|"Where People Dress In Black..."|
Randolph Scott, Gosheven
(Art by Dean Stahl)
* * *
* * *
In a strange, seaside town -- one that looks terribly familiar, and yet not -- there's a tall hospital that seems to exude dread, its face lit up as evening approaches.
It's a three-story, flat-faced building, looking a lot like a castle with Italianate touches at the corners, windows, and turrets. Four-person buggies with fabric roofs are parked outside. Small ambulances sit in front of its large doors, and people in black, pinstripe suits and bowler hats walk in and out.
One man alone stands in place, as though he's got all the time in the world. He's a pale-skinned fellow, wearing a cream-colored suit and wearing a monocle and a brown bowler. He leans on a complicated-looking cane and looks down the winding road that leads here, up from the main part of the village.
It's as though he were expecting something. Or someone.
An ambulance races up that winding road, its siren a strange, warbling yowl. As it approaches, he smiles as if an old friend were approaching. His grin is an eerie rictus -- taut lips and pearly teeth
And when the beams from the ambulance strike him, he looks like a skeleton in a suit.
* * *
"... we repeat again this evening's top story. A massive explosion has left at least a hundred people dead in the center of Geneva, tonight.
"The blast emanated from the Space Service's headquarters there, at or around eight O'clock in the evening, there. Civil authorities report that the entire block it was on has been leveled, with debris raining down for a half-kilometer.
"Fire control teams are currently fighting the blaze. They say there is little danger of the fire spreading, but urge that everyone within the debris field should evacuate their homes and businesses until it can be ascertained what caused the explosion.
"The Space Service has no comment at this time as to what may have occurred, pending an investigation. They have said, however, that they will be assisting in the rebuilding of the affected areas, and offering aid and compensation to those who have been affected by it..."
* * *
"Our new friend, then?" Number Two asks as two equally-burly men exit the ambulance.
"It is indeed, sir," one of them says as the other goes to the back: "Led us a merry chase, he did."
"How far did he get?"
"About a click down the beach," the other says, pulling the door up and then taking hold of the collapsible gurney in the back: "Put up quite a fight, for a second or two."
"I certainly hope he was not damaged," Number Two says, rather sternly as he walks around to see the man they've brought back: "I had very specific orders, and gave very specific instructions. That's why we didn't send rover."
"Nothing serious, sir," the man walking with him says, taking hold of the other end of the gurney as it comes out.
"Hmmm, let me see," Number Two says, leaning over and seeing that Myron doesn't have so much as a bloodied nose. His eyes are open but he's clearly only semi-conscious, and not really able to move.
"Just a quick nerve squeeze, sir," the person who walked back with him explains: "He weren't no trouble after that."
"Yes, well, let's make sure he sleeps comfortably, shall we?" their leader says, leaning back up and adjusting his monocle: "Wouldn't do to have him escaping from the hospital. Not before his treatment's done, anyway..."
* * *
"How do you feel, sweetie?"
Red Queen can't quite make out the words, at first. She's hearing them as though it were from the other end of a crowded, noisy bar. Like a fog of sound.
"Sweetie?' a voice asks, familiar yet strange. There's a loving pat on her forehead. A kiss on the cheek.
She tries to respond, but can't. Something is keeping her from talking.
Also from breathing through her mouth.
"Oh, it's okay," the voice -- is it the President's daughter? -- says: "Just relax. Slow, deep breaths, but you have to do it through your nose, okay?"
She starts to panic. She can't feel her arms, or her legs. She can't breathe through her mouth. She can't move her head or anything else.
She can only hear and only breathe through her nose and she's terrified and scared and my god what happened what did she do to her what did she do-
"Shhhhh," the young lady says: "Don't you panic, honey. You'll be okay. We just took away some things you don't need, right now.
"But I'll give you some opportunities to earn them back, okay?"
"But I'll give you some opportunities to earn them back, okay?"
There's another kiss on her cheek. Maybe too long and too slow and sweet. Like from a lover.
And then she's gone, leaving Red Queen to lie and breathe in scared silence...
* * *
Myron knows where he is. He knows what's going on. He can understand everything.
He just can't do anything about it, at least for the moment.
"Well, he's lucky he didn't get much further than he did," one of the men who chased him down the beach is saying as they all ride up in an elevator: "The deterrent was just quarter mile away. And after that..."
"Well, enough said of that unpleasantness," the man who claims to be Number Two says, smiling as he looks down: "I think after a night or two here, the urge to run me over and head for the hills will be quite diminished."
The elevator halts. The doors open. Number Two saunters out, all but throwing his cane before him with every other step, and the two burly men follow after down the stark white hall.
"Our star patient, Doctor," Number Two says to the tall, harsh, grey-haired woman in white as the two men wheel Myron's gurney up to her. She looks down at him as though he were a bug on a slide.
"I see," she says, narrowing her eyes: "Hard to believe he's so valuable. He looks like the sort one encounters collapsed outside a bar."
"He certainly smells like one, don't he?" one of the burly men chuckles, but the comment gets a look of extreme reproach from Number Two, and all laughter ceases.
"You two can go," he says: "We'll take it from here. Doctor?"
"Just the usual induction, then?" she asks, gesturing to two equally-burly fellows, wearing white rather than dark pinstripes: "Nothing... exotic?"
"No, just the usual," he says, looking down at Myron and smiling, just before making an "ok" sign by his eye and waving it at him: "Be seeing you."
And then he's gone, and there's just him, the hospital workers, and the doctor, who's pulling a syringe with a very long needle out of seemingly nowhere.
"Don't worry yourself," she says, smirking as she drives it into his neck: "You're going to be very well looked after."
And then he's gone, again.
* * *
"What the !@#$ do you mean 'disappeared'?" Blastman all but shouts, just outside Shining Guardsman's hospital room. The outburst brings a number of disapproving looks his way, up and down the hallway, but he doesn't care.
"Just that," Mr. USA says, putting a hand on his friend's shoulder: "The AGENTs that have been keeping an eye on him were found nearby. They'd all been knocked out with some powerful nerve agents. Non-lethal, thankfully, but they're still down for the count.
"And his cabin... well, it was empty. And I mean empty. Whoever these people were, they took everything that wasn't nailed or screwed down."
"Wow," the older hero says, shaking his head: "Goddamn it, man. We shouldn't have let him go off and !@#$ himself up. We should have..."
"For all we know, they could have gotten him anywhere," Mr. USA says: "But yeah. Maybe we should have done more."
"Yeah," Blastman says, sighing as he turns away: "Do we have any leads?"
"No, but we just started looking. And given what's going on with the Metal Plague, and Red Queen being missing, and the fact that we're still looking for that bastard twin of SPYGOD, who we now know is directly involved with the organ smuggling...?"
"He's not a priority," Blastman sighs, again: "!@#$."
"New Man assures me he's calling in some top people to look into it," Mr. USA says, leaning against a wall.
"Anyone we actually know?"
"Probably. Just not people we send Christmas cards to."
"You'd be surprised," Blastman says, winking a little: "I have a long list."
They both laugh at that, in spite of it all.
"Any change?" Mr. USA asks.
"Naah. Kid's still down for the count. I thought I saw him flickering his eyelids a little, but he might have just been dreaming."
"I wonder what he dreams when he's like that?" Mr. USA says, looking in on Shining Guardsman. The armor's covering even more of his chest, today.
"God only knows," Blastman says, looking in as well: "Maybe when he wakes up he'll tell us."
* * *
Myron awakens in a darkened room. Pitch black and silent. He can hear nothing but the beat of his own heart.
He thinks he can move, but he can't. He's still too drugged. Too groggy. And the ache in his neck...
Nerve cluster pinch. He remembers that. He learned how to do it, once, a long time ago.
There's a muffled noise from next door. Someone's screaming, he thinks. He tries to get up to see what's happening but he still can't move.
And then he hears it: a weird, high-pitch noise. Oscillating in his ears...
Headphones. He's got headphones. They're muffling all other noises, like the screams.
"We want information.... information... information..." a voice announces over the headphones: "You will tell us all we want to know. You will cooperate. You will obey. In return, you will be accepted. You will be rewarded. You will know peace. We want information.... information... information..."
It repeats over and over. He cannot drown it out. He cannot take them off his head.
He can only scream as loud as he can in the hopes that he won't hear the noise over his own bellowing...
"Inexcusable!" the head of FAUST is shouting over the viewscreen in Director Straffer's Pontianak office: "Dozens dead, millions of Euros in damage. And why? Because your Agents, the ones who all but took this investigation away from us at gunpoint, did not think to search your prisoners for suicide charges!"
"Point of fact, we did," Straffer insists, resisting the urge to stand behind his desk and shout right back: "They were given several scans and subjected to medical tests as soon as they were apprehended. We found nothing."
"Then, how can you explain this disaster?" the Secretary of Security for the New European Union asks -- his thin, reedy face filling his own viewscreen.
"Right now? I can't." Straffer readily admits: "The prisoners were under lockdown. They were sitting in full view of everyone. No one gave them anything. They refused all food and water. And they had no visitors and received no word from anyone-"
"We know this already," FAUST's director says, pointing a silver finger at Straffer: "What I want to know is why we're allowing this fool to continue to be in charge of this investigation-"
"Because FAUST's authority ends at the edge of Europe's atmosphere," the cyborg says, smiling: "And because you already have a lot on your plate, what with working with the COMPANY on the organ smuggling angle of all this. Not that you are working with them, of course. You're letting BOWLER handle it."
"Yes, how is that going?" the fellow from the NEU asks: "Have you made any progress?"
"With the person you sent over to talk to me? Not really," Straffer says, choosing not to tell them about New Man's reaction to the alter-earth revelation, just yet: "All she's really told me is how much I look like the main character from UFO."
"Well, that was simply preliminary work," the head of FAUST says, stroking his beard: "She'll have gotten to America by now. I think we'll soon see some progress. But I think we would have more if-"
"Ah, gentlemen, you'll have to pardon me," Straffer quickly interjects, seeing a red light flash on his communications device: "I think we'll soon have more answers. That is the Martian Ambassador on the line for me, finally."
He picks up the line, and transfers it to a separate viewscreen, linked to the others. On the screen is a Martian, wearing scaly, overlapping gold and silver jewelry at his wrists and neck. He bares his gums at Straffer as soon as he sees him -- the best he can come to a smile.
"Friend from Earth," Walker In/With the Darkness says, raising his hands in a ceremonial greeting: "I greet you in the name of my planet, eternal."
"And I greet you in the name of my planet, bountiful," Straffer replies, doing his best to make the same gesture: "I believe you have talked with Secretary Brunel from the NEU, before. This other man is new. He is from FAUST. We have discussed him before."
"Yes, you have, Friend from Earth," the Martian says, gesturing to both men in turn: "I greet you both in the name of my planet, eternal. It is my true hope we can all become as friends in these times."
"Not bloody likely," the head of FAUST grumbles: "I hear you have been stalling our investigation. Why has it taken an entire week to get back to us on the simple matter of who these people were?"
"I understand your anger, Friend from FAUST," Walker In/With the Darkness says: "Please believe me that it has been difficult on our end to comply with your request. So far as we can tell, the craft had no proper departure papers at all. And the two names you gave us match nothing in our records."
"So you mean they never made a flight plan?" Brunel asks: "And the names are fakes?"
"That would not be correct, Friend from NEU," the Martian says: "All exits from our atmosphere are strictly controlled. All departing citizens have a genetic test to ensure their passports match their files. And all flight paths are monitored the entire way."
"So they left from somewhere else," Straffer surmises: "They got in line at some point. And they had fake passports that would be good enough to fool us."
"And when those ships tried to run the line, they saw a chance and slipped away?" the head of FAUST asks.
"I don't think it was chance," Straffer says: "I thought about that, but it's more likely these individuals realized that, once the line got compromised, there would be a considerable delay. And as they had a date to keep, they decided to chance it."
The head of FAUST snorts again: "Not that you actually know. If the questioning of the suspects had been left to my people..."
"They would have said nothing, with respect, Friend from FAUST," the Martian says, gesturing a sincere sign of respect: "We are a hardy species, accustomed to much pain and deprivation. If they had been tortured, that would only steel their resolve, as you say."
"But the thought of dealing with you scared those Martians I had in my lockup, Ambassador," Straffer notes: "Why?"
"Shame, I tell you, Friend from Earth," Walker In/With the Darkness says: "On our world, name is everything. To lose it is everything."
"Which is why they had war names in the first place," Straffer says, looking at the head of FAUST: "Which is also how we know they weren't doing anything official for their government, in case you were going to ask that, sir."
"I must confess it had come to my mind-"
"I can assure you, friend from FAUST, our government has no hand in this," the Martian says: "We respect and trust our friends from Earth, especially as you are being so kind as to allow us sanctuary in this terrible time. We would be foolish to do anything to poison that relationship."
"But, if they did not come from Mars, then where did they come from?" the head of NEU Security asks.
"Well, that's the big question, isn't it?" Straffer says, looking askance at FAUST's head: "And I intend to solve it, now that we know where not to look for answers..."
* * *
"God, it's me," Martha Clutch says, looking up from the screens at her control station, in the eyes of the Owl's Nest: "We need to talk."
It's early evening, and Talon and Condor have just begun their patrol. There's word that Whirligig might try to knock over a bank, tonight, and they're timing all their rounds with an eye into getting into position to catch her.
She'd love to help, directly. But not like this. Not with this precious, developing life inside of her.
"I wanted to thank you, first," she says, running a hand over her bulging stomach: "So far everything's going well for the baby. And Mark's being a great husband through all this, and I know he's going to be an amazing father to that baby. And Adam and Kaitlyn are blessings, and safe...
She bites her lip. What can she say, here?
"God, are you punishing me?" she asks, looking askance, over at the screen that's showing her what he's up to in his room -- reading on his bed, apparently: "Are you hurting me for making that deal with those Supergods?
"I didn't intend any blasphemy. I didn't mean to usurp your order of things. But, my son was suffering in that city, Lord. He was stretched out to the breaking point, trying to be everywhere at once. And while he wouldn't admit it, I knew.
"I'm his mother, Lord. I knew."
She takes a deep breath, seeing her resurrected son suddenly jump up from the bed and laugh, and then start to cry.
"I shouldn't have done that. I know this now," she continues: "But they told me it was possible. They told me they could grow him a new body, and put him back into it. They told me I could have my son again, as good as new.
"And I believed them," she starts to cry: "I did. God please forgive me if I did something wrong. They told me it was safe and that the body wasn't anyone else's. They told me it would be just like a clone, only better.
"And they told me it would work, but..."
She thinks of that day, in the central node of the city. She remembers small, frantic Hoosk with his machine, not unlike the thing that had atomized her son to begin with, and placed him inside the heart and mind of Neo York City. She thinks of grim, skull-faced Satanoth, there to ensure his soul went from the metropolis into the machine, and willowy Sphyne, who wove all Thomas' dreams and memories back into that soul.
And she remembers large and proud Syphon, who unveiled the body as though it were a birthday cake -- whole and fresh, glowing and golden -- and promised her Thomas as he once was.
Except that he wasn't.
Even from the start, Martha knew. He didn't look at her like a son finally seeing a mother with his own eyes after far too long apart.
He looked at her like she was a stranger.
And every day, no matter what he says or does, she can still see it in his eyes, somewhere. As though he were playing at being her son.
"Something is wrong," she says: "And I know you know it. And I don't know why or how you can allow this to continue.
"Please, God, show me the way here," she puts her hands in front of her face: "If he's in there, help me draw him out. If he's ill, help me heal him.
"And if he's not him, let there be no doubt in my mind for what I have to do..."
She stifles a sob at that, and bites down on her knuckles. Talon and Condor are moving into position and need her help. She has to be on top of this situation, now.
She has to be The Owl, however removed from the power that gives her strength.
And in his room, halfway across the sprawling base, Thomas Samuels seethes and grits his teeth as he hears every single word his mother is saying.
He's been able to do this since he was reborn from the city. He can hear dew condensing across their large and magnificent lawn, feel the whoosh and flow of the cars and trucks as they go by the highway near their home, taste her sour, apprehensive sweat (and other things besides).
Too perfect. His body is too perfect -- made by gods to house another god. Too strong, too sensitive, too invulnerable.
And, unlike the last time he woke up a god, he has no ability to hide from the world he has left behind. Nowhere to run to when he loses control. He is on display, at all times, especially here with all the cameras and microphones, allies and relatives.
Especially while he's living with his mother.
The thought makes him rage, and then cry. He interrupts the sobbing to laugh hysterically, and then ceases all sound and motion as though turned off, remembering he's being watched right now... which just brings on another cycle of laughing and crying, weeping and mirth.
They told him there would be changes. They told him he would be special. But they didn't elaborate and he didn't care -- he only wanted to be small again, to be flesh and bone. To have, to hold, to feel.
And now -- a young man who has escaped one kind of godhood only to be thrust into another -- Thomas Samuels can only wonder if he prayed to the wrong gods for deliverance.
* * *
"Oh Jesus" the fat, white man in the florid, floral shirt says, holding what's left of his mouth in his bejeweled hands as the thugs who struck him approach closer down the filthy alley.
"You come to wrong part of town, germy," the one in the lead says, shouting to be heard over the street noise as he raises a bloodied iron pipe: "No children for sale here!"
The man holds up his hands to beg. They don't give him a chance to speak any more. It's all over in seconds, and they don't even bother to take his wallet when they leave -- just another tourist who went down the wrong road in Phnom Pehn, or so the papers will say.
("Eat the rich! / Eat the rich!" the music shrieks behind them: "Don't you know? / Life is a bitch!")
"Well, that was instructional," Gosheven says, looking down from the strip bar's grimy, open-air terrace. A number of other barang -- "foreigners" -- are there with him, but none of them seem to give a damn. This sort of thing must happen often.
And besides, there's dueling ping-pong girls back in the bar.
"Not the sort of place we're looking for, then," Randoph Scott replies from his location, about a half a mile away: "The bastard we're looking for would be hip-deep in that kind of trade."
"Are you sure about that?" the shape-shifter asks, making sure his current disguise -- a chubby, white Westerner not too dissimilar from the one who just got bludgeoned just over fifteen feet below him -- is holding up alright as he moves away from the horrible scene and back into the bar. Two semi-clothed women are on the counter, shooting ping-pong balls from their ragged and distended vaginas, trying to hit targets from across the room to the cheering of the men betting on them.
"Oh yes," Scott says, watching his ally through the telescope on his camera as he hangs half-out the window of their rented room: "It's perfect for that !@#$er. Not only is it depraved as !@#$, but anyone engaged in it is extremely open to blackmail and threats. And that's so up that monster's alley."
"How you figure?"
"Jesus, don't you remember what he did to Mr. USA for all those years?"
"Wait, since when did (REDACTED) get into kids?" Gosheven says, narrowly avoiding a gooey ball to the eye.
"No, it's just..." Scott starts to say, and then sighs: "Never mind. Long !@#$ing story. See if you can get a feeler out for someone else looking for-"
"Um, Randy? I know how to do this," Gosheven protests: "If you're going to ride my ass at least pull my hair."
"Okay," Randolph chuckles, hoping he's not going to make a habit out of calling him 'Randy.'
They've been in crowded, humid Phnom Penh for just over a day, looking for any sign that their quarry is in town, and where he could be hiding. Taking noisy and unreliable tuk-tuks from bar to bar, traveling down dirty, congested, and puddle-strewn dirt roads made sloppy and fragrant from rain and mist, and then dodging police and gangsters alike to find what they wanted.
They started out at the once-appropriately-named Heart of Darkness -- which wasn't as bad as they'd been led to believe, anymore. And, following the trial of "maybe there," began a trek from nasty to nastier to nastiest, and then even beyond what they'd be comfortable with, if they weren't on a mission.
Eventually they wound up at this dirty, terraced strip club with no name, on the south side of town. And it looked so promising that Randolph even stopped lurking on the street, and got a cheap room within viewing distance.
Now, though, it's looking like they wasted money on that sorry hovel.
The bar is scuzzy and grimy, with a rickety staircase leading up to a floor sticky with what Gosheven hopes is just spilled beer. The ceiling is falling in, and buckets have been placed in strategic locations to deal with the rain. It smells of mildew, jasmine, and the sort of aftershave someone might mistake for dettol, and features a near-antique jukebox loaded with actual 45s of 80's hair metal.
The place is full of sex tourists from all over Europe and North America, most of whom look like the sort of unlovely, poorly-dressed human wreckage that troll dark sites for underage tail. But so far the barang seem satisfied to get action from the skinny, overly-painted bar girls, or spend time and extra money betting on the older, "retired" workers and their miraculously agile vaginal muscles.
It's also full of local gangsters and hoodlums, all sporting guns and knives and less recognizable weapons. It's clear they're up to something illegal, but they keep to their end of the bar -- far from the bar, and its winsome attractions -- and scowl at the punters as they come in, as if they're wondering what they're doing here.
In other words, it seemed as bad as they were going to find, at least tonight. But, as the place's clearly-homicidal security have made it clear that such wares are not for sale on the premises, it's turning out to be just another dead end.
"You look lost, my bejeweled friend," someone tells Gosheven as he comes up to the bar, squeezed between that balding, wild-haired man and a gaggle of rake-thin bar girls with too much makeup and hairspray. The fellow looks like Gary Glitter without the makeup, hair, and diamond rings, and seems to be on his tenth beer in as many hours.
"Yeah," Gosheven says, sighing: "I've been going all night and this is just... not what I was looking for."
"Well, I can't imagine how that could be true," the laconic fellow says with a snakelike wink, his accent somewhere between BBC and the west end of London: "This place has it all, if you know where to look, or whom to talk to."
"Well, I was told... well... maybe it doesn't matter."
"Oh, please," the man says, winking and tapping his pinky ring: "You can tell Shirley. The ladies aren't your thing, either?"
"I just saw what they did to the last guy," Gosheven says, whispering now and shooting a furtive look at the thugs at the head of the staircase, their pipes still dripping with bits of their last victim: "I don't want to have a similar experience."
"Oh," the man says, looking askance and then offering Gosheven a cigarette: "Keep your voice down. They know all the codes."
"Are you on the level?"
"I am the level, my dear," the man says: "Not that I partake in anything too sweet, usually. But every so often it helps clear the palate."
Sweet: Randolph hears that over his headphones and smirks, grimly. They're finally onto something.
"So what am I doing wrong?"
"Oh, my dear, you're looking for it in a bar," the man says: "Especially one that's frequented by the local criminal element. Not that they don't partake, either, from what I hear. But they don't need the extra heat."
"I can imagine," Gosheven says, looking back at one of the closer tables. It's all but obvious there's a multi-million dollar dope deal going down, back there, and no one seems to give a !@#$.
"Indeed. The city's police are happy to leave them to their underground economy, you see. Most of them are on the take and the rest know to keep their mouths shut. But that's adults being adults. What's one dead junkie or gun-runner, more or less?
"Now, children, on the other hand?" he continues: "That brings in foreign scrutiny and NGOs and international pressure, which brings in the government to clear things out. And that is so terribly bad for business. I'm sure you can understand."
"I can indeed," the shapeshifter says: "So if I was looking to clear my palate?"
"Well, you'd leave this bar as soon as I finished speaking to you," the man says, looking a bit more sinister all of a sudden: "And I'd go home, change my clothes. Maybe invest in something that looks less like tourism and more like business, if you take my meaning. I'd get a lot more money than you might think you would need.
"And then I would go to..."
"... our orphanage," the large Cambodian fellow in the business suit says, leading the tall, tanned, and thin-mustached barang down a long, mildly-clean concrete hallway that's open to the rainy street beyond.
"Of course," Gosheven says, glad he dressed just nice enough to look respectable, but not so well as to look like he's here to do business -- even eschewing a briefcase for a small backpack: "I've heard a lot of good things."
"I am glad to hear you have heard good things," the man says, all but skittering along to their office: "Now, please, in here."
The shape-shifter smiles, but can't help but look into a room along the way, catching a glimpse through a screened door. There's a dozen children in there, sitting on a long runner across the way. They're anywhere from eight to twelve -- all dressed fairly nicely and in good health -- and they're all looking down at the floor, with dull and sad looks on their faces.
The screen door is locked on the outside, he sees. He's not surprised. And there are many more, up and down the hall...
"So, I hear you recommended," the man says as they enter the room. There's another fellow in there -- whip-thin but muscled, wearing a wife-beater and cargo shorts, his face sporting a wiry little chin-beard. He stands as soon as they enter, and goes outside as soon as they close the solid door.
"He's right outside," Gosheven hears Randolph say, over his subdermal communicator: "Arms crossed. And he's packing."
"So, who's your business partner?" Gosheven asks, gesturing with his head to the door behind him as he takes off his backpack and sits in front of the man's desk. It's big and officious, but is bare of anything -- not even a single piece of paperwork. A poster on the wall behind him exhorts children to study hard for the future -- looks like its about to collapse under the weight of its own age.
"Oh, Leap? He in charge of discipline," the man says, grinning as he opens the desk and gets out a bottle of something small and local, and two surprisingly-clean glasses: "I just handle business."
"Of course," Gosheven chuckles, twirling his curled and oiled mustache: "So, straight to business. I was told you have some excellently sweet things, here."
"I do, indeed," the man says, pouring: "And if Shirley vouch for you? Well, that all that needs to be said, provided you brought... uh, money?"
"Small bills," the shapeshifter says: "Thai. Easy to change."
"Ha ha!" the man laughs, capping the bottle and putting it on the table: "A professional. So happy."
"So," Gosheven says: "Shirley said that, in addition to having excellent taste, you also are very well-connected with this business."
"Well, of course," the man says, handing over a glass and indicating that his guest should drink first: "We all know each other-"
"In addition to my own needs, I'm looking for someone for someone else."
"Oh?" the man asks, trying not to let his sudden suspicion show too much.
"My friend, he's a... special man," the shapeshifter says, taking an appreciative whiff of the very strong cognac: "And he's looking for a certain person who's running something... special."
"There many special men in Phnom Penh, sir."
"I know. But this man is very distinctive. Very dangerous."
"There also many dangerous men in Phnom Penh," the man says, his face starting to fall.
"This man would be very dangerous," Gosheven pushes, putting the still-full glass on the desk: "The sort of man who scares police who have seen it all. Makes soldiers cry like children. He kills without hesitation, for any reason. When you're near him, it's like things are wrong. All the light fades. There are strange noises-"
"Maybe you really need drink, sir," the man says, patting it.
"Here, I have a visual aid," the shapeshifter smiles, reaching into his backpack and pulling out something. It's a bubblegum card, maybe from the 70's: SPYGOD AND FRIENDS shouts the back in big, puffy cartoon lettering.
And on the front is a facial shot of SPYGOD, grinning like a mother!@#$er and chomping on a cigarette.
"Like that, only worse," Gosheven says, patting it and shoving it over: "Maybe he has different hair, now. Maybe he doesn't use an eyepatch. But-"
The man behind the desk goes from being all smiles to suddenly looking very ashen: "You mean the Reahu."
"A very bad man," he says: "Also, very intriguing. He have many things to say. Interesting things."
"I need to meet him," Gosheven says, padding the backpack to indicate there's more money involved than just for a 'temporary adoption': "Can you arrange it?"
"He not here," the man says, his eyes becoming stone: "He elsewhere. Another place."
"!@#$," Randolph mutters from his position.
"But he comes here, sometimes, or you wouldn't be so scared of him," the shapeshifter insists: "Would you?"
"He come sometimes," the man says, nodding: "Give seminars. Demonstrations."
"We drink, you pay me," the man insists, patting the glass again: "Then, I tell you."
"I think you'll just tell me," Gosheven says, standing up and glaring down: "Because if you think I'm stupid enough to chug something with roofies in it, you're talking to the wrong businessman, honey."
"Leap! Chuoy khnhom phng!" the man shouts, stumbling out of his chair and backing away from the desk: "Barang nih chea bau li-"
The door crashes open, but it's not the guard who does it. Instead, it's Randolph Scott -- dressed in a black hoodie that's sodden with rain. He's pushing Leap backwards by the throat with one hand, and shoving a very large gun into his mouth with the other.
"I thought you were just going to stun him?" Gosheven sighs, closing the door behind his partner.
"And leave him lying out there, visible from the street?"
"Oh, good point," the shapeshifter groans as Leap half-chokes on the gun: "Why didn't I think of that?"
"Who you?" the man behind the desk demands: "You know how much trouble you in now?"
"All the trouble in the world," Randolph grins, quickly whipping off his hoodie so the man can get a better look at him: "And you, my friend, are tonight's story."
"Oh no," the orphanage director gasps, dropping to his knees behind the desk: "You that bull!@#$ man-"
"Yes I am. You saw the bit I did on Tokyo's underage rings, huh?"
"I give you money, eh?" the man begs: "I give you anything. Just-"
"Let's get this straight, mother!@#$er," Randolph says, pulling his gun out of the wiry man's mouth and clocking him across the face with it, knocking him out and down: "This isn't an orphanage, it's a whorehouse for chicken hawks. And you're the scumbag who runs it right under the police's nose, which must take some doing."
"I say nothing," the man says, shaking his head: "You prove nothing."
"Oh, I think a medical examination of your kids here will prove everything, as soon as I get hold of Cambodia ACTs," the outlaw reporter grins, pointing his gun at the man: "But whether you're here to get nailed with your hired help is up to us to decide."
"What?" the man says, blinking: "You shoot me?"
"I think he should," Gosheven snorts, crossing his arms: "In addition to what you've been doing, ruining a perfectly good cognac with knock out drugs is a crime against taste."
"Me, I'm willing to cut you a little break," Randoph says, sitting down in the chair and pulling out a handheld camera: "So here's the deal. You talk off the record about the man we're looking for, and how and where we can find him. Then you talk on the record about what you've been doing here, and who really runs this place, and how you keep the police from finding out about it.
"If I like what I hear? I give you 24 hours headstart before I file this report, along with all this money."
"Might be able to get over the border and vanish, if you're smart enough," Gosheven chuckles.
"But if I don't like it..." Randolph grins: "Well, it goes out right away, and I make you drink the whole damn bottle before we leave, just so you'll be good and cooperative when the authorities arrive."
He raises and eyebrow and gestures between the glass and the camera. The man starts to sob.
Gosheven tries not to smile, knowing what's really going to happen when they're done...
* * *
.. yelling at him over their communicator, after the latest news from North Korea.
"I thought you had it settled, Gosheven," Josie says: "I thought the other Generals were going to back down?"
"Look, this reactor's been in the works for a while, now," the shapeshifter sighs -- currently disguised as a bust of the late, latest Kim in the room where all the Generals go to talk business over black market American whiskey: "And when they do something like this, they have to make some kind of statement."
"A renewed threat of war is a statement?"
"It's a big peter-pull is all it is, ma'am," Gosheven tries to reassure her: "Trust me, I've got this under control-"
"South Korea's up in our faces, now, Agent," New Man scolds him: "And I think they want a better explanation. Maybe one that doesn't involve the phrase 'peter-pull.'"
"Look... get Agent Chen on the line, sir," the shapeshifter insists: "The Asian Desk can confirm this with me. The-"
"Chen's dealing with South Korean intelligence, right now, as we speak," Josie cuts in: "And he looks like he's about to !@#$ himself. I think you need to phone a different friend, there, Agent."
"I think you need to get control of the situation," New Man adds: "Like you did in Reykjavik yesterday. That was nice work, soldier."
"Oh, thank you sir," Gosheven says: "I try. I'll file a report when I get a moment, sir?"
"Sure thing," New Man replies, looking over at Josie from across the crowded Bridge of the Flier, who raises an eyebrow at the mention of where Gosheven is not operating, right now: "You get that to me as soon as you can."
The second he disconnects he mutters something he'd rather people not hear, and Josie walks over to him: "I hate to say I told you, so, sir."
"Well, don't feel you have to, but you did," the COMPANY Director says: "I should have known better. I was fused with him for long enough. You'd think I'd remember how his brain works."
"Well, I know it's something you don't care to talk about, sir. So I figure it's also something you don't like to think about, either."
"Too true," he says, tapping a nearby surface: "Get me someone on his ass as of yesterday. I need to know where he's operating. And then I'm going to need options on going forward when we take him out of the field."
"That's going to be a challenge, sir," she says, wondering how many people they have available who can even hope to fill his shoes in some of those places: "Especially with who we've got looking for Myron."
"Don't remind me."
"And, on top of that, simply finding a shapeshifter is going to be interesting."
"Can't be any worse than finding our friend from Alter-Earth," New Man says, looking at his pad and all the reports coming in on that: "We've got it narrowed down to Asia, but that's a large area-"
"You know, it occurs to me that if we find Randolph Scott, then we'll find Gosheven," she offers.
"And when we find him, I'll bet we'll find that other bastard," he smiles, wondering why the !@#$ he didn't think of that before.
"Should we split off some of our Agents and have them concentrate on finding Scott, then, sir?"
"Yes. And I think I know just who to talk to about that..." New Man says, calling up a certain personnel file on his pad...
* * *
"...ah, here we are," Number Two says, looking at the picture up on the viewscreen in his circular control room, surrounded by a number of seated people in black pinstripe suits, all wearing bowler hats and monocles.
All of them watching the walls and typing things down onto data pads, as if they could see something important there.
"Myron Volaar," the only man in brown says, looking at a series of images of the man: "Would-be supervillain. Buys the Underman franchise from the now-defunct Left-Handed Legion for a substantial sum of money. Plots some rather unspectacular bank jobs in order to pay them back. Is caught right away, taken to the Heptagon for holding and questioning. The next thing you know, he's working for the COMPANY as one of their pet villains..."
He stops speaking, then, as though he can hear something.
He nods a second later: "Quite right, sir. He does prove himself rather an excellent addition to their ranks. He develops weapons against the Imago, survives captivity in their hands, and goes on to find the way to stop them from enacting their doomsday scenario at the end.
"And now, this latest business with the Decreator, aboard the Egress? He rather saved the world, I should think."
Another silence, and then more nodding: "And yes, sir, you are quite right. He's quite a formidable customer. He is perhaps the only person to survive an attempt at conversion by one of the False Faces. In fact, he does it several times before they just give up.
"He also actually caught a glimpse of that damned space monster as it was bearing down on him, and survived to talk about that as well.
"And as for our own methods thus far..."
Yet another silence, and then a look of consternation: "Well, to be frank, sir, as you well know, we run everyone through the medical procedure at some point during their induction. It helps to separate the weaker minds from the more resistant. Some people can't wait to spill what they know, after a night of that. For all we knew, it might have had some effect."
More silence. A stiff upper lip, and a nod: "Very well, sir. No more of that, then. We will confine ourselves to less pharmacological methods of convincing him that his cooperation is very much in his own interest.
"Yes, sir. Very good, sir."
He nods, then, and his face falls some more: "Damn," he mutters, as low as he can, and walks over to one of the seated ladies, her hair cut in a short, black bob: "Our new arrival. How's he getting on, Number 63?"
"Let me see, sir," she says, putting her hand before her monocle and tapping her fingers in the air, as though she were typing on an invisible keyboard: "Ah, there we are. He's still in medical, coming down from the induction. He apparently screamed himself quite hoarse."
"Did it have any effect?"
"It's too soon to tell," she says, using her monocle to observe Myron as he lies in his bed -- eyes carefully studying every inch of the room: "And he's in too bad shape to talk just yet. But if you'll allow me a non-medical, non-psychological opinion?"
"By all means," Number Two says, leaning in to her ear.
"Look at his eyes," she says, opening a channel so he can watch on his own monocle: "They're alert. Sharp. He's in pain but he's fighting through it."
"So you think he's still resisting?"
"I think if he wasn't on the paralyzing agent he'd have left, already, sir," she replies.
"Very well," he says: "Straight from the top, 63. We are to change our strategy with him. You are to observe only him from here on out, and I want hourly progress reports, rather than daily."
"Very good, sir," she smirks: "Anything else?"
"Yes. I want the Chess Master, the Card Reader, and Queenie in my office for tea immediately," he says, turning to leave -- theatrically throwing his cane ahead of him with every other step: "Tell them we'll be working late."
"Shall I inform the Hook or the Crook, sir?" she asks -- perhaps innocently, perhaps not.
He stops and, looking back at her, shakes his head: "I think we mustn't let it come to that, my dear. This is one acquisition we cannot afford to lose to their... rather severe philosophies."
If she's disappointed, she makes no sign of it. She just goes back to observing the man as he lies there -- no doubt plotting his escape.
Or at least dreaming of freedom...
* * *
... and a release of obligation.
The Wandering Shadow kneels in the room he's taken, staring at the wall so intently that his large eyes seem ready to burst. He's nude and sweating, the room's heat cranked up past the point of tolerance.
And in that heat, he sees the past -- clear as day.
He sees SPYGOD as he beheld him all those years ago, breaking into a secret installation no Westerner should know about, in order to see the Object.
He sees SPYGOD approach him for aid during the so-called Reclamation War, and him allowing it.
He sees SPYGOD's people approach him for another treasure, in order to gain intelligence on the monster that was coming from space to kill them all.
And then he sees the last time he spoke with SPYGOD some time later -- as he made ready to face that monster -- and him all but telling him to take his demand for payment and shove it up his kitako.
That wasn't just an insult. It was a negation of necessary resources, and one that cost him very dearly.
One that cost others even more dearly.
One that cost others even more dearly.
The insult will be avenged. The lack of payment will be avenged. Their sorry fates will be avenged.
And SPYGOD will know, just before he breathes his last, that it was his own damn fault.
That resolved, the Wandering Shadow allows himself to close his eyes once more, and walk amongst his dreams. There, in the coils of his mind, he has constructed the entire hospital, top to bottom. There, he has peopled it with everyone there -- patients, staff, and visitors.
There, he has assembled the plan to kill a man who does not know he is already dead.
It's all there, in his dream. But he goes over and over and over that dream, just to make sure it's correct...
"Shhhhh..." someone is saying to Red Queen, waking her from slumber.
She feels wet. She's not sure why.
She's also not sure about her position. Her muscles seem stretched the wrong way around.
(Too slack in some places, too tight in others.)
She can't see, and she knows why. She can't speak, either, and she knows why.
She can only breathe slowly, through her nose, and hope she doesn't overreact and make herself black out, again.
"That's good, honey," the voice says, whispering in her ear. Kissing her inner thigh. Then her shoulder.
(Why are they they so close together? What's going on...)
"Shhhhh," the President's daughter whispers: "Don't panic, honey. It's okay. You're just waking up. Breathe shallow. Breathe slow. That's it."
She does as she's commanded, for now.
(Why is her thigh next to her shoulder. Why. Why?)
"Now, I left you sleep all of yesterday, but we've got some more work to do," the girl says, all too chirpy and cheerful: "Going to be a long day. But I want my gift to my lover to be ready when he gets back from his trip."
(Clinking and clattering. Steel and glass. Surgical instruments.)
"So," the girl says, poking Red Queen in the neck (or arm, or leg) with a long needle: "You need to sleep some more, honey. But when you wake up....?
"Oh, you're going to be sooooo beautiful."
She tries to scream, but there is no mouth. And then the drug kicks in.
And then there is darkness...
* * *
... followed by light -- pulsing and purple.
The Warbot stumbles to its feet, initially unsure of its footing. It raises its hands to its face. Turns them this way and that.
Changes the articulated fingers into sharp, long, and solid claws, and back again.
Two more Warbots walk towards it, helping it up and inspecting it at the same time. They must find its condition acceptable, for they command it to go forward in the line, and then attend to the newer Warbot that's just now tumbling out of the same machine.
It looks around the great silo it stands within, along with so many other beings just like itself -- spiraled around the massive, industrial-looking machine that created it, marching ever forward and outward to the edge of the cylindrical room.
At some point, it is given new machines by series of other Warbots. Two miniguns within its chest. Railguns along its upper arms. Missile banks along the back like hazardous vertebrae.
It is instructed to select multiple ranged targets while engaging in deadly fisticuffs, and passes the test. It is ordered to engage extra, hidden spikes and cutting implements all along the course of its body, and succeeds.
And then, at the very edge of the spiral, a paint-press is held up to the naked spot in the center of its chest, and a single mark made upon it: I.
A duly-graduated member of Warbot Generation 1, the unit strides forth proudly before its creator, up on the dais in the next room. The purple glow comes from him as he sits, so apparently astounded by his works that he cannot get up to salute them.
No matter, for he has many others to do this small task on his behalf. He is surrounded by a number of similar beings, all wearing white, long, and puffy coats -- their high collars coming up to high-tech glasses with long, purple horns attached.
As one, they join hands around the creator, and begin to proclaim the Hymn of the Metal Plague -- its cadence that of marching, steel feet across the floor of an abandoned Soviet weapons silo.
And then out into the world beyond...
* * *
"Here you are, sir," a tall, white-clad nurse says to Myron, gesturing to the doors of the hospital: "If you'll just step through there, you'll get a car to your place soon enough."
"My place," Myron says, brushing the wet from his hair -- still unsteady on his feet, and not sure that the off-white uniform pants and shirt they gave him fits him right: "I have a place?"
"Is there a reason why you wouldn't have a place?"
"Does it say Number 6 on it?"
The nurse just smiles, and then makes the Vitarka Mudra with his right hand by his right hand: "Be seeing you," he says, and then turns to go.
"!@#$ you, too," Myron growls, still too hoarse to shout, and then walks out, looking around. Sure enough, there are a number of buggies parked there, one of which has someone in it that seems intent on getting his attention.
"Sir, I can take you to your place," the lady behind the wheel offers. She's got Indian features and a London accent. She's also wearing black pinstripes and a bowler hat, along with a monocle.
"How about you just take me home?" he says, leaning into the buggy.
"Isn't this is your home, now, sir?"
"That's what you think," he says. But then he realizes just how far the rest of the village is from here -- it never seemed that far on TV -- and sighs, knowing a walk to town from here would require him to go back to the hospital.
"Alright," he says, getting in (on the left side, obviously) and putting one hand on the bar: "Let's go home."
She smiles and drives him away, taking him down the winding, weird streets that cut between the colorful, Italianate buildings.
"So what's your number?" he asks, noticing she doesn't have a button, like he was expecting.
"Don't you know?" she asks.
"If I did, would I ask?"
"Are you trying to make conversation?"
"If I was trying to make conversation, I'd ask you where we were."
"And you already know that," she says, winking at him: "So you're not trying to make conversation."
"What's my number?" he asks, to which she just smiles and says nothing.
"Okay," he says as they make a fast turn around a corner: "When I first woke up here, Number Two told me that they answer questions with more questions. So if I ask you a question, you have to ask me a question. And if I make a statement, you make a statement.
"So how are you on commands?"
"How are you?" she shoots right back, looking up ahead.
He snorts, all too aware that he walked right into that one, and then looks at her: "Tell me my number, please."
"Explain to me why you can't, please."
"Why do you think?"
"I think you're trying to exasperate me."
"It appears to be working."
He smiles: "Do you really think so?"
She says nothing to that, and then she comes to a full stop: "Here you are. New resident apartments."
He looks up at the building. It's not one of the private bungalows, but rather something larger, with many more windows.
"We're not where I woke up."
"No, you're not," she answers, suddenly rather curt in tone.
"And you won't tell me why."
"Then please tell me how many people I'll be here with," he commands as he gets out of the buggy.
"No," she repeats herself, just a little more sternly, and drives away very quickly.
"Be seeing you!" he says, making the gesture at her, only with his middle finger sticking up.
"Well now, my friend, that will not do," someone tells him from one of the windows up high. It's an older, somewhat beefy man, wearing the same sort of clothing that Myron is.
"You must be polite to these people," he explains, his accent an ebullient Russian: "They are quite vindictive, and they love their little games."
"I'm getting that," he says: "How many of us are there?"
"Just five, now, besides yourself," the man says: "And it's no use asking me for identification. We do not have any numbers. Not yet."
"What's your name?"
"I cannot say," he says, looking around: "And you must not ask. Ever. They get very cross about that."
"We were six before," he says, arching an eyebrow: "And it might go back to five if you do not get out of the street."
"Fair enough," Myron says, smiling and heading for the door. It opens automatically with a strange, mechanical noise.
And then he's in, and yet out...
"... now, see, that wasn't too bad," Gosheven says, patting their new best friend on the cheek with a grimy, !@#$-smeared hand as the gagged and bound gangster gasps, still in shock at what the shapeshifter just did.
"Okay, that took way too long," Randolph says shivering a little.
"He makes his money off a dummy orphanage that caters to pedophiles," the shapeshifter says, going to the room's sink to wash up: "I figured it was time he found out what it felt like when tab P was way too big for slot A."
"Yeah, but he's going to be !@#$ing blood on the bed."
"Oh well," Gosheven says, scrubbing all the way up to his elbow: "On the plus side, I can save him some money on a prostate exam and a colonoscopy. You're just fine, honey."
Leap doesn't really have an answer for that, but Randolph pulls the gag out of his mouth and looks down at him. Then he looks after at the man who was running the orphanage, who's been sitting and watching this entire thing -- also bound and gagged on a chair.
"He'll be fine," Randolph says, removing his gag, in turn: "But it'll take him a whole day to !@#$ out the bomb we put in his guts. If he cooperates, we'll let him go free. Then he can come back here and let you go. But if he doesn't behave at this demonstration, tomorrow, we blow him up.
"And by the time you bust out of that chair, your exclusive interview will be out on the air, and you won't be able to get out of town without being made."
"I understand," the man says, openly weeping: "Please, sir. Please just let me go. Let me tell him cooperate and then just let me go-"
"Hey!" Randolph all but screams in the man's face: "No !@#$ing crying! You made a lot of money off of something most civilized people still want to !@#$ing kill people with their bare hands for doing! The only reason I'm letting you go at all is because we had a damn deal, and I stand by my word.
"But you get no sympathy from me, !@#$er," he says, poking a finger in the man's face: "None. At. All."
"Are you done?" Gosheven says, coming back into the room: "Because I think we need to put in an appearance at the orphanage, tonight. Someone might get suspicious if the headmaster's gone and the kids are happy."
"Yeah," Randolph says: "I told my contact to give us a couple days before moving in."
"He okay with that?"
"He understands. Me, I feel pretty bad leaving those kids there any longer than necessary."
"Look," Gosheven says, putting a hand on his ally's shoulder: "We've done a good thing, here. We got this guy, and he's going to give you a story that'll rip the !@#$ out of this sick trade throughout the capitol, maybe a lot further.
"And tomorrow? We're going to go find this !@#$er we've been tracking, and not only save our friend, but bust open the whole case on the organ trade. This is a whole flock of birds dead with one stone, my friend. This is huge."
"I know," Randolph says, silently glad Gosheven used his other hand to shove their deterrent up Leap's intestines: "But seeing those kids. The look in their eyes every time we go up and down the hall, like they're wondering if they're going to be sold to someone that night, or for longer..."
"A couple more days, and then they're safe," the shapeshifter says, putting both hands on Scott's face: "Just hang on, okay?"
He looks at him, then. Scott looks back. There's something that passes between them, but Scott looks away and steps back: "Yeah, let's do that. Yeah."
Gosheven sighs and turns to the orphanage's owner. A second later he becomes him, and points a stubby finger in the man's horrified face: "You tell him what he needs to know. Then we gagging you both and going to get some dinner, and looking after the place for the night.
"But one little peep out of either of you? And I come back and fix it so that you have to !@#$ing drag your ass out of town with hands and elbows. Got it?"
The look on the man's face is worth it all.
* * *
"Hey," Mr. USA says, smiling wide as Shining Guardsman looks up at him from his hospital bed.
"Hey yourself," the kid says, taking a deep breath, or at least trying: "Ouch. I feel like..."
"Like someone hit me all over with a big damn sack of hammers," he says, trying to get to his elbows: "Ouch."
"Yeah, let's not strain things," the older hero says, holding up a hand: "I probably should get the nurse, but..."
"Yeah, not just yet," the younger hero says, looking down at his chest, and the new bands of armor that surround it: "The armor brought me through?"
"It did, yes," Mr. USA nods, getting up to get a bottle of water, which Shining Guardsman gratefully accepts: "Easy, now. You haven't had any solid food in-"
"Nineteen days, eight hours, four minutes," he says, taking a little sip, and then another after relishing how good that was: "And I am thirsty as hell."
"So, how much longer you think you'll need to be out of action?"
"Oh, probably just another day or two, just to be sure," he says, patting the armor bands over his chest: "If it was just some minor damage it could have healed me on the go. But that sort of mess? I really just needed to go down."
"What was it like?" Mr. USA asks: "Did you... I don't know, dream?"
"At first, yes," the kid smiles, leaning back down: "And then I was just sub-conscious. I knew what was going on around me, but I was too tired to come back and react to it. Sometimes you just have to let the body heal, right?"
"Totally," the older hero smiles, wishing he could do the same.
"Speaking of which," Shining Guardsman says: "Thank you for reading Ready Player One to me, you and Blastman."
"Oh, you're welcome-"
"You skipped a page by accident," he chuckles: "But that's okay. I went back and got it when you were in the bathroom."
"Are you kidding," the kid says, tapping his head: "I've got a whole library of books, music, and movies up here. I've also been keeping up to date on the news, as well as whatever COMPANY emails I should have been reading. If anything, this was a nice chance to catch up on some stuff."
"Well, don't count on it happening too often," Mr. USA says, sighing: "We've got a real problem, now. Those robots that knocked you down? We think they're evolving."
"You mean you just now figured that out?" Shining Guardsman says, closing his eyes: "Man, wake me up when something exciting happens. It's like you're all playing the first Super Mario Kart and I'm on 8.1-"
"Well duh, they didn't have surface to air missiles the last time," he says, his eyes still closed: "Just that crappy zeppelin."
"Yeah," Mr. USA says, thinking about that: "Something they haven't used since, come to think of it."
"Too trackable," Shining Guardsman says: "Also too obvious, as well as too slow. They snuck them into Mexicali, right under our radar. Same with Tianjin. And I bet the next time it'll be something similar..."
He sits up, just then. "What?" Mr USA asks.
"Unless they're wanting you to look for the zeppelins," the younger hero says: "And when you're off dealing with them, they'll use that as a distraction, or a trap. Maybe both."
Mr. USA looks at him, nods, and gets on his communicator. But the kid's already closed his eyes and started going into the detection grids, starting from where the Metal Plague was last seen, in Northeastern China, and going out from there.
Which leads him to...
* * *
... the sight of three large, strangely-shaped zeppelins, flying in a line over the hills and valleys of southeastern Buryat, heading into the northeasternmost parts of China.
They lurk at a careful pace -- going really no faster than the wind. They appear to be going through a low-hanging cloudbank going at a weird direction, compared to what they're doing above.
Inside each is an army of Warbots, all collapsed into one another so as to put the most soldiers into the least space. They form a near-solid mass from stem to stern, awaiting the signal to unfold and attack.
At at the cockpit of each is a man in a white coat -- collar up to their noses, with high-tech glasses scanning the way ahead, and purple horns nearly scraping the ceiling. Pulses of poisonous violet light travel from their hands into complicated machines in the room, acting to both steer and power the machines they control.
After a time, the lead one begins a slow and careful turn to the south. The others follow suit.
And as one, in a gentle and slow line, they begin to make their way over the caustic, radioactive ruins of Xin Lin, and then further south. Heading for the border that China shares with the last truly Stalinist state on the planet.
"Oh, you gotta be !@#$ing kidding me," Blastman says, looking at the main screen on the Flier's bridge as a satellite zooms in on the line.
"No joke, my friend," Chinmoku intones: "Already China blames Russia, North Korea blames China..."
"And South Korea is begging us for help," New Man says, looking down at the Freedom Force -- back together again for the first time in almost a full month, now that Shining Guardsman has finally hauled his ass out of bed.
"I do not like this," Hanami says, looking at the image: "It's too obvious. As Shining Guardsman pointed out, this is most likely a trap."
"Can we take that chance, though?" Mr. USA asks: "What if it's not? What if they get to North Korea, or wherever they're going, and do something disastrous?"
"Don't we have any big !@#$ing guns that can just take them down?" Yanabah asks, making a gun with her forefinger and thumb and going 'bang': "!@#$ in orbit or whatever?"
"Not anymore," Josie sighs: "And if we did, China would get antsy about our having them over their soil."
"Hasn't China tried anything?" Red Wrecker asks: "It's their airspace, after all."
"They tried," New Man answers: "They sent some jet fighters up to check them out, but they lost contact with them when they got within half a click. They reported seeing a purple light and then... well, I think we can guess what happened."
"By the time we all got there, they'll be in North Korea," Hanami says: "I can get there a lot faster, but I don't want to be rushing into a trap. Especially if the result is a war."
"It isn't a trap," Mister Freedom says, looking at the pattern: "It's a puzzle. But it's one with no right answer. Any attempt to solve it leads to death."
"The lady or the tiger?" Josie asks.
"Exactly," Mr. USA says: "They want to see what we'll do."
"And then !@#$ us either way," Yanabah says: "Well, hell with that."
"I agree," Hanami says: "If it's disaster either way..."
"We can't just do nothing," New Man insists: "South Korea says-"
"I really do not give a damn about them, sir," Hanami replies, giving him a rather stern look: "Every time North Korea makes frightening noises they come whining to us. It's time they stood on their own."
There's silence, then. Someone coughs, but no one is sure who. That just seems so unlike her, and yet not.
"The real puzzle is before us," Mister Freedom pronounces: "And within us. Can we solve it before the time runs out?"
"Oh great," Yanabah sighs: "Do we get a fortune cookie with that !@#$?"
"We do not need one," Chinmoku says, nodding: "He is very correct."
"So what are we supposed to do," Josie asks: "We need a plan, and we're running out of time, here-"
"Not we," the newly-reborn Supergod says, gesturing to where New Man is standing: "With respect, New Man, the puzzle is yours to solve, with your own hand."
The older hero blinks, looking down art them, and then at the viewscreen as the motion capture from when the Chinese jets attacked them -- purple lightning arcing out and striking the airplanes as they rush on by.
He thinks of his son, possibly involved with all this. He thinks of the torture it's been to confront it on his own, and yet to deny it to others.
And he realizes it's way past time he stopped avoiding it and acted like a man -- maybe even a father.
"I'll be a son of a !@#$," the Director says, nodding and heading down to the floor: "Josie, you have the con."
"Sir?" the large clone asks.
"Hanami, fly me the hell to China," New Man orders: "Let's see if these sons of !@#$es can take what they dish out..."
* * *
"So, let's talk about the elephant in the room" Myron asks the five other new residents as they sit around their dining table in the communal area.
"Why are we here?" the large woman with the Swedish accent asks.
"No," Myron asks, looking around: "We know why we're here, even if we can't talk about it, any more than we can say our real names or where we're from. Not without... well..."
They all look over at the large television on the other end of the room. They may not be watching it, but it is clearly watching them.
And listening, always...
"Suffice it to say that we all either saw or did the wrong thing, or maybe the right thing. But we're too valuable to just kill, or stripmine our brains for information. And now they want us to cough up all we know, and then work for them in some capacity."
"Or at least stay here, quietly and out of trouble, for the rest of our days," the Russian fellow says, looking down at his hands on the table: "The rest home is quite impressive, and very depressing."
"No, what I'm saying is... well, you all watched The Prisoner on TV, right? So is this not The Village?"
"It is, yes," the skinny, Arab boy says, his beard long and unruly: "I used to get it all the time in Jordan."
"So, you are saying the show is real?" the Russian fellow asks: "Or that they have based this reality upon the show?"
"Well, there's differences," the butchy Japanese woman says, running a hand through her buzz cut: "No one's got their number on their shirts. And I haven't seen one of those !@#$ing crazy bicycles anywhere."
"Penny Farthings," the older black lady says, her voice a Louisiana syrup: "My gran'ma had one, back in the day. Made a stir in... well, in our town."
"Yes," Myron says, looking around: "But it's the same in a lot of aspects. The whole emphasis on information. The depersonalization. The weird games."
"Those damned balls," the Arab boy shudders, remembering the time he got taken away by one.
"But we know who's doing this," the Russian man says: "That strange group from England. BOWLER, I think they are called. The hats, the suits, the eyepieces... what are they called."
"Monocles," the older lady smiles: "Always liked those. Bit old fashioned."
"I don't know much about BOWLER," Myron admits: "I was... well, they formed while I was away, let's say. And then when I got back I needed to go and find myself, and the people I worked with never really caught me up on them."
"Britain's Strategic Talents organization," the Arab boy says: "Not sure what the acronym means, or if it's even one. They came out of MI-10 after the Reclamation War, but some people say they were there all along, and just handled the weirder stuff."
"Well, this is damned weird," the woman with the Swedish accent says: "Very weird. And wrong."
"So how do we get numbers?" Myron asks after a minute's silence, looking around: "How do we get clothes? Leave this place?"
"No one has said," the Japanese woman says: "But I have the feeling it's going to be something nasty."
"I agree," the Russian man says, leaning back in his chair.
"There's more to it than that," Myron says, looking out the window and up at the stars, seen through a clear sky now that the village's curfew is on, and the lights have mostly gone out: "Something is seriously wrong about this place."
"What was your first clue?" the Japanese lady chuckles: "I haven't seen so many pinstripe suits outside of a lesbian bar."
"Not that," Myron replies: "I can't quite put my finger on it, or why I know it. But I know what's wrong with this picture. It's something I should know, but I just can't remember."
No one has anything to say to that.
* * *
"We... we are not talking about what we just saw."
"No. We are not."
The two men are sitting in the hovel they rented out, shivering in spite of the heat and passing a bottle of cognac back and forth. It's cheap as !@#$ -- and potent as rocket fuel -- but they glug it down like milk.
"Jesus," Gosheven says, wondering if he needs to be sick again: "Jesus !@#$ing Christ. I mean... wow. Wow."
"I thought I knew from sick," the outlaw reporter says, ashen: "I knew nothing."
More silence, interrupted by whining coming from behind the closed bathroom door. If they weren't so utterly !@#$ed up, right now, by the "demonstration" they witnessed, they might tell their two "guests" to shut the hell up.
But they don't have the stomach for it, right now. Not at all.
They'd met the SPYGOD of Alter-Earth at an upscale hotel, downtown -- the sort of place that looked rather out of step with its surroundings. The entire top floor had been reserved, and the place was crawling with underworld types and their guards. Gangsters, arms dealers, pornographers, flesh merchants, and other assorted scum were in attendance, all of them toting along at least one bodyguard.
No one questioned Gosheven or Leap. The disguise was perfect, and apparently the orphanage director was so quiet and unloved that no one went out of their way to strike up a conversation. And Leap played his part extremely well, no doubt highly-motivated by the small bomb slowly moving through the hurdles of his intestines.
(Randoph, for his part, was on a nearby roof -- unable to get line of sight on the inner conference room, but able to pick up signals from the micro-cameras and audio traces they'd decked Leap with.)
No one was sure what the Reahu was going to talk about, or do. People whispered about things he'd done and shown in the past, and anticipation built upon itself. Would it be a practical demonstration of interrogation? A primer on how to turn someone from enemy to slave? Or how to scare anyone into doing anything with just a few words...?
And then, at long last, he was there before them. The lights in the place dimmed just a little, and there he was, as though he'd been standing there all along.
And what he'd said. What he'd proposed.
What he'd done...
"You going to call the group?" Gosheven finally asks: "About the orphanage?"
"Yeah," Randolph says: "And I think I need to... maybe edit the report before sending it to Velma. I sort of lost my cool a couple times."
"Yeah," the shapeshifter agrees: "I don't think I've heard the word '!@#$' used that much outside of a porn film."
The outlaw reporter gets up to do just that, and Gosheven looks up at him: "You know, I forgot to tell you. I looked up that word the orphan seller used, the other day. Reahu."
"What does it mean?"
"It's a demon, apparently. A really nasty one. He chases the Sun across the sky, trying to catch it."
"The Sun Eater," Randolph says, shivering: "Yeah, I can see that. I can totally see that."
"So I totally tagged him," Gosheven says, remembering the uncomfortable moment when a wispy trail of his molecules reached out to make contact with the beast, and deposit something small within him: "We have him here, in town."
"We can't get audio, can we?"
"I don't want it, do you?"
"No," Randolph says: "But if we knew where he was going tomorrow, we could make arrangements."
Gosheven blinks, and then nods: "We'll take turns listening?"
And then, the pact made, they go back to shivering and trying to forget what they'd seen. What had turned grown men into beasts for just a few frantic, blood-soaked seconds.
What had made them all try and hurt, maim, and kill -- first the "toys" that the speaker had brought, and then one another...
"I think I've still got something in my teeth," Gosheven mumbles, even though that's not true. He moved his choppers around hours ago, getting the last, stringy bits of someone's neck out of them.
He just feels like they're still there.
And as Randolph -- no longer caring if he said "!@#$" exactly 148 times in a fifteen minute piece on child trafficking in Phnom Penh -- sends the story to his Toon lover and coworker with the note RUN THIS ASAFP, he can't help but look at his ally and friend and wonder how much of what he saw has stayed with him, since the demonstration.
He can't help but wonder if he's really safe here, with him, tonight...
beginhere. runthere. astreakoffire.
* * *
The Diviners of Mount Sinai Hospital begin their day in their small chapel, down on the first floor.
They take over from the previous day's shift with smiles and proper greetings -- maybe a hug or two. Some need to laugh, others to cry.
They shower on the premises and purify themselves. They dress in white robes of office.
And, kneeling before the skull-faced, stern image of their God, Satanoth, they pray for exactly one hour, and place the mask of their office upon their face in that time.
At which point they can see the ghosts.
Ghosts that are, they offer to take to where they need or want to go. Ghosts that were, they ensure are friendly, and deal with accordingly.
And ghosts yet to be, they go to greet, knowing they will be confused and in need of aid.
* * *
uponestreet. downanothestreet. movingtoofastforothers. movingfastenoughforhimself.
lookingsearchingseeking. streetbystreet. blockbyblock.
* * *
"Oh you have to be !@#$ing kidding me," Gosheven says, putting down the headphones.
"What?" Randolph Scott says, turning from the internet reports he's been scanning for Asia -- mostly waiting to see if anyone's reporting on what This Is Bull!@#$ reported on their website.
(It's taking a backseat to weird reports about freakish purple lightning storms, over that place that got nuked off the map in Northern China, last week...)
"Guess where he's going today?"
"Back to Bangkok," the shapeshifter snorts: "He's got a private car to take him. Says he doesn't trust himself on a plane."
"When and where?" Scott says, immediately grabbing his stuff and scooping it into his backpack.
"About fifteen minutes. From that damn hotel we were at yesterday."
"We can just make it," the outlaw reporter says, looking at his watch: "We grab a tuk-tuk, we haul ass, we speed by. You turn yourself into a goddamn hubcap or something...?"
"Yes," the shapeshifter says, grabbing his own !@#$ and tossing it to Randolph, who's already most of the way out the door.
"What about us?" the orphanage owner shouts from the adjoining bathroom, where he's still tied up in the tub with poor Leap, who's still mindsmashed from what he said and did yesterday: "You say we go free! You promise!"
"I lied, !@#$er," Randolph says as he runs out the door, turning back only to shout: "Have fun in prison!"
Gosheven's about to follow him, and then realizes he's still holding onto something: the controls to the bomb in Leap's stomach. For a second he thinks how good it would be to leave this room, get to the maximum range of the control, and blow them both to hell...
But no. He does not. Instead he smirks, and turns the device's sound back on, so Leap and his boss can hear it beeping in his innards -- almost like a countdown.
The screams of panic from the two of them make it all worth it.
* * *
ontthemove. ontherun. confirmedsighting. acrosstown.
* * *
The Wandering Shadow leaves the room at an exact hour and minute, decided what seems a lifetime ago, and only then does he turn time on its head.
He walks to the hospital. He does not need to hurry, or hustle. Time is his ally, not his enemy. It has always been thus.
They whisper about him and his kind, back in the land of his birth. How he is never there when you look for him, and always there when you fear his presence.
In truth, he's always been there. He simply moves between the seconds. Strikes between the moments.
To see his face before he kills is a privilege he affords to very few. Sometimes a mark of respect. Sometimes of contempt.
He will afford it to SPYGOD, though he can hardly appreciate it. This is both privilege and contempt.
And that, as he reminds himself without hint of mirth, is life itself.
* * *
thecityasanorganism. motorcyclesandbikesforblood. streetsforcirculation.
* * *
"Oh no, please," the older woman in the room is weeping as the three Diviners come in. Her husband lies on the bed, his eyes already going wide and losing cohesion.
He's already gone. She just didn't know it yet.
One of them goes to soothe her -- speaking the ancient words of prayer as she holds her. She's good at that sort of thing.
The other two stand and hold out their hands, smiling to greet this new spirit -- now welcome in the arms of Satanoth, who has known this day was coming for so long.
The old man doesn't want to come, though. He's been too long in this body. And he's too afraid of what comes next.
So one of them smiles and -- seeing that the now-widow is occupied weeping into the arms of their sister Diviner -- reaches into the body and quickly pulls the ghost up and out by the heart.
It's all over after that.
* * *
* * *
"Man, we couldn't have picked a better time if we'd tried," Shining Guardsman chuckles, shaking Director Straffer's hand outside the door to SPYGOD's room.
"What brings you back here?" the cyborg asks, shaking Mr. USA's hand in turn.
"Well, he had to get a few of his things, seeing as how we lit out of here, yesterday," the older hero says, smiling.
"Yeah, we had a bit of an emergency," the armored hero says, looking down the hall at the television screen down the way. They're talking about the weird purple storm just north of North Korea. Something about freak atmospheric conditions.
(Russia and China deny any reports of having almost gone to war over "radar anomalies.")
"And I figured I'd tag along when he came back," Mr. USA: "I think I wanted to get a look at our friend."
"Yes, well," Straffer says, looking in: "His surgeon is checking on him, but I don't think he'll mind. Not unless you mind. I know things are a little distrustful with us all right now..."
"Well..." Shining Guardsman and Mr. USA say in unison as they look at one another, and then back at Straffer.
"If you vouch for him, we'll go along," Mr. USA says: "How about that?"
"That works for me," Straffer says, smiling as he opens the door: "Harvey? We've got company..."
* * *
bighotelintown. fancyplace. tooexpensiveformosttravelers.
strobinginhisvision. alloftheworldastatuestrobing. onlyseeitsecondsafteritisfarbehind.
(longblackcarpullingaway. blackwindows. smellsstrange.)
* * *
It was like running into a brick wall.
Randolph was heading for the car. He had it in his sights. It was the only thing that monster could be leaving the city -- long and with blackened windows, costing more than a whole damn block's worth of rent for a hundred years.
And god knows what kind of sick !@#$ he could indulge himself in there...
And then BOOM
A crack of light. A wave of sound. And then he was tumbling off the bike and onto the ground.
Gosheven was nearby. He should have leaped onto the car and become part of it. They'd have tracked it. That was the plan.
But his ally was in the street. He was stretched out as wide as he could make himself, trying to fight off something that moved so quickly he couldn't quite block all the punches.
An elephant being swarmed by hornets. He went down in seconds. And whatever was nailing him did not let up...
* * *
... so that when it happens, it happens everywhere. In Madrid, Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, and a number of other places besides, Gosheven goes down, and is replaced by waiting Strategic Talents whose first job is to hustle his sleepy, goofy ass off to a waiting COMPANY transport ...
... the line of ghosts to their chapel, there to go to the great beyond. But the Diviners don't have to make numerous trips, and are content to walk them through the hospital. They have nowhere else to go, after all. And they have one very important and portentous trip this shift....
... from purple to pink and back again. Hanami holds onto her superior officer as he screams, trying to hold in all that energy he absorbed out of the clouds, and what was in them. He shivers and shakes and purple lightning shoots from his hands, his mouth, his eyes. Balled up on a mountain and screaming as the crashed zeppelins burn in the valley below, just miles from World War III...
... that he's held off for so damn long. No one's ever thanked him. That's not in their nature. But he will have respect, damn it. He will be treated with respect and with fairness. And at the end of the day the Wandering Shadow will be greeted with fear. Which is why he does this here today, he tells himself as he strides down the hall to the room of the man he's come to kill, suddenly more full than he anticipated...
... their being here. Everyone in SPYGOD's room turns to look at the Diviners as they enter. Mr. USA gasps and Shining Guardsman takes a step forward, as if to put himself between them and the patient. Straffer's already rising from his seat to say "no," and Major Harvey's holding up his hands, unsure of what's going on as they spread out and announce they have come for a soul soon to be take. And before anyone can ask whose there's the sense that time has gotten verrrrrrrrryyyyyy sloooooooowwww annnnnndddd sommmmmeeeonnneee ellllseeee isssss innnnnn theeeeee roooooom wiiiittth theeeeemmmmm soooommmmeeeeonnnee wiiiithhhh aaaaa veerrryyyy laaaarrgeeee gunnnn....
* * *
"Nice. Piece. On. Your. T.V. Show. Mis. Ter. Scott," someone is saying to Randolph as he tries to get up from the wet, rainy road.
He's sure he broke something. His head hurts like !@#$. A cable may have broken, but...
"Who..?" he has to ask. Of course he does.
"It. Showed. Us. Where. You. Were." the owner of the voice says. He's a blur. A white blur. Shivering on the street: "Did. You. En. Joy. Your. Hol. E. Day. In. Cam. Bod. E. A?"
He's a mess. Things are broken. He's bleeding.
A COMPANY Transport sits in the road, engines idling. People are standing around, gawking. Tourists take pictures, thinking it's an attraction or something...
("Back east your type don't crawl")
"Who...?" Randolph asks again, trying to get up. And then he starts to panic, looking for the black car.
"Oh god, no," he says, unable to move his legs: "The black car. Jesus! How long have I-"
"Tenminutessixteenseconds," a very old, quite crazy-eyed Swiftfoot says, no longer willing to make the effort to be understood by the slow: "YouareunderarrestforinterferinginCOMPANYbusiness."
And then he's grabbing him, and there's a sonic boom -- like a shot from a very large gun.
And from there it's all one big blur...
(SPYGOD is listening to Dark and Long (Underworld) and having a very nasty bottle of Cognac )