invited me onto your show."
O'REILLY: "You are most welcome, sir. Now, let's just get this out of the way. You say you are a god."
SERANU: "I do. And I am."
O'REILLY: "The god of what, exactly?"
SERANU: "The sky, in the most general sense. But I am also the brother and king of the others. That gives me some additional abilities."
O'REILLY: "Such as...?"
SERANU: "Well, a full list would take up my entire allotted time, and some of the abilities would require another night to explain. Suffice it to say that just as I am the sky, I also am leadership, and also am command."
O'REILLY: "Which sounds very confusing."
SERANU: "Well, I can understand that. You were never well-schooled in what you would call Classical myth."
O'REILLY: "Well, I might have to disagree with you, sir-"
SERANU: "Then you can understand how someone can be both an entity and a concept? And sometimes a place as well?"
O'REILLY: "Yes. I think I remember some of that."
SERANU: "Then, to quote the son of your god, you are not far from the kingdom."
O'REILLY: "Well... alright then. While we're on that subject, where does my god fit in with you?"
SERANU: "In what sense?"
O'REILLY: "Are you claiming to be him? Is one of your... brothers? Are one of them my god?"
SERANU: "Oh no. He is entirely separate from us. We have really nothing to do with one another."
O'REILLY: "Now, how can that be possible? He says he is the only god."
SERANU: "Yes, but he also says you shall have no gods before him, which indicates there are others out there. We were some of them."
O'REILLY: "Oh, and are there more gods out there, somewhere?"
SERANU: "It is strange that you should ask that. That is actually something I do not have a good answer for, right now. The best way to explain it would be to say that, from what I can see, we are the only pantheon that has chosen to return, or at least to do so in a benevolent fashion. That does not mean there are no others out there, but either they are hiding or, perhaps, they have elected to remain away from you."
O'REILLY: "Why? Why would they?"
SERANU: "Well, consider your own reaction. Here we are, trying to help you. In return, some accept us, and some scorn us, and some question our motives. In fact, while most people do not realize this, we have been here before-"
O'REILLY: "What, here?"
SERANU: "Oh yes. In fact, we were here in your lifetime. But you do not remember it. Things changed, for want of a better word. And we were bound up in that change for many years."
O'REILLY: "Which is why you became a reclusive successful businessman?"
SERANU: "Yes. One day I was a god, here to help you and your people. The next I was a man who sometimes became a god by speaking words of magic. Then I was a superhero who pretended to be a god. And then, after some confusing years, I came to, sitting at a desk piled with reports of how much wealth my companies were making-"
O'REILLY: "Wait, you lost me. You mean reality was changed around you?"
SERANU: "Yes, it was. When I sat at that desk, it was as though I had always been there. It was as though all those years I had been here, doing something else, had never happened, or maybe they happened to someone else. But it was me, all along, even if it was not."
O'REILLY: "That's... that's just crazy."
SERANU: "Yes, but that is how life often is. We are your parents and your children. Your rulers and your ruled. We are you, and you are we. Now and forever, even unto the end of time."
O'REILLY: "Our rulers? How do you figure that?"
SERANU: "In the large sense? We did not create your reality, but we alter it to suit your needs. However, you do not always know your needs. You know your desires, sometimes, and possibly all your wants. But your needs, your true needs? Those are a mystery to all. And so we carefully sift through those..."
SERANU: "I... do pardon me."
O'REILLY: "Sir, are you okay?"
SERANU: "Yes, but I am being told I have said too much. And I must go. I apologize."
O'REILLY: "Told? By whom, sir?"
SERANU: "My sister-wife, Kanaan, who must be obeyed. Good day to you, sir. Perhaps I can come back at another time."
O'REILLY: "Well... hey, he just vanished. Did you get him vanishing? Can you slow that down, somehow? See how he does it?"
(noise from off-camera)
O'REILLY: "Oh my God. Well, that was...
"Alright, let's take a break. When we come back, we'll talk more about what we know about these so-called Supergods, which is what I was going to ask our guest about before his wife told him to come home.
"Which just goes to show you, that man or god, there are apparently a few things we all have in common. Most notably, it doesn't matter who's wearing the crown, the Queen still rules the kingdom.
"We'll be right back, on the O'Reilly Factor-"
* * *
"!@#$hole," the former President sighs, turning the TV in his safehouse's den off and shaking his head.
He really shouldn't watch that channel. But he was curious to see what this guy might be like, in spite of the boobytrap he was clearly walking into on that show.
Something reminds him of something. He's just not sure what. So he has another sip of the tall beer he's poured for himself, and tries to think of what it might be.
Just then, the front door's tumblers turn and thump against themselves. Jess Friend walks in a second later, quickly closing the door behind him.
"Did you get it?" the President asks, getting out of his chair so quickly he almost spills his beer.
"I did," the man says, holding out a small, metal box: "He was... wow, sir. He was right where you said he'd be. How did you-"
"Let's not talk about that," his boss says, quickly opening the box to see that what he thought would be in there is: "Good. This is it."
"So what do we do with it?" Jess asks, looking down at the weird, silvery thing in the box. If he didn't know any better he'd say it was a scope of some kind for a high-tech rifle.
But it seems to be moving...
"We aren't doing anything, Jess," the President says, snapping the box shut: "There's a letter on the table. You know that dead drop in Queens I told you about?"
"Oh god, hers?" Jess gulps: "We're getting her involved in this?"
"We are," the man says, quickly pouring his aide/chef/bodyguard a short beer: "He says he knows where I am? I bet he's not !@#$ing looking at her. And that's going to be his big mistake."
"Alright then," the former Secret Service Agent says, quickly quaffing the beer and then taking the letter in his hands: "Anything else?"
"Yeah. Stop at the Bangkok Eight and bring me back some chicken basil curry," the former President says, smiling a little: "And a bowl of the hot and sour, too. We're celebrating."
"What's the occasion?"
"Victory," the man says, smiling as widely as he's done in a while: "Tonight, we're finally on the right track to get that !@#$er. And all it cost me was my god!@#$ soul."
Something about how his boss smiles genuinely unnerves Jess -- even more so than the person he met with to get that box. But he knows better than to ask questions, or seek clarification.
He just knows to get on about his business and hope it works better than anything else they've done before.
"Alright then," New Man says to the conference room, looking around the big table he's standing in front of: "Let's try and put this together, again. Maybe there's something we've missed."
"I can't see what, sir," one of the senior Agents says, looking at the sprawl of printouts and pads they've got strewn across the table, and the photos up on the wall screens: "This is... what, the tenth time we've been over the same information?"
"We're going up to twenty if we need to, Caltrider," Josie says, turning the images on the boards back to the familiar, rather hideous crime scene photos they've been dissecting for a couple days, now: "So, to start off?"
"The French hero known as Disparatre was killed on or around Tuesday the 8th," Agent Caltrider starts, doing her best to stay focused: "He was apparently surprised in his own apartment, and paralyzed with Stoy, which is a fast-acting nerve agent of Russian manufacture. SQUASH used to use it a lot back in the day, and the current regime hasn't felt the need to improve upon it."
"Once you get hit with it, you're paralyzed but perfectly conscious until you get the antidote," another Agent, Yeardley, pipes up: "It also keeps you from going into shock, which makes it a perfect thing if you're going to do this kind of work. His victim could have been conscious throughout all of it if he was careful."
"Which he probably was," Agent Ruiz says, holding up an autopsy report: "He, like the former First Lady of the Terre Unifee, strategic talent Wayfinder, and vampire hunter Doctor Krwi, was killed in keeping with the MO of a murderer whose work spans several decades and quite a few continents. He likes to paralyze people, sexually abuse them before, during, and after mutilation, keep them alive as long as possible throughout the whole process, and then leave their bodies arranged in a very gruesome and shocking manner for people to find. Scotland Yard called him the Horrorist, and Interpol couldn't think of a better name."
"And we're operating under the assumption that this is SPYGOD's Alter-Earth counterpart," Agent Nome quickly interjects, patting his own, special pile: "Just as we're operating under the assumption that he was using old COMPANY technology to masquerade as the former First Lady for months, right under the TU's nose, slip mind-altering drugs to the President through his seriously-bent aid, Henri, and-"
"Right, but let's get to that in a minute," Josie says, holds up her hand.
"Can we get confirmation on that?" New Man asks: "Can't Satanoth help us there? He does rule the dead, after all."
"Every time we try to get in touch with his people for this kind of work they pretty much blow us off, sir," Yeardley says: "Something about his being too busy to help us do our jobs, essentially. We shouldn't call him in unless there's ultra-spooky death !@#$ going down."
"Was that an exact quote?" New Man asks, chuckling a little.
"More or less, sir."
"So much for cooperation," Josie snorts: "Caltrider? Go with what we got on Disparatre."
"Okay, he was killed on Tuesday," the Agent continues: "That's according to the NEU's medical examiner. He was kept alive for hours, and they think he was abused, based on semen samples collected from various parts of the body. But that could have happened postmortem. It's hard to tell, given the extent of his dissection."
"And that's an important term, here," Ruiz jumps in: "This man was literally pulled apart with surgical precision. This took time and expertise. In some ways, it's the best job this guy's ever done."
"Does it represent an escalation?" New Man asks.
"Probably more a case of him bragging," Ruiz replies, after a moment: "This is also his most daring work to date, which I admit seems like gilding the lily given what he did in the Palace, or to Wayfinder. But he managed to get into a NEU-guarded apartment building, with some of the most sophisticated security and top surveillance, and do something like this."
"He also did it twice," Caltrider points out: "Once the day the man was killed. And then, on the 9th, when he came back, took all the parts out of the refrigerator, and assembled them in the manner in which they were found."
"Which..." Yeardley says, shaking her head: "There's something about that arrangement. It looks familiar, somehow..."
"It's not unlike the job he did in South Africa, back in 2010," Nome says, pulling out the report: "Totally took this kid to pieces and put him on a tile floor, part by part. !@#$hole to ear bones, all neat and tidy."
"Not that," she says, shaking her head some more: "Just something..."
"Well, to go on," Josie says, gesturing to Caltrider: "He actually got back in, took the careful time to arrange the man in the way he was found."
"And then the former President breaks into the place, finds the man, and gets sick, which is how we know he was there," Caltrider says: "We're also assuming he's the one who called it in to FAUST, less than ten minutes later. Burn phone, and he used a vocal scrambler."
"!@#$ embarrassing," New Man mutters: "No less than two different people defeat their security in the same week, twice in the same day."
"Well, he did learn from SPYGOD," Ruiz says: "And he was that good."
Everyone just nods for a moment. New Man's about to say something when Yeardly gasps.
"Sir, I've got it," she says, almost standing out of her chair: "That second photo of Disparatre's crime scene. Can we put it through 3D rendering?"
"Already done," Caltrider says, calling it up and displaying it larger on the board: "What do you need?"
"Tilt it towards us, as though we were seeing it from a height of... oh, how tall was the President?"
"6'1," Ruiz says, getting where she's going: "Same as me."
Caltrider does as she's instructed. Seconds later, they're all gasping as they realize the same thing.
The dead man's remains were arranged to look more than a little like the Seal of the President of the United States of America, if you looked at it just right.
"He knew the President was coming," Ruiz says: "Somehow he knew, and he cut this man apart, stored the remains, and assembled them exactly how they needed to be seen on the day he came in."
"And probably just in time," New Man says, astounded: "I bet that !@#$er jumped out the other way the second before the President came into the room."
"So he knows what he's up to," Josie says: "How can that even be possible?"
A single thought goes through everyone's head, just then. Something SPYGOD used to tell people, just to get under their skin and keep them on their toes -- SPYGOD sees all.
And this thought takes them in a direction they really did not want to go...
"Merci," Abdullah Ismail says to the taxi driver as the man drops him off on the Rue Saint Antoine. The fellow waves him away without saying a word, which could be considered rude, but could also be a warning of sorts.
What business does a Beur have in this part of town, anyway?
That said, as soon as he gets onto the sidewalk and starts walking along, he's given friendly greetings by people who know of him. A few "Salaam"s and the like from ill-dressed teenage Beurs, which he politely returns with nods and smiles, hoping none of them try to strike up a conversation.
He really doesn't need that, today. He's here on other, stranger business.
Still, he took precautions. He wore a suit and tie instead of the sweats he normally wears. He's got a nice watch on. And he picked out his fancy cane -- the one his Abu used -- rather than the cheap one he got from his physical therapist.
It's just after two in the afternoon. The streets are busy with people taking their lunch break, or heading to work for a nightly shift. As such, he blends right in -- the right wardrobe for the right place and the right time, just to make sure he doesn't stand out any more than he has to.
He passes a man putting up posters for a Sing-Love at the Théâtre antique d'Orange a few days from now, and wonders if there will be enough room for everyone who'll want to go.
(He also wonders if S/He will be there, and what might happen as a result...)
He turns the corner to go down Rue Saint-Paul, and then regards what he's come to see. It's a small, red entryway leading to stairs, going down. A sign above the alcove proclaims ACADEMIE DE MAGIE.
Le Musee de la Magie -- right where he was told to go by that weird cube he "solved" last Sunday.
"Alright, then," he says, leading with his cane and hoping the stairs aren't too problematic.
Down at the bottom, there's a line. 7 Euros to get in, and he's told to take his time and see everything. He's also informed there's a special magic exhibition today, in an hour.
"What's the show?" he asks the lady in a red tophat and fishnets taking tickets at the bottom.
"Escape," she says: "We have a very famous escapologist here, today. One day only!"
He smiles at her, wondering if the person he's here to meet is going to be in the audience, or somewhere in the museum. For a moment he thinks to ask, but he knows that she'll be no help.
After all, he has no idea who it might be -- only that he or she answers to "R" or some such.
The hour he spends wandering around the red-lined, catacomb-like museum is at first interesting, but then tedious. He never had much interest in magic shows as a young boy, and walking amongst the exhibits doesn't change that fact. The overenthusiastic astonishment and joy of the other attendees does little to improve his mood -- especially the fat man in the ill-fitting suit who insists on reading each placard aloud to his friends.
Why is he so uptight? Maybe it's nervousness? After all, it isn't every day a magic box just appears on one's table, daring one to solve it, and then delivering instructions for a rendezvous.
(And maybe it's trust -- which is, as of now, in very short supply.)
Still, he's here. And he's willing to at least listen, though he promises himself that if this "R" fails to deliver anything but another suspicious job offer, he's going to leave him in a cloud of dust.
Eventually, they part the curtain and Abdullah walks down into a recessed theater, stumbling over steps that he soon realizes are also seats. He sits down on the right front, looking around and hoping that whomever "R" is, he will soon come to meet him.
Just his luck, the fat, bald man who can't be quiet sits down next to him. He does not even even look at Abdullah, though -- his eyes are fixated upon the area ahead, where the performer is about to appear.
At first, there's no sign of him. Then, after a few tense moments, one of the museum's staff comes out, all smiles, and begins to speak:
"Ladies and gentlemen, the Museum of Magic is proud to present to you, for one day only, one of the greatest escape artists of the age! A man whose work is so good, so exquisite, that he refuses to work large stages or spectacles! A man who believes that the best magic is done intimately, with small groups, and very close-up, so that all can see, and marvel, and believe!
"Ladies and gentlemen, I give you... Mssr. Liberte!"
He waves his hands once, then twice. And then, in a spot where no one and nothing was just a moment before, a very tall, older man is suddenly standing.
He's dressed in a somber, black tabard, with silver buttons going down past his waist, and black pants and boots. His hair is long and white -- secured every so often with multicolored silvery rings. His eyes seem black and endless. He wears a short, dignified beard and mustache.
And his hands are chained together by some strange, overly-complicated system of manacles.
"I am imprisoned," he announces, a sad smile playing at his lips as he looks each person in the eye: "And yet, I am also free."
There's some puzzlement there, but he continues, walking along the front row so each person can test the chains that bind him: "A paradox, you say? And yes, it is. But only in paradox do we ultimately find truth.
"And the truth is that to be confined is to know, once and for all, one's limits. Yet within the knowledge of those limits is freedom -- perhaps the only true freedom we know."
He smiles, then. And, once he's satisfied everyone there has tested his chains, and found them to be unbreakable, he kneels down, and leans forward, looping his chains around his knees.
And then, without warning -- and with a strength he doesn't seem to possess -- he throws his shoulders back so swiftly that every bone in his arm detaches itself from its neighbors with a horrible CRACK!
The crowd screams in unison -- some in shock, some in pain. The old man smiles at them, his eyes still deep and black as he slowly rises to one foot, then the other.
He stands, perhaps unsteady. After a few seconds, he twists this way and that, as though swaying in some alien breeze, and slips out of the manacles and chains like a snake shedding his skin.
The crowd gasps, astounded. He regains his composure and smiles, though he must be in incredible pain. His arms dangle as limp as dead fish at his side.
But then, with equally swift motions, he jerks his torso back and forth until his arms gain the same speed. He goes faster and faster, until a noise like a reverse popping comes from each arm.
And then he stops the rapid movement -- balling his fists and flexing each muscle, showing that he has control over them once more.
There is applause, then, and it is like thunder. He merely smiles and holds up his hands.
"Why are you cheering?" he asks, almost innocently: "I was free, and now I am back in a prison, again."
There's some incredulity, and then someone decides it was a joke and laughs. Others do the same.
But somehow Abdullah knows he's not supposed to laugh. The old man is speaking truly.
And with that, the man looks directly at him, winks, and makes a curious sign with his right hand. He crosses his index and middle finger, and puts his thumb over the other two.
"R" in French Sign Language -- a means of communicating that Abdullah knows only too well.
And if that man knows that he knows it, and why it's so important to him? Then he knows a lot more than he really should...
The show goes on for an hour, but seems faster than that. This "R" silently defeats every kind of lock, restraint, and trap the museum has to offer. And as soon as the show's over, he bows deeply and with gratitude, and then simply vanishes -- much the same way he appeared -- leaving the audience stunned.
Later, after Abdullah leaves -- astounded and amazed at what he's seen -- he realizes there's two things in his pocket that weren't there before: a bus ticket to Orange for this Saturday, and another ticket for the Sing-Love there.
I will meet you inside, but we need not stay the one ticket says, signed with R.
"Alright, then," he says, putting them back in his pocket and deciding he's willing to go at least a little further with this...
"Well, I guess it's like anything else, Antonia," Martha Clutch says over her communicator, patting her growing belly as she walks around the Eyes of the Owl's Nest: "One day at a time, and don't panic every time something weird happens."
"I know," Gold Standard says on the other end: "But you have to admit, this is pretty different."
"That's for darn sure," the Owl says, sitting down in a padded chair and wondering if the twinge she felt was a kick or not.
It's been six months since she and Mark got married, right on the steps of the newly-rebuilt Samuels Mansion in Glennview, North of Chicago. And three months since a missed period -- and subsequent home pregnancy test -- confirmed what she'd just felt to be true: she was pregnant, again.
And gloriously happy, truth be told.
Yes, she was worried. She was over 40, which brought all kinds of worries about Down's Syndrome and the like. But on the other hand she was so in love with Mark, and so happy to have come together with him, that she liked the idea of giving him another child.
(In soppier moments she thought that she loved him so much she was going to get to give that love a name in six months, but she never said that out loud.)
But whatever concerns she might be having for their baby, they had to be dwarfed by what Antonia was going through. She was five months along into the world's first Toon-Human hybrid pregancy -- one that, while it had been facilitated by no less than Syphon, Herself, was still fraught with possible issues every step of the way.
As a result, she'd given up being Gold Standard for the time being, and had joined Rakim -- the former Brainman -- on support duty for Freedom Force, directly overseeing All-Star Security. There was word that she might take a longer leave of absence if the child proved to be a real handful, or if something went seriously wrong, but Fred, to his credit, was constantly telling her to go suit back up if she needed to.
Whether she wanted to was a better question. In some ways she'd taken over the mantle just to keep her father's dream alive, or at least prove that his technology was viable. Now that she had, she wasn't sure if she was really cut out for superheroics.
In fact, she'd told Martha that, truthfully, she never felt better than when she was in her lab, screwing around with three projects and once, and getting it all to work better than she'd ever hoped...
Martha comes back to Earth, just then. Her friend's asking her a question she really doesn't have an answer to, yet.
"How's Thomas?" she repeats back to her, getting up to wander over to the nearest walkway and look down at her son as he performs gymnastic maneuvers below, being spotted by Kaitlyn all the while.
It's him. There's no question of that. He moves like he did, before. He smiles and laughs the same way. He does everything just as he did that day, before their whole world crumbled apart.
"Well, he's... a work in progress," she says as quietly as she can: "Every so often he stops and stares into space for minutes. He'll say something strange, or something horrible, and then fall all over himself apologizing and saying he doesn't know where it came from."
"You said he said some weird things before, right?" Antonia asks, going into analytical mode: "When he was first coming to, back in the mainframe?"
"Yes, that's putting it mildly," Martha admits, going to sit back down: "He was rude, uncaring, insulting, fairly vulgar. And I don't think he meant to be, but something about how he was perceiving the world was just... off. He couldn't relate to people the same way, anymore."
"You know what that reminds me of?"
"When kids get onto the internet, and learn they can say whatever they want to whoever they want and suffer no consequences?"
"You mean Thomas was being a troll the whole time he was the Nthernaut?"
"Well, if it fits," Antonia chuckles, and then laughs. And Martha can't help but laugh along with her.
It does explain so much.
"I'm so glad I've got him back again," she sighs: "How's his replacement doing?"
"Oh, Machinehead? He's fine. A little spaced-out at times, but I guess Myron had a do a lot of work on him."
"Yeah," Martha says, saying a silent prayer for their fellow traveler, now fallen far down the hole.
"So how'd it go out there today?" Rakim asks, and really does not like the silence he's met with. No one on the transporter looks particularly happy.
(And Mr. USA looks really bad...)
"It was... insane," Shining Guardsman sighs: "That's the best way to put it."
"Was the radio interference that bad?" Hanami asks.
"Was that what that was? I thought you just decided to go radio silent while you were near the DMZ."
"There were two of the !@#$ing things operating, this time," Yanabah curses: "One on each side of the !@#$ border."
"Oh dear," Rakim says, offering up a small prayer of thanks that North and South Korea didn't just go to war with one another, tonight: "Did you manage to get them cleared?"
"Completely," Blastman says: "And I think we owe ourselves some kudos for dealing with them so well, don't you?"
"That was good teamwork, yes," Hanami admits: "But we need to get better about getting these machines' CPUs in our hands before we completely destroy them."
"Yeah, about that," Rakim says, looking over at Antonia: "My dear? I think this is your show, now."
"Yeah, hi," she says, waving from her workstation, looking a little green: "Sorry. Bad stomach day."
"Your report?" Hanami grunts.
"These machines aren't going to give up their secrets too easily," she says, holding up a container that's full of what looks like melted plastic: "Less than an hour after the boards are out of the machine, they begin to self-destruct. This is what you brought me yesterday from Bakersfield."
"Oh great," Red Wrecker sighs: "So what do we do instead?"
"I'm going to work on trying to figure out how they're doing this and come up with a countermeasure to plug them into," Antonia says, belching a little: "Meanwhile... um... excuse me..."
And then she gets up and, very carefully, heads for the bathroom of their control center.
"Ah, the joys of pregnancy," Blastman whispers to Mr. USA as Hanami and Rakim talk strategies and outcomes: "Makes me glad I never settled down."
"You missed out," the older hero says, trying to smile. Then he very carefully covers for his sudden nosebleed by pretending to need to block a sneeze.
"Sir, please," Blastman says, handing him some tissues from a nearby dispenser: "You're not fooling me. You're not fooling anyone. What the hell is going on?"
Mr. USA sighs and nods: "I'm dying."
"Keep it quiet, please," the older hero says, almost pleading with him: "It's... not anything I want everyone to know about."
"Oh my god," Blastman says, looking around and hoping no one's heard this: "How... how long?"
"No one knows," he says, looking at his friend: "And that's the honest truth. I could have months, weeks... maybe days. We just don't know."
"Alright," Blastman says, coughing a little: "So, I think we should have stopped and gotten some of that rotgut to bring home. What's it called... starts with an S..."
"Soju," Mr. USA says, smiling and grateful: "And I had enough during the war, thanks."
"Really? I didn't think it was that bad..."
And they laugh and carry on until Hanami shushes them both, angrily -- apparently unaware of what just happened.
Hopefully she stays that way, they both silently agree.
* * *
"Example?" the other asks, wondering if the shaky kid with the backpack is on Lala or not.
"Well, like with this thing with North Korea they're on about, tonight," he says: "So they shoot at each other for a bit. And then suddenly they stop. And now that idiot who's running the place is saying-"
"What I asked. Which idiot?"
"The guy in North Korea. Kim something. You know, the idiot."
"Well, see, I was dating a gal from South Korea for a while. And from what she told me, her country's run by idiots, too."
"Yeah, but which one threatens to nuke the other every other week?"
"Well, there's ways of threatening," the guy says, smiling.
The other one's about to say something, and then stops. He looks down the way at the crowd as it peters out. And then he shakes his head.
"What's wrong, man?" his counterpart asks.
"Uh, I dunno," he says, looking around a bit: "I just thought for a minute that... well, it's crazy, but I thought I saw someone moving really fast through the crowd."
"What, we got a runner?"
"No, I mean like Flash fast. Or that Swiftfoot guy, used to be with the Liberty Patrol."
"You mean the Freedom Force."
"Oh, whatever. It's like I saw him when I blinked but not when I didn't, you know?"
"Should I call it in?" the guy asks, tapping his call button.
"Ah, nah," the guard says, shaking his head: "Probably nothing."
The bigger guy considers that, and then nods, and goes back to arguing with his friend about the current world situation, which is what they tend to do when they should really be watching people deplane.
A fact which makes the Wandering Shadow rather happy as he continues to move through a slowed-down airport, and out into Neo York City. He now has two less people to kill. And the fewer complications on a mission like this, the better.
One month, he says to himself as he makes his way through a treacle-slow city. He has one month until the moment he'll be able to strike comes to pass.
Until then, he'll just have to hole up, find some distractions, and wait for time to come around...
Abdullah's trip to Orange is largely uneventful, yet very strange.
Just about everyone on the bus was going to the Sing-Love, and most of them were on Lala. Those that weren't holding hands and dreamsharing were all too happy to talk with one another about the ones they'd been to, before, or what they'd heard about the ones they'd missed.
"Sometimes S/He's there, masquerading as a priest/ess," he was told by the very loquacious, well-tanned young lady with orange hair, yellow contacts, and several earrings who sat next to him: "S/He doesn't really join in the singing unless everyone really impresses Hir, and then S/He just appears and leads everyone in the Dance."
"And if S/He isn't?" Abdullah asked, suddenly glad he dressed down for this event.
"Then the Dance happens anyway," the girl winked, turning around and dropping her head into his lap, facing up: "And all is well, and all is one."
"Yes," he said politely, watching the road for a time.
"You know, you look really familiar," she said, closing her eyes: "But I don't want to know why. Isn't that weird?"
He just smiled and resisted the urge to pat her on the head. She purred and snuggled up, falling asleep.
Somehow it just felt right, but he wasn't sure why. And as soon as the bus stopped, she got up, smiled at him one last time, and then disembarked with the others without saying another word to him.
The theatre was an old Roman amphitheater, well-known for hosting concerts and the like. Its lot was full of buses, RVs, and large vehicles that seemed one pothole away from flying apart. Inside there were strange lights and pulsing, shifting electronic music from the DJ.
(The signs said they'd gotten someone called Electrosexual. He wasn't sure if that was a real name or not, given the occasion.)
He got in the long line to get in, which seemed to take a shorted time than it should. All the while he was verbally assaulted by protesting Catholics and people from Human Destiny, none of whom wanted to stand too close to one another.
No one really paid them any mind. In fact, when someone decided to start shouting back, a Priest/ess mysteriously appeared to snuggle the anger out of the patron, telling him that it didn't matter, and they would see the light eventually.
After a few hugs and very passionate kisses, the anger was gone, replaced by bliss.
Not too long later, Abdullah was at the gate. A pair of scantily-clad Priest/esses took his ticket, and asked him if he had any drugs, alcohol, or birth control. When he said "No" to all three he was handed a strip of Lala, a ticket for a free drink, and a condom.
"Play safe, play well, and respect others," the willowy and androgynous wo/man said, smiling as genuinely as possible: "No one wants a bad scene."
"No," he said, and went on in, at once amazed and somewhat terrified by what he was seeing.
It was a rave party and an orgy, all at once. No one seemed to have much in the way of clothing, and people were just casting theirs aside within ten steps of the entrance -- handing their belongings over to priest/esses to lock up. They got "keys" in the form of temporary tattoos, which the ladymen happily licked onto whatever surface their owners wanted before they headed off to party.
"Come on, man," someone said to him after he'd been standing there, staring, for some time: "You look like you're about to have a heart attack. Just join in."
"I'm... waiting for someone," Abdullah said, not really sure of things all of a sudden.
"Oh, that's cool," the person said, stripping off without any hesitation and heading on into the throngs: "Have a good time!"
That was a half an hour ago. Since then he's stood there, watching. No one else has talked to him, really.
And there's been no sign of the old man he met at the Musee de la Magie.
"Should I?" he asks himself, looking at the things he's been given.
He'd been drunk before, to his shame. He'd avoided drugs, though. And as for sex, well, he'd had his times in the past. And while he now claimed they were "mistakes," he sure didn't feel that way at the time.
He could just join in. He knows this. Allah forgives if repentance is true and total. But if he joins in willingly, is his repentance really true, or merely coerced?
(Besides, he may need a clear head for what's to come.)
So he sighs, and shakes his head. Then, smiling, he hands the drugs, the drink ticket, and the condom to three persons in turn as they make their way into the pit: "Enjoy them for me," he says to each one.
"Now, is that generosity?" a familiar voice asks, from right behind him: "If you would not use it, anyway?"
"I could just throw it away, too," he says, turning around to regard the tall man.
"True," Mister Freedom says, walking up to Abdullah. He's wearing the same black tabard he did he other day, but no chains -- not today.
"But then, that could be a lack of awareness of their worth."
"Or even spite," the supergod says: "If you cannot use it, no one else will."
"Perhaps," the young man says, taking one last, long look at the passion pit he just decided not to enter: "So why are we here, mssr?"
"Because I thought this would bring certain things into focus for you," Mister Freedom says: "That and I wanted to see what you did with temptation."
"Have I performed adequately?" Abdullah says, suddenly not liking where this is going.
"I don't know," his host says with a wink: "Have you?"
"Perhaps a joke," the supergod says, gesturing to the steps of the amphitheater: "But shall we attain a higher perspective...?"
As they walk all the way up -- past dreamers who decided to step out of the pit for a time, or couples who wanted some space to themselves -- Abdullah asks: "The sign language, at the musee?"
"Yes," Mister Freedom says, finally sitting down at the very top, with one leg over the edge: "I know, Abdullah Ismail. I know about your brother. About Le Front de L'Espoir. About your imprisonment, and what was done to you there. About what's happened since."
"And I have to say that for someone who was so grotesquely treated, you have acquitted yourself rather well," the supergod smiles, seemingly not concerned that his guest has declined to sit: "That's probably why they want you for that job."
"I won't take it," Abdullah says, sitting down with some sense of resignation: "They can shove it up their con. All of it."
"Who says you have to?"
"Isn't that what you're here about?" the young man asks: "You know all about me. That box appeared just after those two fools left my apartment."
"Yes," the older fellow says, looking down at the long line of people still coming into the Singlove: "One of them prays to me. The man from BOWLER. He credits me with getting him where he is, now."
"So you had him leave it?"
"No, I had him insist on accompanying the man from the NEU. You'll notice how little my follower spoke, and how much the other did?"
"I did, yes," Abdullah sighs: "So you're not trying to get me into Foudre Blanc's gloves, then?"
"Not unless you want to," Mister Freedom says, watching as one of the Catholic protesters suddenly rips away most of his clothing and all but dives into the line: "I would never force another to be something or someone they don't want to be. I only help them understand what that something is, sometimes."
"Well, of course not," Abdullah presses: "You call yourself Mister Freedom, after all?"
"And I am."
"Once part of the Freedom Force?"
"No. They denied my application. It was... complicated."
"And then the warden of supervillains too powerful to be contained in regular cells?"
"Indeed," Mister Freedom says, watching as one of the people in line fall to their knees before the protesters, tear-faced as she begs forgiveness of their God: "A task I still attend to, though my duties are more... all-encompassing as of now."
"But on the Revelation Day, when you all revealed yourselves to the world? They said you were Restriit? Is that right?"
"Yes," the Supergod says, looking back at his guest: "I am he. The Abyss and its keeper. If my brother, Hoosk, is the fount of all? Then I am its termination. I take energy, possibility, and knowledge, and then I turn them into entropy, entrapment, and ignorance. I am the devouring black pit that awaits all effort and endeavor, in time. The place where all comes to an end, and the one who watches as it all falls down. Prison and jailer, but yet also prisoner."
"And is that why you're always on about getting free?" Abdullah asks, miming shackles on his arms: "Is that hope on your part?"
"Perhaps," the older fellow chuckles: "But in a larger sense it is my gift to you."
"Yes," Mister Freedom says, gesturing to the spectacle before them: "My sister-brother, Rosi, teaches you to let go of your fears and embrace passion. My brother Sphyne breaks down the barriers of sleep, and allows you to dream as one, there to find the mysteries you have been denied. My sister Syphon takes the products of your love and transfers them, either to others or to herself, so that life may be continued. And brother Satanoth removes the mystery from death, so that those who stand at his door can be comforted, or at least less confused.... and so on."
"So you... do what? Put on a philosophical lecture disguised as a magic show?"
"As I said, I help people realize who and what they are," the older man says.
"Even though you didn't know who you were for... what, almost 50 years?"
"Oh, less and more than that," the supergod chuckles: "We were with you as we were, once upon a time. And then a horrible thing was done to us by those who feared us, done by the Word of the God that rightly claims dominion over all. Reality was changed around us, not once but several times. And the last time it was changed I was remade into that person, that function."
"And now you're what... both?"
"I supposed you could say so. Once upon a time, when termination was all I knew, and my duty was all, I needed no prodding. It was my task, and my place, and I was happy to do it."
"Did being away from it all make you change your outlook?"
"In a way, yes," the man says, looking with some interest as a number of couples nearby screw themselves into a giant knot of flesh: "But what really happened is that I saw my task was not truly imprisonment, but conversion. I took that remained and collapsed it so that it might be formed anew in my brother's hands.
"And once I understood that, I understood that my task was truly a paradox. I was destroying things in order to create things anew. I was jailing people to set them free of what put them there in the first place."
"And a paradox is where we find the truth," Abdullah says, nodding: "So why the interest in me, then? If you want me as a follower, I already have a God. And, as you pointed out, he does have dominion over all, including me."
"He does, yes," the supergod says: "And he still would, if you took my offer. You would just be approaching prayer from a different perspective."
"As something akin to an angel, perhaps," Mister Freedom says: "Or a demon, if you look at it a different way."
"I don't understand," Abdullah says, feeling the hackles rise on the back of his neck: "What... what in the name of Allah are you suggesting? That I become... what? One of you?"
"Yes," the supergod says: "In a sense, that is exactly what you'd be doing. You would be me. I would be you. We would continue on as one, in some ways, and yet more than one."
"Merde," the young man says, trying to get to his feet: "That's crazy. Insane! Do you know-"
"Let me explain this to you," Mister Freedom says, holding out a hand: "Let me say this much, and then you can decide."
"Casse-toi!" Abdullah shouts: "I am sick of you cons manipulating me! I am sick of having my mind played with! I want my life back!"
"Please," the old man says, and something about how he says it makes Abdullah stop moving. Was that genuine pleading?
Is that a tear in his eye?
"One more thing, then," the young man says: "And then I am gone."
"Give me one week to show you what I want to show you," the supergod says: "Seven days. If you decide to leave me, then, I will not only trouble you no more, but I will be forever at your beck and call. I, or who I become, will forever be your servant, so long as nothing you ask for in any way harms another. Can we agree to that?"
Abdullah blinks. Once, then twice.
Slowly, he nods, feeling the weight of what he's just agreed to only as it sinks in: "Alright. I am listening."
"Some time ago, even before the Revelation Day, I knew I was missing something," Mister Freedom says: "There was one paradox I could not solve. One trap I could not escape. And though I say it took me some time to realize what it was, the truth was that I knew all along. I was just scared to take that leap."
"Your own death?" Abdullah guesses.
"Yes," the older fellow says, smiling: "Life is, itself, a prison. Death is what sets us free. To solve that puzzle would truly make me the master of my realm. But I could not simply die, for then my realm would also die."
"And nothing would ever decay again," the young man says, imaging a world where nothing festered or decomposed, and deciding he didn't like the sound of that -- at all.
"And nothing could be created, either," the supergod adds: "For my abyss fuels Hoosk's hands. All innovation and effort would be stillborn. Your world would become a grey and stagnant place where everyone simply was, but could ascend no higher."
"That's... terrifying," Abdullah says: "So you would have to die, but not die?"
"A paradox," Mister Freedom says, nodding: "And a damned good one at that. First I thought I needed to find a protege. But then, after Revelation Day, I realized I needed more than that. I needed someone to become me, as I would become them after my death."
"And this is possible?"
"Oh yes," the old man says, smiling: "In fact, Shift has already done it at least once that we know of. It's hard to tell with him, as he's never the same person from meeting to meeting."
"I see," Abdullah sighs, looking around: "So I stay with you for a week? I walk in footsteps, see your job, see if I want it?"
"Oh no," the old man says: "You could never hope to see the job until it's upon you. There's too many angles to it. Too many layers of complexity. You'd just have to accept the concept."
"And in the meantime, what am I doing?"
"Well, you're solving a puzzle," Mister Freedom smiles, getting up: "Case in point, 'who are you?' And 'why are you here?'"
"Can I phone a friend?" Abdullah jokes, not caring to rise just yet.
"In a sense," the older fellow says, looking down at the pit, and then pointing into it: "But not today."
Abdullah follows the line of his finger. At its end, standing in the middle of the pit, is someone he hasn't seen in years, except in stock photographs and footage of how badly the Terre Unifee !@#$ed up.
It's Foudre Blanc, standing there amidst the revelers as they dance, drink, and screw. He's in his uniform, somewhere between standing and leaning -- like a marionette whose strings are half-cut.
And his face is skeletal and pale, caught in a silent scream...
"Merde!" Abdullah screams. But no sooner do the words leave his mouth than the spectre has vanished.
"The dragon at the end of the quest, I think," the supergod says, holding out a hand: "Now, we should leave. My sister-brother is on Hir way here, now. And if we stay, you may be enticed into something you might not want to do."
"Yes," Abdullah Ismail says, taking the old man's hand. As he does, he sees that the girl he was snuggling with on the bus is sitting in a corner on the steps, crying and alone.
He wants to reach out to her, but then there's a weird feeling, like they're standing on the edge of a very deep pit he can only feel rather than see.
And then they're gone.
-the ship it's coming towards that thing that thing it's the size of Jupiter even larger causing all kinds of strange gravity !@#$ups and big damn disturbances I can hear the sun screaming behind me as it comes terrified the sun is !@#$ing terrified by this thing that's how !@#$ing bad it is-
- okay now do it do it everybody open fire and pray it works just a distraction but pray it works pray to god to Allah to Vishnu to the World to whatever and whoever you need to !@#$ing pray to just call and pray the gods are listening or we are so damn !@#$ed right now-
-I can hear the voice of the thing as it comes closer the droning horrible call of nothing the sight of nothing the sound of nothing the being of nothing the Hellmouth the Ragnarok the Decreator the ((UNINTELLIGIBLE CONCEPT)) and it's right here right the !@#$ in front of me-
- oh god oh god not working not even slowing down what the !@#$ someone get hold of Night Phantom is he still out there oh he is good tell him Operation Eclipse is on that's right it's !@#$ing on toss that weird-ass star-thing out and tell it this is how it earns parole in 50 years just pump out all the power it can and then you hit it and you both hit it in the same place at the same time in the same spot and pray its enough just enough to-
- no nonononononononononono !@#$ !@#$ !@#$ on a stick up my ass with a !@#$ing oh god what the hell are we going to do now I think we just !@#$ing made it mad what's next oh god the VR it's breaking down I can hear people screaming all over the ship I can wait what's that what the hell is that it sounds like something's coming through from the other side of the Zero Room what the -
- oh god my god why have you forsaken me was it the Katooeys I'm sorry about the ladyboys I'm sorry about the drinking and whoring and making booze out of people's severed heads and the lies and the murder and the things I did to keep the world from falling apart and keep America on top of the heap I tried I didn't know I was stupid and prideful and oh wait wait wait we planned for this-
- yes, everyone get out get the !@#$ out someone call Night Phantom and tell him to try and swallow it the !@#$ up yes just like that no it won't work but !@#$ing try oh we can't raise him well !@#$ never mind then he's gone just like Brightstarsurfergirl and the Venusian fleet and the Martian fleet and the Dignitary and it's just us just the few of us still alive-
"Uhhhhh..." the patient groans, turning in his sleep and shaking his bandaged head from side to side.
"Um, I think he might be waking up," the nurse at the night station says, looking at the screen and his vitals.
"Should we do anything?" one of the others says.
"No," the doctor on call says: "Not at all. Just let him rest"
"But I thought-"
"I think otherwise," the doctor says: "Last time he partially woke up he put three people in the hospital. We just let him wake up fully on his own. That's it."
"But his boyfriend said-"
"He's built to take that kind of punishment. We aren't. End of story."
"Alright then," the nurse says, continuing to watch as Mt. Sinai's star patient shudders and whispers in his half-sleep, remembering something his observer should be damn glad to have no idea about.
* * *
Across the city, in Queens, the assassin known as Red Queen checks a dead drop she used when she was known as Whisper, and finds the letter.
She reads it, and her heart stops -- not once, but twice.
"You son of a !@#$," she says to her gun: "You never told me... why didn't you tell me?"
Hǫfuð gives an answer that only she can hear. It makes enough sense that she accepts it, for now.
And then she decides to accept something else -- the penalty for insubordination.
* * *
(Chat Transcription follows)
14:34 + Do you have the material we discussed?
14:35 - I do. It's not in the greatest of shape, given its provenance. But it's mostly intact.
14:35 + What do you mean by "mostly?"
14:38 - I mean that it's been removed from the surrounding brain matter by someone who was slicing its former owner into sashimi. There is going to be some damage. And you will never really know how it fit into the overall structure, now.
14:40 + That is disappointing.
14:41 - Yes, but it's also the best chance you have of seeing how this man's powers worked from a vivisectionist's point of view. Do you want it or not?
14:43 + A deal's a deal. But we're taking 2.5 million off the price.
14:43 - You can't do that.
14:46 + Yes we can, you little paska. By the time you approach anyone else, and they vet you, your employers will be onto your disappearing act. And if you say no, we'll be the ones who turn you in.
14:47 - You Schweinebacke!
14:50 + The next thing you say needs to be "yes, I will agree to the lesser price and deliver the specimen in the way we agreed"
14:55 - Yes, I will agree to the lesser price and deliver the specimen in the way we agreed.
14:56 + Ihana. We will see you there. And do not disappoint us further.
(Chat Transcription ends)
* * *
In the Peace House, just south of the Panmunjom truce village, the delegations of North and South Korea sit down at the long table, once more, to try and resolve the crisis.
To try and avert another true, full war.
As they discuss, and argue, and cajole one another, they are observed.
They cannot see their observers. The cameras are too small to be seen by the naked eye, nor can they be detected or scanned for.
On the other side of those tiny cameras are screens. Many of them are now lit up in a large, glass room in a tower, halfway around the world.
In a large, tall office at the top of that tower -- one with walls and sloping roof made of sheer glass -- is a simple desk made of gold.
At that desk sits a large, middle-aged woman, dressed like some aging hippie. She's watching the screens she knits, weaving out something long and intricate.
Over by the western window stands Seranu, resplendent as ever in a loudly purple business suit. He's drinking ambrosia from a crystal goblet that whispers to him with each sip.
"So, my lovely sister-wife," he says, after some time: "Blessed Kanaan, weaver of the fates of men. Tell me truly, tell me wholly. Will it be peace, or will it be war?"
She doesn't even turn in his direction. She looks at the sweat on the South Korean delegation's brows, the stupid looks on their Northern cousins' faces.
And when she gives her answer, he's not at all surprised, nor disappointed.
He just is, and takes it under consideration as he weighs what to do next.
He just is, and takes it under consideration as he weighs what to do next.