Monday, September 7, 2015

Dis-Integration: 8/31/15 to 9/6/15

"One Hand On The Trigger / The Other Hand in Mine"

Randolph Scott, Outlaw Reporter
(Art by Dean Stahl)

* * *
* * *

Monday: 8/31/15 

Men, women, children  
hundreds of thousands of bodies lying in the streets of Mexicali, just south of  
what survivors are calling a robot army, similar in description to
mi hijo... mi esposa...
 interim President Quayle tendering his deepest sympathies 
300,000 people, Chuck. That's more than we lost in Vietnam 
you can see here, the bodies waiting to be taken away to makeshift storage facilities. Row after row after row 
American superhero team the Freedom Force credited with stopping them 
No estamos felices de que esos heroes llegaron aqui sin nuestro permiso.  
 300,000. All in one night. The worst civilian death toll in a terrorist attack ever 
wave after wave of well-armed homicidal robots, maybe a few thousand in number 
worse than the 2004 tsunami, if that helps put it into focus  
New European Union has offered help and logistical support 
Pope Francis traveling to the center of the devastation to pray for the souls of those lost  
you could see it from the border. It reminded me of Desert Storm. All those fire trails and explosions
What tsunami was that, Bob? 
member of the Freedom Force, Shining Guardsman, is in critical condition tonight after sustaining severe injuries 
new calls for banning artificial intelligence 
actor Danny Trejo, who happened to be in town on business, saved at least 100 people by commandering a bus at knifepoint 
 We're just saying if it happened here? It could happen anywhere.  
300,000 people. I just can't process this 

In the cab of a curiously-unmarked, bone-white semi truck, down the coast of Baja -- parked near the beach, across from San Martin island, right alongside a few other, identical vehicles -- the man with tall, purple horns attached to his high-tech goggles turns off his portable television, and leans back in the sleeping area behind the seats.

Is he smiling behind his high collar? It's hard to tell. But his laughter seems both manic and sad. 

There's a countdown coming from a clock on the dashboard. It's beeping loudly as it goes 

5 - 4 - 3 - 2 - 1 

There's a bright light, and -- one by one -- the semi trucks are atomized by bright, white explosions that leave nothing remaining but smoking, dusty holes in their outline. 

By the time the Mexican Army gets there to investigate, there's not even that. The roaring Pacific wind has blown the dust into the wind, leaving them with nothing but an unnerving mystery.

One that will relentlessly taunt them in days to come.

* * *

"How's he doing?" Hanami is asking Mr. USA over their Freedom Force communicator. 

"No change," the older hero sighs, looking back into the hospital room. A doctor and a few nurses are checking on Shining Guardsman's vitals, and bemoaning the fact that the man's armor won't let go of their patient. 

UC San Diego's Medical Center was the best and closest place they could bring him, but no one here is really an expert on semi-aware cybernetic inferfaces. All they could really do was wheel him up to an operating room, give him blood, fluids, and medicine, and then stand back while his suit carried out a few gross repairs.

"Is he stable, at least?"

"As far as I can tell, yes. The doctors are really bothered by this suit telling them what to do, but they don't seem to be moving too quickly, so I don't think it's a dire emergency."

"Can you give me any more details?" the Japanese android sighs, clearly irritated. 

"Well, they're saying his armor may have put him into a coma, if that means anything. But I don't see how-"

"That makes sense," the android interrupts: "He will heal better and faster if his body isn't having to support consciousness at the same time."

"If you say so," Mr. USA says.

"Is he safe and secure?"

"Well, some jerk they brought down from LA floated the idea of cutting him out of his suit to save his life, but I told him to cram it."

"Good," Hanami says: "You are clearly in the right area for the time being."

"Was that a complement, Hanami?" the older hero chuckles.

"Merely an observation, Mr. USA," the android says, but he gets the sense she's smiling on the other end: "Maintain your vigil there. We will coordinate with rescue services and the Flier. We need to gather all the data we can in the field before it evaporates on us."

"Agreed," Mr. USA says: "I'll be better off here for the time being. That battle took a lot out of me."

"Yes, it did," the android says: "And that is something we need to discuss, when you get back."

"Yeah, well-"

"When you get back," she insists: "We have to deal with this situation, now. And then we have to deal with the disciplinary hearing for Soubre. Your increasing inability to fully perform in the field is not a high priority at the moment."

"I see, yes," he says, her even-toned words stinging worse than any shouted insult.

"And, (REDACTED)?" she says: "While you're in a hospital, you might really want to talk to a specialist and get a second opinion. It might not be as hopeless as the COMPANY led you to believe."

She hangs up then, apparently unaware that something like that just isn't something you end a conversation with.

"Way to be blunt, hon," he sighs, wondering where the oncology department is in this hospital. Then he looks back into the room as the doctor takes a much closer look at the rapidly-reforming armor over Shining Guardsman's chest area, and gets reflexively sucker-punched in the face as a reward.

* * *

"I told you not to look in my luggage, !@#$er," Red Queen says to the human stain she's just left on the floor of a back room just outside Phuket International's terminal one. 

The baggage attendant gurgles a few times, and then stops cold. She thinks of just leaving him like that, but then remembers she really should get her bribe money out of his shirt pocket.

She really doesn't like leaving a trail of bodies this soon on the job. She curses her lack of sleep, and nerves. Neo York to San Fran to Hong Kong to Thailand with no layovers has left her tired and jittery, and not really focused on the way forward. 

"It was so much simpler with you," she whispers to her dead friend, wondering if the Diviners were right -- that some portion of the dead remained in watch over their loved ones. 

And she did love Disparaitre, when all was said and done...

She grits her teeth. That's out of her mind, now. Gone and done, speeding behind in the rear view. As of now there's only the road ahead.

And she's dawdled way too long as it is. 

A small suitcase full of deadly things awaits her hand. Hǫfuð awaits in her florid carry-on, shrunk down to the size of a small taser. She puts a pair of large, specially-made sunglasses on to hide her eyes, smiles like a giggling tourist -- drunk on airplane cognac and the thrill of the destination -- and leaves her now-deceased contact to piss himself on the floor as she saunters out into the arrivals area.

From there it's a short but sweltering walk to the parking lot, and then a tuk-tuk to a rental car agency where they value discretion. Then it's just eleven hours to Bangkok. 

And after she's had time to get the lay of the land, and rest up, she's going to kill the monster who killed her friend.

Tuesday: 9/1/15

"Damn you, you beast," a now-weakened man says, walking away from the high-tech operating room and peeling off his gloves: "Why couldn't you just attack me?"

But he knows the answer to that question all too well, just like he knows how many drinks he'll need to black out, tonight. 

He opens the secure door to the well-furnished observation room, and sees that only Mr. USA remains in there, reading a months-old magazine. 

"How's he doing, Edward?" The hero asks, getting up as his colleague and friend comes out of surgery.

"It was pretty touch and go there, for a while," the man admits, pulling the special goggles he uses during cybernetic fittings off of his face. His eyes are red and puffy below them -- almost bloodshot.


"But he's going to make it," the man known as Gold Standard says, smiling and looking back at his young patient before he goes to get some coffee from the pot his friend clearly kept fresh, just for him.

"That's wonderful, Edward. You've worked a miracle."

"It's just science, (REDACTED). The machines I've got in him are going to save him from the damage. And they'll grow with him, to an extent. It'll take some monitoring, of course, but what doesn't?"

"And you say that's not a miracle..." Mr. USA says, putting a hand on the window and looking at the pale, young man his friend just spent a whole day saving. Bands of armor cross his chest, keeping him alive.

Gold Standard has some coffee, then. He scalds his lips, not caring. It's all he can do to stay awake and sane. 

And it'll have to do until he can drink himself into oblivion, when no one's watching. 

"A brave young man," his friend and ally says: "And he doesn't blame you?"

"No," Edward Crisp says, trying not to cry at his friend's careless comment: "In fact... you know what he told me before surgery?"


"He said that he used to want to be an astronaut when he grew up. But now he wants to be a superhero."

"Heh," Mr. USA chuckles, still oblivious to his friend's pain: "Who knows? We live in an age of miracles and marvels, friend. He might just do that."

"I hope not," Gold Standard mutters, knowing all too well what his own life of adventuring has cost him.

And he stays silent as Mr. USA asks if they remember that one time, at Cape Canaveral -- speaking of astronauts -- and goes on and on and on...

"Sir?" one of the day shift nurses asks Mr. USA: "Sir?"

"Yes?' the hero says, looking up and feeling a little faint. He must have fallen asleep out here, on the bench outside his friend's secured room: "Is he okay?"

"I was worried about you, sir," the lady says, handing him a paper towel: "Your chin, sir..."

The older hero takes it and quickly dabs around his mouth. It's blood.

He's been drooling in his half-sleep and it's bloody.

"Aw, crap," he sighs, realizing it's on his uniform, too: "Sorry. I guess I took a hit after all."

"There's a washroom across the way, sir," she says, winking: "And I'll make sure no one tries to go into the room while you're gone."

"That's very kind of you, miss," he says, getting up.

"Oh, it's nothing. I just don't want to help fix any more broken noses today."

They should both laugh at that, but he can only cough and wheeze, so he just smiles and goes to fix himself up as best as he can.

"Maybe you should have just been an astronaut, my friend," he sighs, thinking of what happened to Gold Standard, and so many other heroes he's known over the years: "Not so dangerous a job."

He blinks and looks at his old face, his old hands, his old eyes. He thinks of what the oncologist told him, this morning, after an extremely redundant late-night MRI.

He wonders how long it'll be until he sees her, again...

* * *

"God!@#$ingdamnittohell," Red Queen curses, almost throwing her gun across the room in anger.

It should have been a simple thing. Surely. Just one bullet and then it's all over, right?

But no. That is just not her lot in life.

She used Hǫfuð to track the man here, to Bang Chan in Khlong Sam Wa. She then found the tall, well-appointed and reinforced townhouse he's claimed as his own -- sitting behind tall walls in a small, somewhat-green compound.

And then all she had to do was find another place with a direct line of sight, break in, transform Hǫfuð into a sniper rifle, and acquire her target at the right moment. One good, solid shot and she'd blow his medula oblongata out of his skull and through a wall. And then she'd just have to go in, get the President's daughter out of there, and get her back to Neo York City as soon as !@#$ing possible.

Simple, right?

Of course not. And she can hear all of her old instructors laughing at her, even now. Because it's never that simple.

Finding an abandoned apartment was easy. It's the hot season, and all the expats are out of town. Look for the places with mail overflowing, and no sign of a pet that would need a sitter.

And breaking in? Please. These locks were so cheap it was almost an insult to use her pick-gun. They might have given it up if she'd just stared at them. 

(And as for using the Lockstick or the Deactivator she brought along, none of their security systems were worth the battery power.)

But as soon as she found a good, thin wall (not a window) unfolded her gun, and got a good look at the place -- a real look -- she saw that the mother!@#$er had taken precautions against this sort of attack.

Really bad and nasty ones.

She'd heard of bombpaper before. It was the sort of thing that the rich, paranoid, and homebound  kept in their lairs in case a marginally-sane gun-toting vigilante came to call, and was willing to listen to reason. The entirety of the interior walls and windows were coated with a thin film that, if it was ever pieced by a kinetic projectile going above a certain speed, would trigger a signal.

That signal was invariably wired up to a bomb, though how many was entirely up to the person who installed it. The average gun-fondler would just have to take their target's word on where and what was wired to pop, but Hǫfuð could actually follow the frequency traces.

And the bastard had wired the entire neighborhood to go up. Every building had at least one bomb in it.

In fact, the apartment she was squatting in had one, right behind the stove. It's almost as if he knew that snipers might position themselves there.

"!@#$er," she mutters, realizing this is going to take some more work.

Hǫfuð is grumbling, not understanding why she's so squeamish about going ahead. Why not just deactivate the bombs in the building, shoot the bastard, and get away in the confusion?

But then her gun should know. They know each other, inside and out, by now. And it should know that while such an idea would have appealed to the old her, true, the new her? The one actually trying to be a hero, and not just an assassin?

Well, the thought of exploding a whole neighborhood just to kill one man, and rescue one girl, no longer appealed.

She couldn't let it appeal.

So she forestalls the argument for later, when this !@#$ is done, and figures out who she's going to need to call to figure this out...

* * *

"Look, I understand we are asking a lot," Director Straffer says, realizing the tired and bearded NEU fellow he's talking to over the videolink is really tired of listening to him: "But you have to understand the situation here."

"I have been reading the newspapers, Director," the man says, choosing to focus his gaze past Straffer's shoulder -- the view of the afternoon sun over the South China Sea, past the Director's office window -- "But I really don't see what facilities we can offer here that would be superior to what you have constructed in Indonesia."

"That's just it. We have good facilities, but they're spilling over," the blonde man sighs, tapping his fingers on his desk in irritation: "Kalimantan is turning into an alien slum, quite frankly. And that's the last thing we want."

"Well then, we have to ask our new friends, what do they have to offer us?"

"I beg your pardon?" 

"It's the bare bones of this fact, sir," the man says: "If we're going to have these Martians here for many years, perhaps even decades? They will not be able to stay inside all that time. They will have to come out and say hello. They will also have to become partners in our culture and economy."

"So, what's wrong with that?" 

"Have you looked at them, lately?" the man asks, raising an eyebrow: "We have enough problems with dark-skinned people coming in with strange languages and a religion that doesn't mesh with our secular society. But even that is more intelligible than some of what these Martians are bringing with them. And then there is disease, public hygiene issues..."

"I think you're making your point, sir," Straffer says, scowling: "But I would appreciate being able to speak to your direct superior on this matter."

"I'll be happy to take that up with him-"

"And when I do, I'd like to bring up the fact that we owe these people an incredible debt," the Director says, rising out of his chair and getting right into the videolink: "As well as a massive apology, given that they supported our continued survival, and are on the verge of losing their own planet for it!"

"I will pass that along, Director Straffer," the man says, seemingly unflappable: "And, in return, if you have anyone we can speak to about the massive numbers of refugees we're dealing with now, it would be greatly appreciated."

The man turns the link off at his end. Straffer curses and bangs his desk, hard enough to crack the wood. He sighs at the damage, and then turns his chair around to look at the beautiful view from his office, high up on the space elevator

He thinks of a much less pleasant view, not far from here. He thinks of the man who holds his lover's life in his hands, still making up his mind in an asylum for supervillains and science terrorists. 

He feels helpless and impotent. 

He does not like feeling this way.

He grits his artificial teeth and grabs the control for the videolink, getting ready to make another call...

* * *

"So what's the news, handsome?" Velma asks, putting her feet on on Randolph Scott's unoccupied desk in his office, glad to hear his voice over the secure line. 

"Still in a holding pattern," he says over the other line, talking on a burner phone on a streetcorner in La Banane, not far from Pere-Lachaise: "It looks like FAUST has done the right thing and arrested that !@#$ing clown who orchestrated the deal. But my people on the inside are telling me that they're also closing ranks."

"And that means it's going to get shut down really !@#$ quick," the Toon surmises: "And it'll get quietly settled within a day or two."

"At which point the truth will never be known," the outlaw reporter says, adjusting his hoodie and looking at his watch.

"Unless you get in to talk to him first."

"Exactly," Randolph says: "And I've got a source who tells me I can do just that."

"What does he want in exchange?"

"Some help with a domestic dispute," he chuckles: "And no, I can't tell you about it."

"We promised no secrets," she says, a little hurt.

"Well, this is a man-to-man kind of thing," he explains, watching as a car comes driving up: "But in return I'm going to have a much larger story. So... forgive me?"

"'Story is everything,'" she quotes him: "But you are totally making this up to me when you get back."

"Don't I know it," he says: "Gotta go. Love you."

He tosses the phone right under the approaching wheel of the car. It cracks under its weight, and the right side back door opens. Inside is Blinker, out of costume.

"Get in, mate," he says: "We've got the where and when."

"Okay," Randolph says, getting in next to Anil: "We all ready to break into a really well-guarded FAUST installation, grab a prisoner under heavy observation, and get him into protective custody before his superiors make him disappear?"

"I was born ready," Anil grins like a mother!@#$er. 

"Let's do this, then," Randolph says, pointing ahead: "Punch it, Blinker."

Wednesday 9/2/15

"What the hell happened?" Velma asks, not liking the sound on the other end of the secure line.

"They beat us to it," Randolph says, coughing weakly from all the screaming he's been doing. 

"What do you mean?" the Toon asks, holding up a finger at Helga, who's very concerned but knows better than to yank the phone out of her hands. 

"I mean he was already dead," the reporter says, gritting his teeth as Anil stitches his shoulder shut, tossing bullets into the smelly trashcan of the apartment they've invaded: "Their kill team was leaving the cell the moment we teleported in. They must have given him a hot shot. Made it look like a sudden heart attack. OW!"

"Sorry, so sorry," Anil mutters, trying to be a little more gentle: "Any closer and you'd have been bleeding out, my friend."

"Oh my god, did you get shot?" Velma asks, instantly regretting it as Helga screams. 

"Is that Helga screaming?" Randolph asks.

"Yes. Did you get shot?"

".... Yes. The team was armed and ready for anything. We got in, saw what was going on, and when we tried to get his body and get out, some guy from BOWLER just opened up firing..."

"Jinkies," Velma sighs: "Is everyone okay?"

"No," Randolph says, looking at Blinker's body, lying over on the couch -- a jacket over his face.

"And I bet you're going to go on and report this?"

"Yes I damn well am," he says, waving Anil away and checking to see if his portable video camera is good to go: "I'll be uplinking within the hour. Is anything else slated for the big story?"

"Something exclusive about the Martian refugee crisis," she says: "And you'll never guess who pointed it in our direction-"

"Tell me later, and knock that down a tier," Randolph sighs: "Anything else?"

"Just that the Mexican government's complaining about Freedom Force, but their own supers team is nowhere near ready for a disaster of his type."

"Scrap that until tomorrow. And does Jello have anything really good for tonight?"

"Not really. He's just !@#$ing about his old band, again."

"Well, knock him off till tomorrow and give me top billing. We're going with the lead of 'cover-up.' Someone killed a man who helped save the world, then one of the people who was supposedly looking into that death stole part of his brain, and now his own people have killed that man while supposedly investigating him. What are they hiding, and why?"

"And it's mostly questions and no answers?"

"Ask the right question and you get the right answers," Randolph says, poking the entrance wound at the top of his shoulder, way too close to where it met his neck: "Get ready for the mother of all bloody shirt reports, hon. Uplinking in five."

Then he kills the phone, and hands it to Anil: "Toss this someplace it'll get smashed. Then go to the nearest store. Get me a coffee, black, ten sugars, along with a small bottle of the nastiest whiskey they have. I'm waking up, doing this report, and then getting !@#$ing drunk."

"We should tell Skyspear-"

"We should keep her the !@#$ out of this, Anil," Randolph insists: "She gave us the intel on how to find this place, but said she couldn't come with us. Now Blinker's dead and we're in the wind. As of right now we trust only my people, and each other. Got it?"

The large Indian looks at him, seemingly stunned. But then he narrows his eyes, looks askance, and nods. 

Then he's gone to do what he's been told, leaving Randolph to think about what he's going to say, and -- maybe most important of all -- what he's not going to say.

Sometimes that's the most important thing, as SPYGOD told him one more than one occasion. 

* * *

"So what all don't we know, then?" New Man says, handing Hanami her report back and getting up from his desk to look out at Washington DC, far below the Flier's flight path.

"Quite a lot, sir," the android says, tucking the pad under her arm -- her eyes adjusting to the darkness of the man's office: "We don't know where these prime machines are being made. We don't know how they're being powered. We don't know who is making them, or where he will strike next."

"Oh, I think we know," he sighs, putting a hand on the office window, trying to see the monuments out of all the dark and light: "The energy signature is pretty damning."

"It is very much like yours, sir. Yes."

"And since we all know where I was when this happened, well..."

"Sir, you once said that the way your powers worked, you knew if he was using them, and vice versa?" 

"Yes," the older hero says, turning to look at her: "But I don't know if that was normal, Hanami. It might have been something that could be hidden. Maybe he figured out how to do it."

"Or maybe someone else has found a way to harness the same energy," she offers: "It might not be your son. It might be someone else."

"Someone else who knew how Doctor Akuryo's death ray worked?" New Man asks, shaking his head: "No, Hanami. That sorry crank's research died with him at Okinawa. War Science Bunker One took a direct hit and burned for days. He's gone, it's gone."

"Perhaps, sir," Hanami says, nodding: "I need to report back to the team. Is there anything else?"

"No," the COMPANY's Director says, sitting back down at his desk: "But let me know when everyone's filled out the grievance reports on Soubre. I'll need those by tomorrow if we're going to have the hearing on Saturday."

"Yes sir," she says, turning to go, and then turning back: "I haven't heard anything more from San Diego. Did the specialist arrive?"

"Yes," New Man says, looking up: "I only just heard before you came in. He's there and preparing for a procedure. That's all I know."

"Good," she says, smiling and then leaving. 

As soon as she's gone, he pulls out the photographs he was looking at before she came in. They are stills taken from a camera, taken off the body of a private investigator running a missing person's case in the Maquiladora zone. 

It's of a convoy of bone white trucks, backing up to the warehouse where the robots were being made. One shows them parking. Another shows a single door opening. Another shows someone in a long, white coat with a high collar getting out. 

The last one shows him standing there, about to snap his fingers. And while it's from the back, he knows that stance. That gesture. 

Those horns. 

"Why?" he asks his son, the tears falling down his cheeks and onto his desk: "Why? In the name of God, son, why?"

The pictures have no answer. Neither does the desk, the darkened office, or the night beyond. They can only hide him in shadow as he weeps.

* * *

"Okay," Red Queen says, munching on some canned food she found in her "host's" cupboards, and trying not to think about what she saw last night: "So what else you got for me, Lek?"

"I got the layout for the house," her old Bangkok fixer says, his pimply face filling her computer screen: "I'm sending it over now. It's as good as before he moved in, though, so maybe now it's different?"

"Wouldn't surprise me," she says, matching what she sees with what Hǫfuð showed her: "But you're sure about the skylights?"

"Of course. But that won't help you with your problem. He's probably got the paper on them, too."

"How about patterns?" She asks: "How often does he come out? I might be able to take his car out when he comes around the corner."

"You had to park yourself on back side of the property, huh?"

"Well, yeah," she snorts: "You got an answer, or should I pay someone else for better intel, Lek?"

"Okay, okay," he laughs: "I hear he doesn't come in or out all that often. People bring deliveries. Every so often he gets picked up in a van, he's gone for a while, and then he comes back."

"And where is he going?"

"Well..." Lek pales a little: "Here's the thing. My people say you don't want to know. Just stay away from him. Don't make direct contact under any circumstances. He's bad, bad news."

"You don't say," she says, remembering the thermal images the gun showed her last night as she sized her target up. The things he was doing, in and around the apartment.

What he was doing, and who he was doing it to...

Thursday: 9/3/15

"No, really," Red Queen says, still shivering a little from what she watched happen last night: "I really want to know. How bad is bad?"

"Honey, no," Lek's transvestite colleague Mumu says, waving hir hands up and shaking hir head: "This guy? He's bad news, okay? Really bad. I mean like horror film bad."

"I'm getting that idea," she says, her eyes boring holes into the katooey from behind her glasses: "I will !@#$ing pay you to know."

"Oh, honey. I couldn't."

"I will get you the number of someone who will do the surgery for free," she says: "And he's amazing."

"Oh gods, honey. Do you really think I'm one of those girls who doesn't like my jewels?" Mumu shrieks: "I should just end this call. I don't know you, and I don't like you-"

"I'm sitting across from his house waiting for a chance to kill him," she says, looking at her new contact: "The more info you give me, the more likely I am to succeed."

Mumu blinks a few times. S/he coughs, looks around, and then shuts the door on hir studio before getting back down in front of hir computer. 

"Okay, honey, this is how it is," s/he says: "I've got a farang friend who's a writer. He's not in country right now or I wouldn't say a !@#$ing thing, okay? And this is secure as hell, right?"

"Secure as hell. Won't say a word. Cross my damn heart and hope to !@#$ing die."

"Alright then, hon. Well, my friend did some research a couple of years for one of his novels, and he needed to know how the trade worked. Girls going from up North down to Krung Thep, winding up on Soi Cowboy dancing for sailors? You get my drift?"

"I do. I thought everyone knew."

"Well, there's knowing, and then there's knowing, you know? And while I could tell him about the trade, well, he was making this really evil son of a !@#$ for that novel, okay? So he wanted to know how bad it got. So I looked into it, but this guy was such bad news that my friend couldn't even take two steps down that path without the guy knowing he knew, or his friends knowing he knew. Okay?"

"So what did he do?"

"My friend? He wrote about some nasty former army serial killer with a taste for bar girls. Have you ever read-"

"No, I mean the guy who's bad news. What does he do?"

Mumu takes a deep breath, pinches hir nose and sighs: "He reprograms people, hun."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean he takes these uptight or scared northern girls and turns them into !@#$-eating slaves. Or really !@#$ing evil dommes. He makes it so they like this sort of thing, and not just for the pay, okay? And then he hands them back to the people who bought them for use in their more exclusive venues."

"You don't say," Red Queen says, remembering what she saw him doing to his houseguest last night. That poor girl...

"And that's not the worst of it," Mumu says: "He's in with the Russians, the Chinese, the North Koreans... everyone. And then... well, this is kind of sick...

"And what else?"

"He also gets supplies for organ leggers."

"What, you mean spare parts?"

"No, I mean the things they put the spare parts in," the Katooey almost whispers, conspiratorially: "They say he's a genius with that kind of stuff. Limbs, guts, brains, whole bodies? He's got a container for anything. And it keeps them fresh as anything, apparently. No worries about implantation, unless you don't know what the !@#$ you're doing in the operating room, anyway..."

Mumu goes on, and at some length, but Red Queen isn't listening to hir.  She's remembering that Gosheven was looking into brain smuggling when she left. 

She's remembering that some of the technology he was uncovering was unlike anything they'd ever seen before, and that the COMPANY Scientists were baffled at how good it was. 

For a moment, she almost calls him up -- almost -- but then she remembers he'll have to bring her in, and then all this will have been for nothing. 

So she listens to Lek's flamboyant friend promise to get her the one piece of tangible evidence s/he got out of the whole investigation, and tell her that she should really read her friend's books if she thinks John Burdett's so good, and on and on and on...

* * *

... it never ends. Just one long train of missing parts and deliveries, with no real idea how many cars are between the engine and the caboose, and how many stops along the way. 

Gosheven's Moscow duplicate looks over what he's got there. The Hollow Man in Paris does the same. The weird, high-tech containers than kept a five-year-old heart as fresh as the day it came out of some teenager's chest in the Ukraine, and kept a man's brain from turning to gloop within the year. 

Mined on Earth, according to metallurgical analysis. Parts are terrestrial, but not always recognizable. And no writing on them anywhere to indicate how they operate, or what goes into what. 

Just snap the top closed, and stasis begins. Weirdly efficient. 

He wonders if he'll find Disparaitre's missing parts inside one of these things, instead of one a FAUST evidence jar. 

He wonders how the now-dead seller would have gotten such a thing.

And he can't help but notice that all the parts are going West. Possibly to Northern Europe, if the Finns are involved. 

Possibly somewhere else. 

He wonders if he should get in touch with Randolph, especially after that bombastic report he had last night on This Is Bull!@#$. He wonders when the man will get him info about Red Queen, whose whereabouts are still entirely unknown, even if he now knows why she took off in a hurry. 

He wonders why he hasn't told New Man or Josie the truth, yet. Or what he might say if he did.

And then his new, best friend contacts him, and he understands exactly what he has to do...

* * *

"Well?" Mr. USA asks as the specialist comes out of Shining Guardsman's hospital room, surrounded by a dozen well-armed and heavily-armored guards -- all carrying the kind of weapons you only use on cyborgs.

"Alright," Major Harvey says, taking off his facemask and nodding: "Doing alright."

"Are you sure?" Director Straffer asks over a videolink one of the guards is holding: "He looked pretty bad to me."

"Old tech," Harvey explains, trying to indicate that someone should get him some coffee or something: "Function, not form. Looks awful, working great. Should make it fine."

"And if he doesn't, you'll help him?" Mr. USA asks.

"Sure," the cyborg says, smiling a little: "Good kid. Got spunk. Talked a little, machine to machine."

"So he knows where he is, and what's going on?" Straffer asks.

"Yes. Unconscious, but understands. Knows repair is ongoing. Enjoying the downtime."

"Lucky him," Mr. USA chuckles, reaching out to shake the Major's hand: "Thank you, sir. On behalf of my group, we're all grateful."

"Least I can do," the man says, nodding at Straffer: "And, for what it's worth? I accept the offer."

Straffer shouts in joy. Everyone looks at him, not knowing why he just whooped.

Harvey raises an eyebrow, and smiles a little.

* * *

"You overstep yourselves!" General Chee shouts, backing up against the wall of his office as the People's Red Guard walk towards him -- very unamused. 

"Do we?" their leader, Hong Lingxiu asks, putting his hands before his face and looking the older man in the eyes: "A massive march is going on, just across the city. All of the other Generals are there, watching as our country's massive army celebrates our victory over Japan." 

"And yet here you are, hiding," Hong Ying accuses.

"Or packing," Tubian snorts, his white tabard following the arc of his body as he theatrically points to the small briefcase the man was packing full of documents and papers. 

"It does look like you're in a hurry to be somewhere," their leader says, holding up a hand: "So perhaps we should ask you why?"

"That is none of your business!" the General protests: "Now I will command you, and you will obey! You must leave-"

"You might have been able to do this the other day, but now we are answering to a much higher call," Shouwei says, his bronze armor covering him from head to toe.

"And after what happened in the Americas, the other day, we have complete authority to ask anything we want of anyone," Hong Lingxiu says: "So, I must ask you why you're leaving in such a hurry, where you are going, and what, if anything, it has to do with the Metal Plague."

"What are you saying?"

"We are saying that we accuse you of being in collusion with the person who caused the warbot attack in Tianjin!" Shouwei bellows: "The same attack that killed our comrade, Xunsu Shibing!"

"You can force me to say nothing," the General says: "You know the law! If you compel me to tell the truth with your powers, it is useless in court!"

"That's true," Tubian says, taking a step closer: "But I can threaten to turn the blood in your veins into powder, one limb at a time, if you won't tell us the truth."

The man gasps. He crawls up against the wall. He wets himself and begins to cry. 

And by the time the parade is over, they have a full and frank confession...

Friday: 9/4/15

... ideally, you'd want small children for this. Their minds are more malleable as they don't have a whole lifetime of patterns and habits to be broken. There will be resistance, but nowhere near as much as with an adult. However, I recognize that this is something of a specialized market, and not without considerable legal and financial risks.

Red Queen listens to the tape that Mumu sent her. It's the third time she's listened to it. Each time makes her like humans just that much less.

Each time makes her want to kill this bastard just that much more.  

So, for the purposes of most persons hearing this seminar, we'll be focusing on your usual acquisitions. These would be late teenagers to early adults from economically-depressed rural areas, whose parents are selling them to get much-needed revenue for their family farms, as well as ease their own financial burden.

Chances are good they know they're being sold, but they probably don't know what they're being sold into. They may think they're just going to work in a shop or a factory. They may even know there's dancing involved. It won't be until they get to where they're going that they'll learn what is truly expected of them.

The gun she's looking through shows her thermal imaging. She can see him moving throughout his house. Making things. Maybe dinner.

And she can see his guest. The President's last remaining daughter, waiting on him hand and foot. Hands behind her back. 

Head down, so as to look at the floor. 

Now, most of your indoctrinations involve one or both of two methods, coercion or conversion: he goes on, his voice both so familiar and yet not: You either force them into obeying, or talk them into cooperating, in the hopes that sooner or later they'll stop resisting and just do what you want them to.

Neither of these methods are correct. You do not want to make them cooperate, as they may try and escape. You do not want to convince them to cooperate, as they may change their minds.

You want to reprogram them so they will
want to do what you tell them to do. You want them to be a slave.

There's motion, suddenly. He lashes out and hits her. He may have used a kitchen implement, or not.

She tries to remain standing, but fails. She at least lands on her knees.

And then he's on her...

* * *

"We repeat, we have multiple runners," the lead security craft's pilot says as he and his wing break off standard guard maneuvers to pursue the six Martian craft that have gotten out of line for the space elevator: "Six bogeys making a run for it. Earthbound. Over."

"Can you get them before they get below the atmospheric threshold? Over." control asks, suddenly rather panicked. 

"Not without going for the kill. Trying to target propulsion only, but they're dodging pretty hard. Over."

The three W-shaped Space Service craft head after the runners -- mostly old, creaky transport ships that haven't been used in centuries. They're probably full of refugees tired of waiting in line for days after taking weeks to get here. 

But they aren't going planetside without proper decontamination and searching. The consequences of letting anything tainted by the Decreator onto Earth would be catastrophic. 
And if that means they have to be shot out of the sky, so be it...
* * *
"You sure about this, hon?" Gosheven asks Skyspear, looking up at the FAUST facility the two of them are going to break into, tonight: "I thought you were a line-of-sight kind of gal?"

"I am," she admits: "But I know the way well enough to get us up, and then through a window. After that, it's a short way to the morgue."

"Provided he's even there," the shapeshifter sighs: "Are you sure about that? I heard how the last one went."

"I knew where he was. I just didn't know what was going to happen that night," she sighs: "Are we doing this or not?"

"We're doing this," he says, making sure the bulky device he's got in his backpack is secured: "Take me to the top, sweetie. It's party time."

And up they go...

* * *

Now, in our last seminar, I talked about the three kinds of beatings: SPYGOD's alter-Earth doppleganger goes on: Proprietary, Preparatory, and Punitive. There are subtle differences and techniques involved with each.

He's hitting her with what's probably a wooden spoon. She's staying perfectly still, on her hands and knees -- head down, eyes on the floor.

Each blow lands in a new and specific spot. Red Queen's been hit there before, on missions. She took blows there, in the field and in a prison cell. She knows how painful they are.

The girl doesn't even flinch.   

It is absolutely essential to deliver the correct one, at the correct time, in the correct manner, each and every time. One wrong beating and you may have to start all over again, or even consider that slave a lost cause and try to recoup your losses, somehow. 

We'll talk about useful and efficient disposal another time. 

* * * 

 Thirty seconds is an eternity in a dogfight. It's even longer when the ships you're fighting don't have any weapons, and you're just trying to nail their engines before they can enter the atmosphere. 

The leader scratches one of them, but the ship starts having problems right away. He realizes it's going to explode about a half-second before it does, and he screams, going hard to starboard to avoid the debris.

"We can't hit them!" he shouts back to control: "Those ships are complete !@#$! You hit their engines the fuel lines go up!"

"Leader one, this is a direct order," control says: "Stop those ships by any means necessary. They cannot enter atmo. Repeat, they cannot entire atmo. If that means you have to destroy them... you are authorized."

The leader swallows, hard. He knows he has to do this. He doesn't want it on his conscience. 

But then there's a shadow over his ship, and another voice comes over the intercom: "Control, this is the Colonel. I've got it from here."

* * *

"Oh thank God," Gosheven sighs, seeing that the body is still there, in the morgue, and intact. They haven't even bothered to do an autopsy. 

(And he's pretty damn sure why, too.)

"You've got a few minutes until the alarm system comes back on," Skyspear says, coming into the room: "If that thing you told me to attach to the window works, I mean."

"Oh, it does," the shapeshifter says, pulling something large and bulky out of his backpack. It's a weird device that's clearly new, and yet looks like some antique from the 60's. 

In seconds, he's hooked it up to the man's eyes, ears, and nose. And then he turns it on, somewhat alarmed at how it makes the dead body twitch and jump on its table.

"What is that?" Skyspear gasps: "What are you doing with it?"

"It's an N-Machine, hon," he answers, checking his watch to see how long they'll need before it's done its job: "As for what we're doing, just be glad he's dead, or this would be even more !@#$ed up than it already is..."

* * *
The first time you meet the slave, deliver a proprietary beating. Do this right away. No delay, no preamble. Allow the slave to look you in the eyes once, at the start, and then begin. 

Do not speak to the slave until it's over. Do not allow the slave to speak, stand, or look you in the eye at any time. If they do, beat them longer and harder until they know not to do this.

She must have been trained well. She doesn't look up, not even once. She doesn't even seem to be crying out.

So you may ask, when is it done? When the slave is a sore, shocked, and crying mess. At that point you have taken the slave from uncertainty into discomfort, and then into actual pain and fear.

The man Red Queen has come to kill walks behind the girl and just stands there, for a time. 

Then he starts unbuckling his pants..

At that point their mind is clear of anything but what you are going to put into them.

... and he kneels down to follow through.
* * *

The group leader's only seen the Sudarshana Chakram in action a time or two before. It's somewhere between mind-blowing and bowel-shaking. 

The mile-long spacecraft is a collection of golden discs -- one nestled inside the other -- that spin around so fast that it seems to be a massive orb, most of the time. Its weapons project out from the outer hub, but operate so strangely that they can't usually be called weapons.

Case in point: when its weird, white beams strike the fleeing Martian ships, they stop -- completely and totally, as if the corner of space they were flying through was stuck in time.

It strikes each remaining ship in turn. And then it contains the debris field from the one that exploded, catching each and every piece with a smaller, almost surgical beam.

It's then that one of the leader's wingmen shouts they they've missed one.

One of the others, further back in the line, has long since departed and is now heading right into the atmosphere. It's smaller and sleeker than the others, and as soon as it hits the chop it changes its shape to compensate for the change.

The leader sighs and calls it in, knowing he probably just got demoted. But as soon as he's done, he hears the Colonel speaking to him: "Don't worry, son. I saw it going. I've got people down there that will take care of it."

Somehow that doesn't take away the sting, but at least it's better than nothing.
* * *
Skyspear is being sick. Gosheven doesn't blame her. He had no idea the guy's head would explode under the strain of the machine.

He also has no idea if that means the data was compromised or not.

But what he does know is that the smoke is about to set off the fire alarm. And as disgusting as it is to pack an N-machine that's still covered in someone's overly-warm cerebral puree, they need to get out of here. 


"Let's go, honey," he says, almost literally wrapping himself around his ride: "We got some data to decode..."
* * * 

At that point, you speak. And you explain the rules.

The life they knew is over. They are now yours. From here on out, their every action is yours to command. They may not move or speak without your command. They will be told when to sit and when to stand, when to eat and when to go to the bathroom, when to be awake and when to go to sleep, and when to speak.

If they are good, they may earn privileges.

Independent action is a privilege. A full night's sleep is a privilege. Eating enough to not be on the edge of starvation is a privilege. Sitting in a chair is a privilege. Using the toilet is a privilege. Not being beaten just because you want to beat them is a privilege. 

Not being fucked just because you want to fuck them is a privilege...

Red Queen's not watching, anymore. She's holding her hands over her eyes so the gun won't show her anymore.

There's just the voice, speaking with certain authority over a subject that is so terrifying to her that she can't handle it anymore, but yet can't turn it off.

One time, in Afghanistan, she encountered a tribal leader who bought and sold children. He spoke through an interpreter of how this was done, and how he made them his. The explanation lost something in translation, but his body language as he spoke -- how he carried himself while describing the indescribable -- it still made her shudder.

She completely enjoyed it when she finally got to break cover and kill that man in his own private tent, right in front of his inbred bodyguards, beaten wives, and child slaves.

And the day after tomorrow, come heat wave or monsoon, she's going to kill him. 

Saturday: 9/5/15

"Look, Hanami, maybe you shouldn't jump to conclusions..." Mr. USA is saying as the Japanese android stomps down the hall towards the Director's office: "Maybe we're just postponing the hearing because that idiot finally showed up?"

"That had better be the reason," Hanami says, leading him and the other upright members of the team down the Flier hall: "If not, there's going to be some words spoken."

"Well, just-"

"And you will not be in the room when they're said," she insists. And that shuts Mr. USA up entirely. 

"I'd just let her do her thing, man," Blastman says, coming up behind him: "She's in a mood."

"No, she's worried she got overriden because she's a woman," Red Wrecker says, walking past the two of them.

"And she better not be !@#$ing right," Yanabah snorts, her face still covered in bandages from the other week. 

Chinmoku has nothing to say, and just smiles enigmatically as he passes them.

"Ah, good, you're here," Josie says as the Freedom Force arrives outside the door: "I think they're done in there."

"I need to know what has happened, and why we weren't allowed in," Hanami insists, floating up so that she's an inch higher than the COMPANY's Second. 

"The Director will explain," Josie says, craning her neck up so as to not be talked down to: "And you're going to want to hear this. This has been very interesting, to say the least."

She's about to ask why, and then the door opens. New Man is standing there with a man dressed in a purple business suit, with a very full, well-trimmed beard and a commanding look about him. 

"Ah, good," he says: "I'm sure you all know Seranu? He's come to explain what happened that day, and to apologize."

"Explain?" Hanami asks.

"Apologize?" everyone else says, more or less at once. 

"Yes," the Supergod says, coming out so as to address them all: "It was very bad timing, but it could not be avoided. At the same time that you were fighting those metal creatures, we were attending the death and rebirth of one of our own.

"And when such a thing happens, we cannot be away. If we are, then things are irrevocably altered. And no one wants that."

Hanami blinks a few times, and everyone coughs. Chinmoku finally breaks the silence with a simple question: "Who has died?"

"The man you knew as Mister Freedom. Our brother-subject, Restriit. Prison and prisoner, keeper of the end of things."

"Yes," the Japanese man says, nodding: "It would be most unfortunate for him to no longer be working correctly. This is understood."

"What, they punked out on us for a funeral?" Yanabah says, incredulous: "I don't believe this !@#$."

"I will happily explain later," Chinmoku says, holding up a hand and nodding in her direction.

"I don't need your !@#$ing mansplaining, ghost-boy-"

"Hey!" New Man shouts, pointing a finger: "We're living and working with cosmic entities, now, Yanabah. Try and have an open mind."

"So, no punishment, no reprimand?" Mr. USA says: "Given that we've all complained about his attitude and his absenteeism, I don't see how that totally gets him off the hook, sir."

"It doesn't, no," New Man says, nodding to Seranu: "Part of what he came here to tell me was that he was withdrawing Soubre from the Freedom Force. He's been less than pleased with his behavior, too, apparently."

"Well then," Hanami says, giving the fakest smile she knows how to: "Is there anything else?"

"There is, actually," Seranu says, gesturing to the room they just came from. There's a ficker of movement from somewhere, and then, with a puff of smoke and a flash of light, someone else is standing in front of New Man's desk. 

Everyone there gasps a little. He looks so much like the old man they knew -- Mister Freedom -- but he's younger, now. His features seem east Asian, and his hair is nowhere near as long, or as grey. 

"Salaam alaykum, my brothers and sisters," he says to them, holding up a pair of manacled hands: "I have asked that I be allowed to join your team as a member, so that I might help you solve your puzzles as I learn to solve my own. Would you be gracious enough to consider this?"

And for once, no one knows what the !@#$ to say. 

* * *

"He !@#$ing exploded?" Randolph says, shaking his head.

"He did!" Gosheven says: "I mean, Jesus !@#$ing Christ. It's going to take me forever to get the smell out."

"I heard those things were goddamn bad news. SPYGOD went on and on about them."

"Yeah. That and shooting people in the !@#$ing eyes so they couldn't tell the thing anything after death."

"And FAUST didn't !@#$ing think to do that."

"No, they didn't," Gosheven says: "And that kind of has me spooked."

"Because it's too stupid, even for them?"

"Because it was founded by the son of the guy who was toe-to-toe with the Russians all the way through the damn Cold War," Gosheven says: "So why the heck didn't they think of that?"

"Dunno," Randolph says: "Maybe they didn't think anyone would be !@#$ing reckless enough to break into the same morgue twice in two weeks."

"Well... hold on," Gosheven says, looking askance.

"What is it?"

"Okay, we just got a hit," he says: "I had the results from the scan fed into the new decoder, back at the Heptagon? The one that can actually do word searches?"

"What did you find out?"

"We've got a place and a time, Randolph," he says: "The guys he sold it to? They're going to meet their buyers tomorrow morning!"

"And we are going to !@#$ing be there, yes?" Randolph insists.

"Oh yes," Gosheven says, no longer even caring what kind of cock-and-bull story he has to pull out of his ass for this one: "We are."

* * *

"Well, that explains a few things," Hong Lingxiu says to his immediate superior as they pour over the confession of the soon-to-be-late General Chee: "That warehouse we had problems with in Heilongjiang? It transpires that the General had family holdings up there, and sold them to this Purple Demon."

"And he has more land in Xinlin District," the large, older man says, looking at the sheet with powerful and small glasses: "You think this is where he is staging things?"

"It would make sense, sir. At the very least, we should go and look."

"I agree," the man says, standing up from behind his desk and nodding: "Take your team right now. Go and find these things. If you do, break radio silence and call us. We shall have the army there in force within the hour. We can then wipe this out for once and for all!"

The leader of the People's Red Guard bows respectfully, and then leaves. 

A minute later, the large man sits down at his desk, utterly defeated.

He waits for exactly one hour, at which point his heroes should be far enough away to have achieved radio silence. Then he reaches into his desk, and pulls out two things: a small but powerful handgun, and a small cell phone he's had alongside it for far too long, with only one number to call. 

"I have failed you," he says when the person picks up the other end: "They know. They are on their way. Chee told them everything and I could not stop them."

"Very well," the man says: "You have done well to call me. We will be waiting for them."

"May I end this?" the man begs: "Please?"

"You may, but be sure to shoot straight through the temple," man on the other end insists, absentmindedly running a finger along his horns as he watches the action down on his warehouse floor: "Your eyes must be destroyed. It won't be as swift as if you shoot through your mouth, but with any luck you'll bleed out and die from shock before too long."

"Thank you," the man says. 

He presses a button on the phone and tosses it into a trashcan, where it promptly bursts into white light and disintegrates. 

Then he puts the gun to his temple, closes his eyes, and pulls the trigger -- hoping he will meet no one like the Purple Demon in his next life. 

* * *

"It's a plan," The Red Queen says, looking at what she's made for herself. 

Step one: Shoot the rope across, just after dusk. 

Step two: Slide over, get onto the roof before anyone sees. 

Step three: Go in through the skylight, using laser cutters to defeat the lock, and electronic blockers to deal with the alarms. 

Step four: Slip in, shoot him in the face.

Step five: Take her out through the front door, and see about getting her to the US Embassy. 

Step six: Disappear, and approach New Man about rejoining only when she can dare to face him. 

It's not the greatest plan in the world, but it just might work.  

Sunday: 9/6/15

Red Queen wakes up later than usual, realizing she needed the sleep. She takes a !@#$, showers, dries off. She has a light breakfast and some nescafe. Then she checks to see what's going on in the world, just in case it's relevant. 

The top story is something about a firefight in the extreme northeast of China. No one's sure what's going on, but the Army is being called in, and the authorities are calling for a quarantine. 

"Xinlin District, huh," she says, wondering why that's familiar. But she decides to go over her plan one more time, and that means checking to see what her target is doing. 

At first, she isn't sure what's up. He's going through the motions of getting dressed, with her helping. He's being more methodical about it, too. 

Something seems to be up...?

Then she realizes something. There's a black, armored vehicle pulling down the street and turning, so as to be at the front of his compound -- well away from her ability to hit him if it doesn't go back the way it came. 

He's leaving. The bastard is leaving. 

And that changes everything. 

* * *

By the time she's ready to go with the second version of her plan, the news has changed. Now they're talking about some crazy arrest, just outside of Paris, that went viral almost immediately. 

That reporter that SPYGOD used to have around was there in secret, filming, as someone from an as-yet-unidentified agency tried to arrest some North European gangsters who were selling stolen superhero organs to some weird-looking people in long coats and large, black hats. But no sooner did he pull out his guns than some FAUST agents jumped out of nowhere and tried to arrest both parties. 

And then the Space Service decloaked their craft, shone lights down on everyone, and jumped down with a team of commandos, keen to put everyone in cuffs and on the ground. Which is when the punchline was revealed: the "people" the Europeans were going to sell to were actually Martians. 

She watches this for as long as she can, and snaps the screen off just as they were about to reveal who the stolen organs belonged to. Something tells her this is important, but she doesn't have the time. 

The house is empty, except for the girl. He's got her locked up in some large, walk-in thing. The car he got into is heading away, and driving in such a way that the only way to shoot it would be through the house -- which Hǫfuð could do, but not without triggering the bombpaper. 

So she gets her stuff and heads out the front door, hoping he's not just on his way to the corner store for a couple bottles of Singha. 

* * *

The front of the compound is just a normal door next to a pair of automatic doors for the car. There's a keypad attached to both. It goes down like a bar girl when she waves the Lockstick at it. 

Inside the normal door there's a driveway, leading up to the two-story house. There's a garage and a front door with large, glass windows around it. There's also trees and things, and probably cameras and tripwires and beams and the like. But she's wearing things that scramble such signals and reveal such lights, so she steps lively and gets to the door. 

Lockstick. Deactivator.  Pick-gun. The door is open. 

She gets in and closes the door. She pulls out Hǫfuð and expands it out to an assault rifle with slung-under shotgun, just in case. 

Are we alone, here? she asks the gun. It says they are, except for the girl. It also tells her where the laser lines and alarm strips are, and she walks accordingly. 

Up the stairs. Almost every other one is pressure sensitive. She walks accordingly, and carefully, but swiftly up to the top, and scans around. 

There's a wide-open space. There's things on the walls she doesn't like the looks of. She thinks she saw him use a lot of them on his prisoner. 

There's a door on the other side of the open space, mirroring the entrance to the upstairs. Between the two is a hallway. At the end of that hallway is a door that's locked from the outside with a keypad. 

Lockstick. Deactivator. It opens. 

Inside, there stands a young, black girl who looks either stoned or amazed. She's just as beautiful as Red Queen remembers. She's also buck naked and covered in weird scars, almost like lines of glue. 

(Didn't Jess say the President was having things mailed to him? Some of the lines go over things that were supposedly cut off or out, like her fingers, or her liver. But why are they still there...?)

"Honey?" She says, loosening the bandanna so she looks somewhat human: "I'm a friend. I'm here to get you out of here, okay?"

There's no answer, at least at first. The President's daughter's eyes go in and out of focus, and she nods a little, looking everywhere but at her rescuer. 

"That's it," she says, reaching out to take hold of the girl's hand. She edges back for a second, but then takes it. It's only then that she looks at Red Queen. 

"Owwwp," she says. 

"Yeah," Red Queen says, suddenly realizing there's no tongue left in her mouth, anymore: "Out, honey. We're getting out."

She leads her out of the room and into the hallway, making certain to sweep ahead. She holds up a hand to keep the girl back and quiet, and then moves the gun at every direction she can, uncertain why things are so damn quiet, all of a sudden.

I don't like this, she telecasts to Hǫfuð: Something is wrong. 

It says the equivalent of no !@#$, sherlock, and then goes back to giving her tactical advice. Escape routes, angles, blind spots.

And the knowledge -- sure and terrible -- that they are being watched. Right now. 

"'Only way out is through,'" she repeats the words they told her in the Army, and gestures for the President's daughter to follow her. It's just down the hall, and then into the main room. It's spacious and sparsely furnished. That'll give them plenty of time to see him coming, but no cover.

Still, best defense is good offense. And she's got that in spades.

Ten feet to the corner. Five. One. 

She pokes the gun out into the room. The barrel bends in all directions, showing her what's there. Nothing and no one. 

She gestures again, stepping out into the room. No movement, other than them. No one. No noise. 


She gestures to the window she couldn't shoot through. It's large and high up, but they can rappel out if they !@#$ing need to. !@#$, she'll hook a line on her and lower her down if she needs to. 

Just as soon as she lights up the rest of this place with the cryo-grenades she brought-


There's a sudden moment of disorientation. The split second realization between the sting and the pain, only there's no pain -- just a fast sense of numbness that starts at her neck, and then spreads to every corner of her body.

Stoy. It's Stoy. She's been hit with a dart of it. She cannot move any of her voluntary muscles. She can't move her mouth to shout or her eyes to see. 

She can only blink and breathe, her senses pushed to the limit by adrenalin and fear.

And that's when she hears it. The giggling. High-pitched and stunted, as if through a mouth with no tongue.

"oooughp hergg, massherr" The President's daughter says: got her, master. 

"I see," a voice answers. It chills her to the bone. It sounds so much like SPYGOD, and yet not.

Where did he come from? There was no one in the room. No one the gun could see...

Defend me! she thinks at Hǫfuð. Blow him full of !@#$ing holes! !@#$, kill her too! Kill everything that isn't me in a twenty foot bubble!

But it doesn't comply with her orders. Instead, it starts laughing. 

Why is the gun laughing? What the !@#$ is going on here?

"I'll take the gun, now, cunt," the SPYGOD who isn't SPYGOD says. But he's talking to the President's daughter: "You've done very well. I may have to find a new thing to take away from you later."

"Ohhhhg yegggs. Preaase masssher. Cuhhhp mheeee..."

Red Queen's just realizing what the girl said when she hears a harsh, open-palmed smack across a face. The girl goes down in a heap, but does not cry out or whimper. She just stays there, lying down.

"I'll decide what's done to you, slave," the man says: "Go to submission pose one and then be still. I need to talk with our new toy."

Please please kill him, she thinks at Hǫfuð as she hears the girl pull off some of her clothing, panting all the while as if in heat: Kill him or kill me. Don't let him get me. Don't let him get you. Self destruct. Self destruct!

"You can stop thinking at the gun," the voice's owner says, coming closer, his footsteps silent as a creeping shadow at dusk: "You see, I've gone and done a fucking naughty thing."

He's right behind her now. She nears a knife come out of its sheath. 

"And that's not the only naughty thing we're going to do, here, you and I..." the SPYGOD of Alter-Earth says, looping the knife around her neck with one hand as he pulls her hair with the other, exposing her throat to its serrated edge: "Slave."

(SPYGOD is listening to Cupid Carries a Gun (Marilyn Manson) and having a Singha )

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