Monday, August 31, 2015

Dis-Integration: 8/24/15 to 8/31/15

"Replace Us With the Things / That Do The Job Better..."

The Metal Plague
(Art by Dean Stahl)

* * *
* * *

Monday: 8/24/15


Yes, You!

I can see you, (YOUR NAME).


Does (WHO YOU LIVE WITH / BOSS / SCARY PARENT) know what you get up to when they aren't watching?

How do I know this, you ask?

Because they know this!

These so-called Supergods are watching you, (YOUR NAME)

They see you when you watch TV, the Internet. 

They see you move and sleep and eat and !@#$.

They have put the technology in place. 24/7 surveillance. 

Total observation. Total control!

How long before they tighten their grip? Already they control too much!

Humanity needs its freedom, back. 

The Earth must be a sovereign world, free from the taint of so-called supergods and  alien so-called allies!

We are Human Destiny. We are here to save you.

We are not The Free World. They split off to go be weird and racist. 

(And we are not the Human League. They're a band for !@#$'s sake.)

 You will hear more from us soon. Until then...?

Disbelieve. Disobey. DISENTHRALL!

*static noise like a record needle being pulled across the vinyl*

"... disturbance, there. Oh, okay, we're back..."

"We at the BBC profusely apologize for that interruption in services. Our satellite network occasionally plays up. We're told they're being worked on, now.

"To repeat this hour's top story: North and South Korea have agreed to tone down hostilities. After 48 hour marathon talks between the two countries, North Korea has agreed to end its military high alert, and the South has agreed to turn off its large propaganda speakers. 

"Any ideas of further progress, or indeed national reconciliation, were not discussed during this meeting. South Korean sources tell us we should be, and we quote, 'merely grateful war did not erupt.' Meanwhile, North Korea is, as expected, claiming over state-run media that they have scored a definitive victory in the decades-old military stalemate between their countries.

"And now a look at the Martian refugee crisis. An unfortunate consequence of our victory over the Decreator is that the remnants of the creature, which Earth and Venus were fortunate enough to avoid being hit by, rained down on Mars for an entire month. The result is that millions of miles of Martian soil has turned into a toxic no-go zone, and the carefully-balanced biosphere they created for themselves inside the planet is becoming infected. 

"Faced with such global devastation, the Martian government has appealed Earth to allow the Martians who lived in the worst affected areas to temporarily relocate to to our planet, until such time as the hazardous matter can be removed -- a process that could take years to complete, possibly even decades. 

"Is Earth ready to handle over two-thirds of Mars' population for that long? Are we ready? Those are the questions we're posing to a group of scientists, population engineers, political figures, and futurists tonight, in the hopes of finding an answer to this messy problem..."

* * *

 "!@#$ Goddamn mother!@#$," the South Korean fisherman mutters -- in perfect English -- tossing the last of the paper-wrapped pieces of what used to be a North Korean General over the edge of the boat. 

"What's your status, Gosheven?" someone asks him over his subdermal communicator. 

"I thought I was on triple-black, Josie?"

"Yes, but we felt the need to check in and make sure you were on task."

"Oh, I am, believe me," the shapeshifter mumbles: "Take me a week to get the smell out."

"No one suspects?"

"No. This !@#$hole loves vanishing for some extended fun with the less fortunate, as he puts it. They'll just think he's having a good time. It'll be a week before they realize he's missing."

"And by then all the sensible people will have closed ranks against him and his war hawks, and this time they'll succeed," the Agent handling the COMPANY's Asian Desk chimes in: "Well done, sir."

"Well thank you," Gosheven says: "It's the little things that make me feel so deliriously happy, you know?"

"How are the rest of you getting on?" New Man cuts in to ask. 

"About the same," the shape-shifter says: "Moscow's tailing our brain smuggler, Madrid is watching the folks from Democracia Nacional, and I might be close to getting somewhere in Beijing-"

"Can I talk you into splitting off one more hollow man?"

Gosheven blinks. Then he sighs and sits down next to the pile of what used to be a North Korean General: "Sir? Did I hear that right?"

"You did. I need another one of you out in the field. Like yesterday."

"Well, I know I can handle about eight before I need help going to the goddamn bathroom. So I can probably handle one more, but-"

"Good," New Man interrupts: "Is the situation in Madrid stable?"

"Yeah, I'm just tailing Democracia Nacional. They're having a late lunch with some !@#$hole I haven't been able to ID yet-"

"Alright, new orders. Split from Madrid, and head for Paris. Your mission is to locate Red Queen, with an eye towards detaining her for eventually questioning."

Gosheven blinks again: "Sir...?"

"She's off the reservation, Gosheven," Josie sighs: "She was in Neo York City, and then she went off the grid."

"Well, why don't you ask Disparaitre to find her? They had a thing..." he starts to say, and then he remembers, and feels very !@#$ing stupid.

"Sorry," he says a moment later: "Sometimes I forget things when I've got this many duplicates operating."

"That's okay, soldier," New Man says, chuckling a little, in spite of the circumstances: "But that's just as well you're keeping that in mind. We think that's what's going on here."

"She was going to get brought in for the kill, wasn't she?" Gosheven asks, standing back up and going back to tossing parts over the edge: "Why would she vanish?"

"We have her visiting the dead drop she doesn't know we know she still visits," Josie explains: "We're thinking someone sent her something. Maybe someone told her how to find the bastard who killed him."

"And she maybe decided not to share," New Man says: "That's what we're hoping this is, anyway. And that's why I want you to head to Paris and be on the lookout. We think the guy might be in town, so we think that might be where she's headed."

"Failing that, I know her pretty darn well," Gosheven admits: "Alright, consider it done. I'm splitting Madrid right now..."

* * *

"... and I'll head for Paris as soon as now," the newly-made Gosheven says, getting to his feet after slopping out of the self he had watching the DN thugs, off having tapas with someone they were hoping to shmooze. 

He's naked as the day he was born, initially. Thankfully, making clothes isn't an issue for him. Seconds after all, his other self goes rooting through his backpack, and hands him an envelope marked FRANCE. Inside is a passport, peripheral effects, and a fair amount of cash. 

The hollow men don't say another to one another. Does the arm speak to the hand, or the leg to the foot?

But as this new copy of Gosheven heads for the nearest bus depot, all of them can't help but wonder why their ally's gone off grid like this. They also wonder if they should find her as ordered, or find a way to help.

And they wonder -- and not for the first time -- what the !@#$ is really going on, here...

* * *

Due east of the sprawling city of Mexicali, just south of the border, there's a massive zone of maquiladoras -- block after block of large warehouses converted into makeshift factories, sweltering workshops, and industrial storage. 

They're nasty places, no two ways about it. Companies dump toxic sludge into the open sewers, and when their runoff spills into the street it leaves dead animals in its wake. The people that live and work there eke out short and poisoned lives in their shadow, but know that if they try to complain the government will not care. 

And if if they go to the police, they will disappear...

Around noon, a number of semi trucks go trundling through one of the smaller streets. Not an uncommon occurrence, except that these bone-white, newer-than-new trucks have no logos, no livery, and no license plates. 

This ghost convoy -- its drivers hidden behind mirrored windshields -- rolls up to the back of one of the larger buildings. It also has no name, but everyone knows it to be a quasi-legal assembly plant, knocking out cheap copies of expensive auto parts. 

Its rolling steel doors are guarded by large men with small machine pistols. One of them goes to the truck in the front to talk to the driver. Clearly they've been expected. 

The doors open up, one by one. The trucks turn around and back into them, one for each. Inside, overworked men in filthy, brown factory uniforms wait to be told what to do with what's on the trucks. 

A strange figure gets out of the lead truck, which is the last to back up into the factory. He's tall and commanding, wearing a long, white puffy coat that buttons up on one side. His collar is overly-tall, hiding his face up to the eyes. 

Above those eyes are high-tech glasses, connected to a pair of very tall, very purple metal horns

As he walks around the truck to the open door, he makes sure the remote control he's got going on the other, unmanned trucks is working, and then he snaps his fingers. A song starts playing that only he can hear, over a pair of small but powerful headphones: Red Right Hand -- a perfect song for days like this. 

Perfect for this kind of work.

The workers are starting to moan and complain amongst themselves, looking at all the high-tech equipment they have to unload, assemble, and place alongside the rather large machines that already dominate the factory floor . But he doesn't care what they think, or if that's too much work for them. The man he's just bought this factory from has sold him the workers as well. 

Some of them stare at him as he walks past, heading for the rickety, metal stairs that lead to what is now his office -- up high, and overlooking the floor. He orders the guards to have the doors closed as soon as the trucks are unloaded and away. He needs time to settle in, he says. 

Then he climbs up, opens the door to the only air-conditioned area in the whole factory, and sits down before the big window to watch it all come together.

To see the Metal Plague assembled by unwitting hands, doomed to die at the hands of their creation...

Tuesday: 8/25/15

"It's... it's too much," Abdullah Ismail says, holding his hands over his eyes. It doesn't help.

"Is it?" Mister Freedom -- more properly known as Restriit -- says, putting a comforting hand on his potential replacement's shoulder: "I find it's never enough, some days. And on others, it's just... fascinating." 

Somewhat shamed by his mentor's enthusiasm, the young man tries to look again. It's still as bright  and strange and amazingly scary-beautiful, but now he thinks he might be getting acclimatized to it.

It's just not everyday that one sees the place where everything in the universe goes to die.

They're at what Restriit called the middle point of their journey through the world he and his kind inhabit -- realm after realm of concept and energy, governed by hands both great and small, visible and invisible. 

He's seen fate and chance be wound together around the living and the dead by a woman who says she merely tends the threads, but never shapes them, and he's seen the vast tapestry of sealife, big and small, and the woman who would be their creator and queen. He's seen the lands of sleep and time, death and shadow. He's spoken to a rude, pale man who both is and controls the Moon, and with it a number of odd abilities that make a certain kind of sense. 

(And he has seen vengeance, and found her oddly familiar for some reason.)

And now here -- far below the strange, dark, and cyclopean prison that Mister Freedom both maintains, and is -- is the great Devourer. The black singularity into which all things eventually tumble. 

Abdullah can't quite make his mind see it for what it truly is. The best he can envision is a black hole, as he's imagined them being from the cheesy American movies his Abu would let him watch when the ladies of the house were out, somewhere. 

And into that black hole goes everything old and decrepit. Ancient ideas and decaying worlds. Suns past their age and civilizations no one can remember. Everything that was, and no longer is, all tumbling in from across the entirety of creation. 

"All of it goes in there," Restriit says, taking his hand away so he can point: "All of it comes here, though it be across the universe from here. It's the concept, and the actuality, and that's what makes it real."

"And then it goes over to your brother, Hoosk," Abdullah says: "And he... what, is he a white hole?"

"In your terms, yes," the old Supergod says, putting the hand back on the young man's shoulder: "But it's something you have to see for yourself. It will make things much clearer."

"We're going in, aren't we?" he shudders, suddenly very afraid. 

And Mister Freedom laughs, just as everything goes dark, and then negative, like an overexposed shot in a black and white TV show: "Abdullah Ismail, we are already there..."

* * *
 "Well, this is something of a surprise," Anil says, looking at the person his boss used to ferry around the world, what seems a whole lifetime ago. 

"What can I say?" Randolph Scott replies, not taking his eyes off the person Anil had come to see, or the gun from under his nose: "I'm just !@#$ing full of them."

It's half-past Eleven in Paris, and no one should really be in this FAUST office this late. Which means it's rather suspicious that Inspector Francois Ogilvy is here, seemingly burning the midnight oil. And doubly suspicious that he's in the refrigerated portion of the evidence locker, where they keep the bodies of people whose cases they're still investigating. 

It's also suspicious that a number of teleporters have all invaded here, as well, but given the circumstances they're clearly on the side of the angels. They just didn't think that the person they followed here was being waited for, in turn.

And certainly not by the world's most infamous outlaw journalist. 

"Please, I told you," the middle-aged investigator whimpers in German-accented English, not liking having this cold gun shoved up into his overly-large nostril: "I just needed to check on a few things-"

"Which is why you have a freshly-printed evidence sheet in your hand," Randolph sneers: "One that, I'm betting, is missing a certain part of a dead friend of mine."

"So that's where Disparaitre is?" the New Zealander teleporter known as Blinker says, gesturing to the lockup: "Were you ever going to bury his !@#$ing body?"

"Eventually," Francois stammers: "Once we'd done tests. He's part of an investigation-"

"One being overseen by BOWLER," the journalist interrupts: "There's been one of those limey goons at every stage of the autopsy. Mind telling us why?"

"How do you know..." the investigator says, and then closes his eyes in resignation -- of course he knows. 

"The man asked you a question," Skyspear says, teleporting right beside him and tapping him on the shoulder: "Our friend was sliced into a million little pieces. You are supposed to be looking them over for clues for who did it. Only you're not. So what are you doing?"

"I can't say," the man says, sighing: "If I do, they'll be angry with me."

"Angrier than we are, you gaand?" Anil hisses: "He was the best of us all. And you buried him in an empty grave and desecrated his body!"

"Oh, it's worse than that," Randolph says: "He's covering up the crime he committed, just last night. If you look at the evidence sheet in there, with all the jars and boxes? Something won't be there. Maybe several somethings."

"Oh my god," Blinker says, snatching it out of the man's hand and then teleporting into the cold room.

"I won't talk," Francois insists, shaking his head in spite of the gun in his nose: "You can't make me. I won't. I can't."

Blinker screams in anger. Anil glowers. 

Randolph gets a very wicked gleam in his eye...

Wednesday: 8/26/15

"So what did you do then?" Gosheven asks, sipping at the coffee he got from that horrendously-familiar Starbucks on Champs-Elysees.

"Me? Nothing," Randolph says, enjoying the cup the shapeshifter brought for him: "But it's never a good idea to get in a fight with a teleporter if you're afraid of heights."

"Wait... what did they do?"

"Well... they took him straight up into the damn sky," the outlaw journalist chuckles, pointing up: "And then they !@#$ing played catch for him for about a half an hour. By the end of that he was ready to spill every damn bean in the roastery."

Gosheven laughs aloud, not caring who sees them. It's early morning in Paris, he doesn't look as he normally does, and Randolph's only fully visible to him because he's fixed his eyes to be able to see the unique frequency his cloaking device is giving off. 

"Yeah, I thought you'd !@#$ing appreciate that," Randolph says, having another sip.

"That's terrible," the shapeshifter chuckles: "And now every single one of me is laughing, and any minute now Josie's going to crawl up my ass and ask why. You are terrible."

"Cry me a big damn river. She's still not aware of us, is she?"

"Nope, and she's staying that way. My microphone's turned onto a loop of Parisian street sounds I recorded yesterday while I wasn't nearby."

"Nice and smooth. Just like I taught you."

"Damn straight. So what did you find out?"

"Well, the mother!@#$er sold a number of pieces of Disparaitre's brain and nervous system to some very suspicious people from Finland," the reporter says, looking over his notes: "They flew in to Orly and picked up the case in the luggage area. He paid someone to have it put on the transport from the plane to the carousel."


"Eh, dealers do it all the time. That's how a lot of contraband gets in and out of France. I figure he's in FAUST, he knows some little fish who are willing to do him a solid in exchange for staying out of jail."

"A good arrangement if you need crooked !@#$ done."

"Yeah, only the people who got the case made certain that fish got fried, not long after they got the goods."

"And they're still in country?"

"He thinks so. He's not sure how they're getting it out, but he got the sense they were going to need time. But one thing's for damn sure, they're not the final buyers."

"Oh," Gosheven asks, slowing down a little and looking askance.

"That's surprising?"

"No, sorry. The me in Madrid's having to change cars to stay ahead of things."

"Okay, so he !@#$ing sells parts of the brain of the world's greatest teleporter for millions. They take it and sell it to someone else. Question is who, and when."

"Question is why, too," the shapeshifter says: "Though I've got some nasty !@#$ing suspicions."

"Anything you'd care to share?" Randolph chuckles, miming putting a microphone in his face.

"Not at this time, Mr. Outlaw Reporter, sir," Gosheven says: "But I'll do our usual quid pro quo, since you were kind enough to bring this matter of missing teleporter brains to my attention."

"Just make sure I'm not seen at the bust," the reporter insists: "And don't worry about telling me where and when. I'll find out."

"I know you will. Now, here's something you can help me out with, and in exchange I will happily tell you what I know about people who might have an interest in strategic talent brains."

"You want to know where the Red Queen is," Randolph says, having a very long chug of his now-lukewarm coffee.

"How the !@#$ do you know that?" Gosheven shouts, almost losing his appearance: "How the !@#$ do you know these things?"

"What can I say, Mr. Secret Agent Man," the reporter says, winking: "I have my sources..."

* * *

 "So how do I know this thing's legit?" the woman in the hoodie asks, only her face below the nose visible in the shadows.

"It is," Jess Friend sighs, not really liking a conversation where he's facing away from the other person, with their gun in the back of his head, down a trash-strewn blind alley in Queens.

"And you had it all this time?" 

"No, we didn't," the former Secret Service Agent says, looking at the trash can he's put the box on: "The President knew it existed, but didn't want to get it out of where it was stored."

"Why the !@#$ not? Do you have any idea how easy it would have been to find this !@#$er if he had?"

"Oh believe me, he knows," Jess says.

"Just say 'oh, hey, find me this person,' and then it tells me exactly where that person is, that very second? We could have found him a million times over by now!"

"Yes, but the price he paid to get that..."

"What? His soul?"

"You don't even want to !@#$ing know, lady," the man says, flexing his artificial hand: "Let's just say it was buried under a really big, wet, and nasty rock, and he had to talk to the things that were underneath it. And let's just leave it at that, okay?"

"Alright then," Red Queen says, carefully reaching over to take the box the man brought her: "Anything else I should know?"

"Yes," Jess says: "And this is really damn important. Don't use it to find him just yet."'


"Wait a week."

"You gotta be !@#$ing kidding me-"

"Just a week, okay? The sort of thing he did, it causes ripples. If you go after the bastard right now, he might be expecting you."

"He won't see me coming," she hisses: "He won't even smell me coming, okay? I will bust his watermelon before he knows it and then light up his !@#$hole to make sure he's dead."

"But if something goes wrong, he'll have his daughter, and you, and the gun, with the sight," Jess insists: "Don't you see how bad that would be?"

"Nothing will go wrong," Red Queen chuckles. There's a whisper of movement, followed by the slight ending of the pressure on the back of Jess' grateful neck. And then she's gone -- leaving Jess to wonder if they just made the worst mistake in the world.

And not very confident this is going to turn out well for anyone involved. 

* * *

On the factory floor, the true machines are alive and dancing. The smaller machines that made them lie on the floor, slowly being cannibalized for parts by smaller things, skittering this way and that.

And the people who put those smaller machines together and lying in a heap by the door, their bodies rapidly putrefying in the stifling heat of the maquiladora.

The final product seem so simple: two long, large tubes, surrounded by control boxes and full of manipulators, arms, and welders. But from those tubes will come a brilliant creation, ready to march and make war.

Legions of warbots -- fully armed and automated. Programmed with the ambition to take the world and remake it in their image, and equipped with everything they need to make it happen.

All it needs is raw material, which this factory has in spades. That and a single, initial spark.

And that's why he's here.

He gets to his feet, and walks from the room he's spent the last couple of days in. He walks down the rickety, metal stairs towards the machines, past the skittering robots and pools of blood.

And then he places a hand on each machine, in turn, and floods it with a flickering, violet energy.

Like magic, each machine suddenly churns into motion. Arms on one end grab pieces of machinery and parts and start pulling them into the round, hungry maw. The waldoes and heated implements within begin to mash, meld, and reshape that scrap into useful parts, and the tools and manipulators past them begin to assemble them into useful shapes.

Useful shapes that soon become unit after unit of deadly warbots.

The man stays for a time, just to make certain the robots that walk out the end are behaving correctly. That they're arming themselves with the guns and ammunition from the boxes at the end of the machines. That they're seeing to their new brethren, and making sure any rejects or mistakes are quickly fixed, or else disassembled and sent back to be remade.

They are strange-looking things, this Iteration Zero. Large and industrial, with powerful, intricate arms and legs and well-armored trunks. Their claws are sharp enough to slice through armored steel, guns project from their navels and shoulders, rocket launchers slide from their backs.

And their faces are cruel parodies of the humans they've come to replace...

Satisfied, he leaves before they realize he's gone. He gets in one of his trucks, and, activating the remote control on the others, drives the ghost convoy away from his latest creation.

His laughter is not a comfortable thing to listen to -- even for him.

Thursday: 8/27/15

"I will kill you all!" one of the prisoners is shouting, pounding the transparent walls of his cell as a procession of a visitor in white dress uniform with cap, a heavily-armored guard, and black-clad jailer go walking down the snow-white, steel-crete hallway: "You hear me?"

"Never mind him," Mister Freedom says to Director Straffer, smiling weakly as the man's threats become laughter: "He's had a rough time of it."

"I guess he has," the blonde man says, smiling back with his cap in his hand: "How about you? My fiancee told me you were thinking of calling it a day?"

"In a manner of speaking," the man replies, indicating that maybe they shouldn't talk in front of the guard. 

"Ah, of course," Straffer says: "I'm sorry. That was indelicate."

"Not at all. He is in the loop, though," the older man says, tipping a wink to the man in the armor-

"So we're here, even if we aren't," Abdullah Ismail says, amazed at how many different facets of reality he's able to look at, now. 

"Yes," Restriit says: "We'll also be able to listen in on what our visitor wants to talk to our guest about without even being there-"

"-because we are the prison, too," the young man says: "Prison and prisoner, jail and jailer. All is one, one is all."

"Well said, Abdullah Ismail," the supergod praises him: "I told you that trip through destruction and creation would make things a lot clearer..."

 "... anyway, here we are," Mister Freedom says, gesturing to the glassed-in wall at the end of the hallway. There's a chair waiting there, in front of it.

And in the cell, sitting on his spartan bed, is Major Harvey -- something of a shadow of himself. Only his head remains of who he was: everything else has been replaced with a skinny robot body that's just as spartan as his cell.

"Came, finally," he mutters, patting his knees with his skeletal hands.

"I've been busy, Harvey," Straffer says: "Since we destroyed the Decreator, the world's gotten a lot more amazing and confusing."

"Heard that. Don't care."

"Oh, I'm sure you do," Straffer says, sitting down in his chair at last and looking over to his escort: "Can I have some privacy, please?"

"Of course," Mister Freedom says, pressing a button on the wall. A wavy field of energy appears in the hallway, cutting off sight and sound to the rest of the place-

"But we can remain, even if we don't," Mister Freedom chuckles: "I think we should. This may be the day our guest starts to solve his puzzle."

"Who is he?" 

"Once, the best authority on cybernetic enhancement and replacement," the supergod says, sadly: "He rebuilt others as he was rebuilt. He rebuilt our visitor, in fact. He was a hero, a friend, a good and decent man."

"And then?"

"And then he decided to let the world burn," Mister Freedom says, sadly: "But the reasons why are what have him here, in the psychiatric wing..." 

 "Look, Harvey, no one's blaming you, least of all me," Straffer says, leaning forward and tapping his cap.

"Should," the cyborg says, getting back down on the bed and staring up at the ceiling: "Saw what was coming. Made the mistake of looking at those photos."

"Which was damn dumb, but... I guess I might have looked too."

"Good think you didn't. Snapped. Was willing to escape with those people. Make any deal. Do anything."

"That's true, but-"

"Killed that one kid," he goes on: "Killed others you don't even know about. Tried to kill you-" 

"Yes, and if my fiancee hadn't found that bomb, you might have succeeded," Straffer says, still not getting angry: "And I did try to warn you not to press the button. I told you we'd crammed it up your ass while you weren't looking after we found it."

"Didn't care," the Major says: "Hoped it was real. Hoped it would kill me."

"No such luck," his visitor sighs: "And here you are, wasting away in the Habitrail instead of being productive."

"Come to offer a job?"

"Maybe," Straffer says: "It depends on whether you're interested or not."


"Well, it comes with a potential for better care in a better facility than this. Private institution in update New York-"


Straffer sighs, coughs, and then looks at the man who he loved like a brother, and then had to take down because he'd gone mad: "My fiance. His brain was damaged while we were fighting the thing. And there are other complications, stemming from long-term damage we didn't even know was happening."

That gets the Major's attention. He sits up a little and looks at Straffer, instead of the ceiling: "And?"

"And I want you to use the kind of surgical techniques you used to remake my body to rebuild SPYGOD's brain." 

The cyborg blinks. Then coughs. 

"Impossible," he says: "Too complex. Nerve links, no problem. Grey matter itself? Memories? Personality? Not portable. Not repairable."

"Not anymore," Straffer smiles, and explains.
* * *

Red Queen sits in her safehouse, looking at the television. Her eyes are too large in her head and it makes watching the tube painful at times, but then also soothing at others. It just depends on what's on. 

She sits and watched the TV and tries not to look at the box on the table -- the one whose contents are all but making her gun scream at her. 

"Six more days" she sighs: "How hard can that be?"

But she already knows the answer to that question...

Friday: 8/28/15

"Admit it!" Thomas shrieks in John's face, his own a red, screwed-up apple of anger and betrayal: "You just want to !@#$ my mom! That's all this is about!"

"Dude, no," John -- now known as The Condor, once Green Fury -- says, holding up his hands and taking a step back, out into the open area of the Owl's Nest's changing room: "I mean, yeah, I love your mother. Who wouldn't? But it's not like that-"

"Yes it is!" Thomas screams, getting ready to beat the man down: "You and her and Mark and everyone! You all just want to !@#$ her and replace me! All of you!"

He charges and strikes. John sidesteps and taps him on the back of the skull. Any normal man would take a blow like that and go down -- with or without John's powers -- but Thomas just shrugs it off and turns around for more.

"What the heck is going on here?" Martha shouts, coming into the changing room. Kaitlyn's with her, and she's obviously been crying. 

Thomas looks at her, then at his cousin, his friend, and back to his mother. His face is filled with confusion, and then he stops in his tracks. 

"What just happened?" he asks, clearly uncertain as to why the back of his head smarts, and why he had his hands all balled up.

"You had another episiode," Kaitlyn says, accusingly: "You said mean things and then you tried to fight John. Again!"

"Is that true, John?" Martha asks.

"Yes, it is," the Condor says, a little sheepishly: "We've been... well, I haven't wanted to say anything. I was hoping he'd just get better-" 

"We'll talk about that later," Martha says, clearly disappointed: "Thomas, I need you to come with me. We need to talk."

"But I'm okay now, mom-"

 "Now, Thomas Samuels," she says, gesturing for him to come with her. He does, and is clearly worried about this. 

"I told you we should have told her before," Kaitlyn mutters to John as she walks by, heading to change. 

"Yeah," John sighs, wondering if this is his last night patrolling Chicago or not. 

* * * 

"Madre de Dios!" the fat, bearded Mexicali policeman screams, holding up his hands in supplication: "I surrender! Please don't kill me-"

The warbot does not answer with words, but with gunfire. A minigun housed in its chest speaks for .0003 seconds, but it's long enough to fill the uniformed man with somewhere around 50 bullets between his skull and sternum. 

He's not the only one to suffer such a fate. Up and down the length of the maquiladora zone, every instance of humanity is being wiped out. Workers in the factories, people in their shanties and favelas, even people just driving by in a car -- gunned down or sliced and crushed by hydraulic claws, depending on swiftly-calculated variables that only the warbots know for sure. 

One block. Two. Four. Sixteen. The brutal math of takeover solves itself. 

And with each new area taken, more scrap and parts are carried back to the machines to make even more warbots...

The Metal Plague is infecting its host, and the prognosis is excellent -- for the disease.

* * *

Red Queen sits in her safehouse, trying to read a book. She has to do it with special eyeglasses -- either that or have the book all the way across the room and turn it with a pool cue.

It's the new John Burdett. She's really enjoying this one, and wishes she could find an excuse to go back to Bangkok, soon. 

(Maybe when this is over, if the COMPANY actually takes her the !@#$ back...)

But she can't quite concentrate, and she knows why. It's the box on the table. 

And her gun, screaming.

"Five more days," she tells Hǫfuð: "Can't you wait that long?" 

But she already knows the answer to that question, too. 

Saturday: 8/29/15

"What's the situation like down there?" Hanami asks, already more than halfway to the border -- Shining Guardsman and Blastman flying behind her, following in her wake. 

"Really damn bad," Josie says over the communicator: "We're getting reports that over half the city has been taken over by those things. They're !@#$ing killing anyone they see. No mercy, no remorse."

"What do you expect from a machine?" Blastman grumbles: "No offense, Hanami."

"None taken," she chuckles: "Transport? ETA on arrival."

"We're about ten minutes behind you," Red Wrecker says: "We'd have been a little sooner getting out of the gate, but Mr. USA needed some help-"

"Alright, this is how it happens," Hanami says, hiding her irritation as best as she can: "We're going right up to the line and stopping it. Once we've got that controlled, those of you in the transport land there and maintain the line. Yanabah, Mr. USA, I want you up top shooting them down if they get around us. Red Wrecker and Chinmoku, I want you on the ground pounding any that get through."

"Do we have any idea where Soubre is?" Mr USA asks, his voice disturbingly weak.

"Rakim? Is he joining us?" Hanami asks.

"I don't know," the former Brainman sighs from far away, where he keeps near-perpetual monitor duty: "I keep trying his communicator and I keep getting no answer."

"Then we can't count on him arriving at all," she says: "We can do this on our own. We have-"

Her words of confidence are cut short by a wave of minigun fire. The three fliers are suddenly pounded by billions of tiny, fast-moving bullets. 

And as soon as they duck below them, a round of heat-seeking missiles are launched to finish the job. 

"Transport, get low!" Shining Guardsman shouts, employing his countermeasures as Blastman takes his advice and ducks down, heading for the line Hanami was talking about. 

But then he sees the missiles heading for the transport. And he realizes that, given how barely his own, more sophisticated chaff and decoy systems saved his behind, the transport doesn't stand a chance. 

"Hanami, I'll be right back," he says, turning right around: "Leave a few of them for me!"

She is about to protest, but then sees what he's doing, and why. 

And then she realizes this is a much more serious problem than she initially anticipated...

 * * *

Red Queen sits in her safehouse, hearing the Freedom Force's all-points call to action. She's got a communicator in here that lets her hear them without them hearing her, and uses it accordingly.
She really should go help them. Just call in and make up some bull!@#$ excuse, and then go down to Mexico and save the damn day. How mad could they get? 

And could they really say no to her request after that -- especially when she tells them what she's managed to find...?

No. She's a !@#$ty liar. Someone would figure it out. 

And she can't ever lie to New Man -- not directly, anyway. Never ever. 

"Four more days," she tells herself: "They can handle this. They're the Freedom Force, damn it. We can wait four more days, right?" 

Hǫfuð laughs. It knows the answer, even if she won't admit it. 

* * *

"Yes," Abdullah Ismail says, seemingly apropos of nothing.

"The answer to the question I asked you one week ago," Restriit says, appearing before him. 

"Yes," the young man says, and as he answers they appear in the Theatre d'Orange, again. It's where the question was posed, after all, so it's only right the answer should be formalized here. 

The place is deserted, now. There's no one here but workers, still cleaning up the horrendous mess the Singlove left here. 

"So, you agree to become me, and I you?" the supergod says: "We share in each other. I become you, and lay down my burden. You become me, and pick it up. We die, we are reborn, and the cycle of work continues?"

"I agree," the young man says: "There two things that I am wondering, though."

"Allah," the old man says, looking up: "You want to know who you will be to him, then?"

"Yes," Abdullah Ismail says: "I still fear the Hellfire, and still wish for Paradise. I understand that we are all part of the creation he set down, but I don't want to end up like the Jinn, you know?"

"Denied a final rest," Restriit nods: "I cannot say for certain what will happen. Will we be exalted or condemned? I do not know. 

"But I do know that we have untold millennia to figure that out. And in that time, I'm certain a man of faith could approach his God and ask him a simple question?"

"I'm also wondering about hope."

The old man raises an eyebrow: "You mean the organization you founded. What you've been trying to do."

"Yes. I wanted to raise awareness and get people to think, and to gently agitate for change. Now it's become twisted and angry, and I don't like it anymore. But if I leave now, will it get better or worse?"

"Who says you have to leave at all?" the supergod asks with a smile: "Remember Abdullah Ismail, we will be many places at once, and many things. Surely one of those things could be what you want your organization to become."

The young man looks at the old, and nods -- slowly at first, and then enthusiastically. 

"I will help them to understand the paradox of our situation," he says at last: "I will show them the puzzle, and bid them to solve it. It will take time, but they will eventually understand, as I did."

"Then we are almost agreed," the supergod says, putting a warm hand on the young man's shoulder: "There's really only one more thing you need to do in order to join us."

"What's that?" Abdullah asks, suddenly a bit dubious.

"The dragon at the end of the quest," Mister Freedom says, pointing with his free hand to the center of the amphitheater. 

There he stands, swaying as if held by invisible strings. Foudre Blanc, little more than a suit and a skeleton. 

And burning eyes, full of hatred.

"What should I do?" Abdullah Ismail asks, but his mentor is gone. It's just him, the workers, and the ghost. 

"Well then," the young man who would be a god says, walking down the steps of the bleachers to confront the man who set him on this path, however inadvertently: "I guess we need to talk..."

Sunday: 8/30/15

I am sorry, the shadowy Supergod says: I was caught up in affairs of a cosmic importance. I did not have time to be here and there at the same time-

"Stuff it, Soubre!" Blastman shouts to be heard over the emergency vehicles and the Mexican army: "That's bull!@#$ and you know it! You guys can be anywhere and everyone you want to! And your place was supposed to be here!"

And yet it was not, Soubre says, crossing his arms over his chest: If your limited intellect cannot understand my ways, the fault is not mine. 

"You might want to shut up, now," Mr. USA says, putting his cape back over Shining Guardsman's broken and battered body, his armor's life support barely keeping him alive. Red Wrecker's kneeling by him and crying, and he puts a hand on her shoulder to give her some support.

(And some for himself, too. He's not doing too well.)

It was a long and terrible battle, dealing with this new iteration of warbot. These ones were heavily armed and very crafty, and multiplied much faster than previous ones. They were swift and brutal, and clearly desired to wipe out any humans they encountered.

They hadn't gotten a sufficient head count yet, but the Mexican government was estimating that half of the town might be dead or gravely wounded. That was 300,000 people, give or take.

And that was just too much to be willing to tolerate excuses from someone who could have solved the whole problem with but a modicum of effort. 

"He is at peace," Chinmoku says, appearing from nowhere: "He says to not cry. All is well. If he dies, here and now, then he dies a hero."

"Somehow that doesn't !@#$ing make me feel any better," Blastman shouts, but knows to not get in his colleague's face about it.

"You failed us," Hanami says, looking the supergod in the eyes: "We needed you, and you failed us."

I regret his maiming, as I regret hers, Soubre says, pointing to Yanabah. She's over by herself, growling as her burned and blackened skin slowly knits itself back together.

"Regret...?" she says.

Yes, of course. But remember that he can always be rebuilt. We have done it before, in the case of the young man who was your city. Surely you understand this.

"And if he dies?" Mr. USA asks: "What are you going to do? Have Satanoth turn him into a ghost?"

I am certain something can be worked out. Between him and Hoosk-.

"Be silent, now," Hanami says: "You can discuss this matter with New Man at your hearing."

What do you mean?

"Soubre, you are unreliable and cannot be counted upon," Hanami says, walking right up to him and looking him in the eyes: "I believe this makes you unworthy to stand amongst us. As the field leader, I will request a disciplinary hearing at the earliest convenience, to be carried out on the Flier, with New Man presiding. Until then, you are dismissed."

I beg your pardon-

"You are dismissed!" she shouts, and the sound is so loud it makes everyone's teeth rattle: "Get out of my sight!"

You will regret this insult! the supergod shouts, the world around him darkening: All of you!

And then he's gone -- vanished back into the world.

"Well, that was !@#$ing special," Yanabah growls.

"That was impressive was what it was," Mr. USA says, nodding: "Well done, Hanami."

"How we going to explain that one, boss?" Blastman asks.

"I'll let you do it for me," Hanami says, the look in her eyes a terrible thing: "And then we'll discuss what we've learned from this encounter."

"They're getting worse," Mr. USA coughs, feeling rather light-headed but trying not to show it: "That's obvious."

"So let's figure out how and why," Hanami orders: "Red Wrecker, you and Mr. USA stay with Shining Guardsman. As soon as the medical transport gets here, one of you go back with him. The other join us here in getting every piece of evidence we can back to Gold Standard. Right now knowledge is power, and we are sorely lacking in both.

"And if we can't figure out what these things are, and what their goal is..."

She doesn't have to say it. No one is under any illusions, now. 

* * *

Red Queen stands naked in front of her long mirror. 

She looks at her body. Long and lean. Scarred and pocked. Some grey here and there, some wrinkles. 

And those eyes -- big and beady and weird. 

They told her using the gun would do this. They warned her. She didn't !@#$ing care, then. She just figured it was like any other piece of alien tech -- there were thorns along with the fruit. 

But the bonding was a two-way street. She got its stolen expertise and experience, just as it got hers. Over time, they became closer together in temperament and emotion. 

And desire -- strong and unavoidable.

She puts on her red jumpsuit, and zips it up. She straps herself with other guns and ammo, grenades and knives. She puts on the goggles that protect her overly-large eyes, and wraps her signature playing card bandana around her nose and mouth

Then she goes what the gun's been waiting for. The breathing, silvery thing in the box. 

Hǫfuð is on the bed, waiting for her. She picks it up and, seeing where the sight should go, places it there were with a strangely liquid click. 

And then, at long last, she knows where the son of a !@#$ is. 

She almost laughs. Of course the !@#$er would be there. 

"Three days," she sighs, getting her bag beside the door as she shrinks the gun down to pistol size. She's already thinking travel and transfers, and all the little details she can't afford to miss.

And then she's out on the hunt. 

(SPYGOD is listening to Huarache Lights (Hot Chip) and having a Kirin Zero

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