|"We Got Guns / You Better Run"|
Red Queen, Alter-Earth SPYGOD (with Hǫfuð), the President's Daughter
(Art by Dean Stahl)
* * *
* * *
in the darkness she is lying she cannot move she cannot speak she's naked and lying on her side and she's pissed herself and she feels awful it's the stoy the Russian drug she can't move she's been paralyzed for hours now maybe a whole day thoughts are hard to hold onto she's unsure what happened and she can hear noises in the other room a news program talking about China someplace called Xinlin has been wiped off the map something about a nuclear accident it sounds like bull!@#$ so she wonders what's going on but then she hears him approach she tries to move but she's still drugged he turns on the lights and walks closer making no attempt to be silent this time he has something in his hand he smacks it against his palm he says time to play he says time to learn he says
* * *
"This is Randolph Scott, and This... Is Bull!@#$.
"Right now I'm reporting to you from Europe. I won't say where, or when, as I'm currently being looked for by the sort of people who can !@#$ing track me across the world by smell alone. They're nasty, well-organized, ruthless as !@#$.
"And while I've got all kinds of !@#$ing defenses up, I don't know how well they're going to hold.
"What happened? Well, folks, by now you've probably seen the video on the internet. Unfortunately, I had to send it out before I could !@#$ing narrate it. So if you didn't watch the version that TRUTHINESS1776 was kind enough to upload, you might not have gotten all the damn subtleties.
"But, well... let's say that at least once in every career in journalism, you have to stand there, holding your microphone, and wonder what the !@#$ you just walked into. And this, ladies and gentlemen, was one of those moments.
"I thought I knew what I was doing, yesterday morning. I really did.
"I'd followed a trail of clues and leads, going from a dead superhero's surreal funeral, to an evidence lockup that had been burgled from within, to the cell of the man who's done the burgling, apparently killed by his own people less than a minute before I'd gotten there. I'd found out that an ongoing investigation into organ-legging, going from Russia into Northern Europe, was involved in this.
"And I'd also learned that there were other things going on that couldn't help but dove-tail into this matter, including the search for the missing former President of the Terre Unifee, the investigations into the murder of his wife and the kidnapping of his daughter, and the long-standing manhunt for the man who might actually be the most evil bastard alive in the world.
"Now, me? I was ready to record what happened when law enforcement broke up the sale of the dead hero's parts to the mysterious buyers. But then, in a move worthy of something from Monty Python, that bust was itself busted, not once by twice.
"Here's the initial confrontation. You see those three bleach-blonde boys in black suits and sunglasses? The ones holding that weird bunch of containers? They're from Finland. They presented themselves to the late FAUST investigator as members of an international biotech firm, but it turned out they're with the Finnish Resistance Movement. They're another one of the small fish racist-nationalist movements that the TU had climbed into bed with, prior to their getting pantsed.
"And do you see the two people they're meeting? Note the long coats, large hats, and facemasks. They will be important later.
"Here's our hero, jumping out of the bushes just as the Finns unveil what's actually in the cooler. That would be parts of the brain and nervous system of the superhero Disparaitre, who was the greatest and most powerful teleporter our planet's ever developed. One of the people who saved our planet, about a year and a half ago. One of the most valuable players on the team, I've been told.
"So the person identifies himself as FAUST. He's not really, but this is what you do when you're a little out of your jurisdiction and trying to !@#$ up something cold-blooded and sick. It's also a smart move, as people are genuinely !@#$ing scared of FAUST, and for good reason.
"One of the Finns tries to go for a piece. Our friend isn't having that and fills him with bullets. The other two do the smart thing and get ready to assume the position. The buyers don't seem to understand what's going, but more on that later, too.
"But then... ah, you see that other Finn get shot by a different gun? The one who clearly wasn't the one in charge? And you see all those bushes rustle, and more people come out of nowhere?
"The people in black riot armor, scary, skull-like gasmasks, and guns you could bring down a goddamn mutant elephant high as !@#$ on bath salts? That's the real FAUST, showing up.
"It turns out they also knew when and where this buy was going to go. As of right now, I don't know if they knew our friend was going to show up and try and beat them to it. But this is how they decided to break up the party.
"However, this is where it really gets weird. You can see them starting to hassle our friend, and by 'hassle' I mean 'threaten to shoot even if he does cooperate.' But then...
"Ah, here we are. See those bright white lights, shining down on everyone from the sky? And you see how everyone is falling down with their hands over their eyes, because they're having problems seeing straight?
"(Everyone but the buyers, that is. Again, this will be !@#$ing important later.)
"Well, those people floating down to Earth in the snazzy, white battle suits? The ones dropping out of that transport you can't really see? The folks with the knock-out ammo on their guns, who are handcuffing everyone there before anyone can do anything?
"Well, folks, that's the Space Service. They're the people who handle our planetary security, look after the Space Elevator, and make sure we don't get !@#$ing invaded by aliens, smacked by meteors, or gobbled up by crazy outer space bull!@#$.
"And why are they here, pulling out the ultimate trump card?
"Well, that's because it turns out those buyers, who've spent this entire time acting weird, staying wrapped up, not understanding what a bust is, and not falling down when hit with a confusion field, are the sort of thing they're protecting us from.
"That's right, folks. As you can see in this screen capture, they're Martians. Two guys from Mars trying to !@#$ing buy specialized dead human parts for a reason I haven't been able to determine, just yet... mostly because this is where I bugged the !@#$ out.
"That's right, folks. Sometimes it just does make more sense to !@#$ing chicken out. As it turns out, I was just able to get away before their disco lights gave me the mother of all ice cream headaches and made me puke up !@#$ I ate in 1985.
"I have no idea if my contact was able to get out. I have no idea what happened to the surviving Finn, the real FAUST Agents, or the Martians.
"All I do know is that FAUST is onto me, and the longer I stay on the Continent, the better the chance they have of !@#$ing nailing me.
"But you know what? I don't !@#$ing care. They can come and try to get me. I've got the mother of all !@#$ed-up stories, right here, and I'm not letting it go until I have beaten it down and made it make !@#$ing sense.
"And I'm sure not stopping until I know exactly what the !@#$ is going on here, who killed the man who saved the world, and why.
"Until then, or at least until I've got something !@#$ing useful to tell you, this is Randolph Scott for This Is Bull!@#$. Back to you, Velma..."
* * *
he knows just where to hit and how to do it he swings he pokes he slams he connects he hits her in every place where she really hurts and does it so quick and effortless that he doesn't even work up a sweat and she's gritting her teeth and trying not to scream she can't move or so much as twitch but she could scream if she wanted to and she wants to but she won't let herself do it won't give him the satisfaction !@#$ him !@#$ him and his cruel smile and his dead black eye and the way he makes his curses seem so different slave he calls her slave he says she's his now forever and ever
"Alright, then," Director Straffer says, walking into the Space Service's small European detention center, in Geneva: "What do you all have for me?"
The four men and women who've been working this case stand at attention as he comes in and salute. "We have two suspects in custody, sir," their leader says, clicking his heels together and indicating the room where the Martians are.
"Are they alright?" the Director asks, looking at the corner and seeing the two of them -- looking rather stoic in spite of it all, especially as they've had their gravity harnesses removed.
"They're not happy about the weight and I think they missed a meal, sir. But they aren't complaining. Or talking, for that matter."
"I wouldn't, either," Straffer says, turning around to look at all the agents: "Excellent work, all of you. I take it we're getting complaints?"
"FAUST has called about ten times, sir," one of the agents says, holding up a pad of messages: "I think they're really unhappy about our leaving their agents cuffed and face-down."
"Well, too damn bad," Straffer says, taking the messages and tossing them into a trashcan without reading them: "That's what they get for not telling us they suspected extraterrestrial involvement in this, isn't it?"
"No argument here, sir," their leader says: "And we did leave the sole surviving member of the Finnish sellers there for them to collect and question. So they've got that to work with, at least."
"Yes indeed. And what they were buying?"
"Safe in our lockup, sir. We're looking it over now."
"Good," Straffer says, leaning back into the suspects, sitting there staring back at him: "Now, what do we know about these smiling customers?"
"Well, we haven't been able to locate their ship, so we don't know if it's the same one that ran the line last Friday and got away. I've got their passports, here, and we're checking with immigration to see what we can find out. But these names sound kind of weird."
Straffer looks at the passports -- white squares of paper that show different things depending what angle one looks at them. One way they're photos, another they're identification, another they're exits and entries...
"Ah yes," Straffer says: "'Finding the Hidden Way' and 'Traveling for Important Reasons.' Those are war names."
"War names?" the leader of the investigation asks, noticing that one of the Martians seems rather interested that a human knows of this.
"Martians earn one name upon becoming adults, usually describing what they do, something amazing they did, or something about their personality. They carry that name with them for the rest of their lives, unless they do something utterly reprehensible and have it taken away. And when they did the name gets turned into past tense.
"But if they ever have to leave their profession and people behind for a specific, short-term reason that they'd rather not do, like go to war? They take on a different name. And it's always present progressive rather than present simple."
"Sir?" one of the others there asks.
"If it was their real name, they'd be Finds the Hidden Way and Travels for Important Reasons," he explains, wondering if that Agent was asleep in grammar class, that day: "But because it's adopted, it's got 'ing' at the end. When they no longer have a reason to use that name, they bury it, and go back to their true name."
"Wow," their leader says: "I had no idea."
"I made a very good friend on the Egress," Straffer explains, looking at their Martians: "And I think I need to give the Ambassador a call and see what he can tell me about these two people."
The two Martians seem to gasp at that notion, and Straffer chuckles. He's sure hate to be in their shoes, now...
* * *
he stops hitting her he's just grabbing her groping her manipulating her parts putting his hands into her his fingers his !@#$ oh god he's raping her he's raping her and she can't move or fight or scream and his face is an inch away from hers and she wants to grab his face and snap it off and break his neck and shove his head up his ass and throw him out a window and she imagines hurting him and it's all she can do but then he realizes where her mind is and he hits her so hard it knocks the images out and there's just the pain and the horror of what he's doing and she's sore and bleeding and he's going forever and ever and on and on and
* * *
"Look, I saw an opportunity to get to the bottom of this matter with Disparaitre-"
"We didn't need you doing that," New Man sighs: "Everyone else is doing that. We needed you looking into Red Queen's disappearance."
"And I was!" the shapeshifter shouts: "Look, it's complicated. Really."
"How complicated?" Josie presses.
"Okay. I'm looking into organ running from Russia to Northern Europe, right? Well, someone stole Disparaitre's brains, right here in Paris. Now, someone else is looking into who killed him, and why, and the sale of his parts seems too coincidental to me. But he's got a line on where Red Queen is, and what she's doing. So... I did a little quid pro quo-"
"Without asking us first?" New Man says, clearly unamused.
"There wasn't time, sir. We had to run with what we had as quick as we could. That's why I didn't even think that FAUST might already have the info on the sale, and that they dangled their guy's body as a trap three times over-"
"And so you pretended to be a foreign law enforcement agent, and got nailed by not only the agency you were impersonating, but also the goddamn Space Service," Josie says: "And... how did you get out, again?"
"I played along with being cuffed with the FAUST Agents until the Space Service was clear, and then I just melted away. Same as always. I was kind of hoping my ally might have helped, but I he !@#$ing took off to go file his report-"
"And since when do you think it's a good idea to collaborate with that outlaw reporter?"
"Since he's got a line on Red Queen," Gosheven says: "And since some of the things we're both looking into cross paths. We both want truth, justice, and the American way, here. He just turns it into a story before we can bury it."
"And you don't see any problem with that?" Josie asks, her voice as cold and heavy as stone.
"Well... now that you mention it-"
"Gosheven, you need to be very quiet," New Man says: "Are you listening to me?"
"Yes, sir. I am," the shapeshifter says, trying not to gulp too audibly.
"Right now, the only reason I'm not ordering you back here for disciplinary action is because you have a hand in a number of important things right now, and I can't afford to call you back and replace you. But you put one more foot out of line and I'm going to do just that. Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir. Completely and clearly-"
"You need to get a hold on yourself, Agent," New Man says, emphasizing the last word so he knows he's !@#$ing furious: "Can you do that?"
"Yes, sir," the shapeshifter says: "Consider me gotten hold of-"
"You get whatever information this reporter has on Red Queen, and then leave him to twist in the wind," Josie orders: "Never work with him again. Ever. And as soon as you have that info, you tell us, and we are going to go get her. Not you. Us. Is this understood?"
"It is, yes," he sighs.
"Yes Ma'am. Absolutely."
"And once you've gotten that taken care of, you go back to Madrid and look after DN," New Man says: "Send all information about the organ trade to us, and we'll go in with the Space Service. It seems the investigation is now in both of our territories, and we need a different way of handling it."
"Yes sir," Gosheven says, understanding exactly what the COMPANY Director is saying: "Consider it done."
They hang up, then. It's so hard it rattles his skull. And as soon as they're done, and he's triple-black again, he looks over at his houseguest, who's been watching this whole time.
"We're !@#$ed, man," he tells Randolph Scott: "!@#$ed in the damn ass."
"Well, good thing we brought lube," the outlaw reporter says, sipping his coffee and offering his friend one: "You up for making one more hollow man?"
* * *
when he finishes he does it right up her nose the salt sting makes her gasp and he takes it as a moral victory and then he kicks her right in the !@#$ and she finally screams she can't take any more she thinks he broke something she screams and screams and he looks at her like she's a bug he found under his shoe and says you see you have a breaking point and I can break you any fucking time I like now I just have to kick you there twice as hard and then he kicks her somewhere else and rolls her over ties her up with razor-rope and stretches her out and tells her if she struggles in her sleep when the drug wears off she'll lose at least a hand maybe a foot too so she's going to have to stay awake and then he's gone and leaves her in the darkness and she's crying and in pain and exhausted but she doesn't dare sleep she cannot sleep not now not ever she cannot sleep
"Try to stay awake, Hong Longxiu," the nurse in the radiation suit tells the Chinese hero, patting him on the shoulder as he draws a long, ragged breath: "The General will be here soon. He needs to know what happened."
"I will not sleep," the mentalist says, doing his best to not look at what little remains of the rest of his body -- burned to sticks, wrapped under plastic: "My mind is keeping my body alive and my brain awake. I will not sleep until he comes."
The nurse nods and looks to her colleagues, who are also wrapped up in NBC gear, and very visibly disturbed by this. They just fought to keep this man alive, in spite of what he's suffered. But even the gentlest interrogation will be too much for him to handle in his state.
If the General asks too many questions, Hong will literally talk himself to death, here in this makeshift military hospital, just outside the blast zone. They will never live down that shame -- not for several lifetimes.
At last, someone arrives. The General in question stomps through the flapping, plastic sheet door, without guard -- which is strange, but not unknown. He's wrapped in a strange, almost minimalist suit that lets everyone see who he is, and all the medals he's earned.
With a wave he dismisses all the others out of the room. They very gladly comply; if the last remaining member of the People's Red Guard dies under the man's care, it's no longer their fault.
The dying man's eyes widen as his superior officer approaches, his medals and ribbons glittering under the harsh, florescent lights. The hero starts to say something, and then he rethinks it, and then stops trying to talk.
"Are you..." the General starts to ask, his voice distorted under the suit: "I mean.. I'm sorry. I am very sorry to see you like this."
"You're not my General, I think," Long says, staring into space: "Do I want to know what you've done with him?"
"He's sleeping off the really powerful drugs his noontime girl brought in her drink," the General says, suddenly turning inside out like a sock -- suit and all -- and falling off the person he was wrapped around.
It's Hanami, standing there -- floating off the floor. And for a split second Hong Longxiu realizes that the "General" was the shapeshifter his government's long-suspected of sneaking around on them.
"I came as soon as I could," she says, coming closer and looking him in the eyes, even if he won't return the favor: "I am sorry if my goading you ask for answers led to this fate, Hong Longxiu."
"It was inevitable," the mentalist says, now choosing to look at her -- his eyes wide and unfocused: "There was something wrong. I had to discover what. Now I know. I regret only that we failed to stop it."
"What did you see?" she asks, indicating with a nod that Gosheven should stand outside and guard. He changes himself into a rather burly and uninviting guard, dressed in a normal NBC suit, and leaves the room to do just that.
"There was a factory, up in Xinlin," he says, his eyes clouding over: "North of Jiagedaqi. We went up there to investigate. We had no idea our superior was in league with the person who ran it."
"A traitor," she sneers: "There seems to be a lot of that going around."
"A victim" the dying man insists, his eyes unclouding for a moment as he rebukes her: "Many of them are. You have not see what I have, Hanami. A factory filled with men and women, forced to work at machines that will eventually kill them. Unable to leave those machines without being killed by their implants."
"Implants," she says, raising an eyebrow: "Is that all?"
"It is enough," he sighs: "A small device, right behind the brainstem. Just small enough to not kill you right away when it disintegrates the back of your skull, but large enough to make your death agonizing and disgusting. Not many will cross their leader, if only to avoid such a fate."
"So you found a factory of slaves carrying death devices? What else?"
"They were making the machines that make the machines that make the machines," he says, and for a second she thinks he's finally losing it, but then he looks at her and she realizes he's not stuck on repeat.
"And what then?" she asks
"We attacked. They counterattacked. He had his slaves hurl themselves at us, and increased the yield on their bombs. We lost Tubian right away. The screams... horrible...:"
"Stay focused," she says: "Did they get away?"
"They did, yes," he says: "As we fought, and we died, they put the machines onto transportation. They flew away faster than we can see, too low for the radar to see them. Perhaps satellites might catch their tracks, but they were so fast..."
"And what of their leader?" she presses: "What of the Purple Demon?"
"He laughed at me," the man says, his entire body shuddering: "I commanded him to surrender, and to tell me what was going on. He laughed at me and raised his hands. The purple glow... it activated something. A bomb, just far away to destroy us all."
"Did I?" Hong Longxiu asks, smiling at her: "Did you?"
"Did I what?"
"Survive?" he asks, his eyes going dark at last.
She lets him go into death, watching as his brain lets his body slip away, and then vice versa. Before long he's gone, leaving her with some puzzling and disturbing intel, and a philosophical question posed as a clever retort.
Hanami walks outside, not caring if anyone sees. Gosheven immediately wraps himself around her, turning them back into the General in his fancy suit.
"You find out anything?" he asks, quiet as he can.
"Just that the Purple Demon can't be commanded by the most powerful telepath in Asia," she says: "And that could mean a lot of things, some of which are more troubling than others."
"And the factory?" he presses: "All the !@#$ they were making?"
"Off to their next destination," she says: "And I think we're really in the !@#$, now."
* * *
"I beg your pardon," the large Supergoddess says to the pregnant woman who's all but stormed her way into the business office of her Chicago Temple, rising from her very large chair as she does: "I don't think I heard you correctly."
"You did, lady," Martha Clutch says, putting both her hands on Syphon's large desk and staring her in the eyes: "Whatever you did with my son? You screwed it up. Badly."
"Of all the impertinent..." Syphon says, shaking her head and looking down: "Do you have any idea... do you? What we had to do to get him out of that city? What we had to do in order to fold him down into flesh, again? Do you?"
"I do, yes," the Owl says, wincing as her baby kicks her right in the bladder: "I know it was a miracle of miracles. I know it took you a whole damn day instead of a couple of minutes, like it normally takes you to grow someone a new body-"
"Two days, woman," Syphon quickly corrects her, holding up the appropriate number of fingers in front of Martha's face: "Two days I could have been helping others, and a great deal of effort between myself and no less than three of my brothers to make it possible at all. And here you stand, cursing my effort?"
"He's broken, Syphon," Martha insists: "He's mentally ill. He loses control of himself. He goes from being the sweet, considerate, and well-spoken young man I raised into a raging, angry bully with a serious pottymouth in seconds. And over nothing!"
"Then clearly you need to take him to one of your psychologists," the Supergod says, sitting back down in her chair: "What we did was flawless. We took his soul from that city and placed it into the body. It all went in there, woman. Nothing was left out. No mistakes were made."
"Then why is he behaving this way?" his mother demands: "If you did such a good job, then what changed?"
"That, I think, is not my concern," Syphon says, sighing and patting her desk: "But speaking woman to woman, mother to mother?"
"Don't blame the midwife for the baby," she pronounces: "Especially when that midwife did something that she isn't normally empowered to do."
"What do you mean?" Martha says, at her wits' end.
"I mean, mortal woman, that even we Gods have our limits," the large woman says, gesturing to a screen that's floating near her desk, still showing horrible scenes of the devastation in Mexicali from the other week: "Do you know how many people are flooding my temple in that city, begging me to bring their loved ones back from the dead? Offering the developing children in their wombs to me to remake into the ones they've lost?"
"I... I can imagine," Martha says, suddenly understanding something.
"I bent the rules for you, Martha Clutch," the woman says, no longer deigning to look in her direction: "We bent the rules for you. I interfered only because our ruler-brother, Seranu, commanded me to give you back your son. And you were glad enough of that at the time. But that does not mean that such hubris does not have its penalties."
At that word, she looks back at Martha. Her glaze is stern and cold.
"You should leave now, while I still have some patience left within me," Syphon says, going back to the very large pile of written petitions, piled up on her desk in a tray marked IN: "The next time you punch and kick your way into my inner sanctum, I'll instruct my Midwives to fight back, with no consideration for the life you carry within you. Do you understand?"
But Martha's already left. She's walked through the door that led to this office -- as a door in every one of her Temples does -- and back into Chicago, there to be stared down the red-robed throng of Midwives she fought her way through to get here. They're all very angry, sore, and bloodied, and all staring at her with utter hate for having spoken so to their Goddess.
"I'm sorry," Martha says to them on her way out. But she only sort of means it, and prays to her own, hopefully-still-higher God for forgiveness with every step towards the Owl Car, hovering outside.
* * *
"You're 'sorry,' you say, " the silver-handed head of FAUST says, staring from the viewscreen in the COMPANY Director's office: "I really do not think that word is adequate in this matter, sir."
"It isn't, no," New Man says, crossing his arms and looking at him: "But the matter remains. You've had a criminal network operating from Asia and Russia into Europe for years, now, smuggling human organs and parts. And it looks like they've all been going from here to the red planet for reasons we're just now figuring out. So as of now, all our investigations are linked up by way of the Space Service. And they kind of outrank both of us on this."
"Yes, they do," the older man says, looking at New Man with some amusement: "Which means we have to work together, at last?"
"It would appear so."
"I would prefer not to," the man says, stroking his bearded chin: "I do not like your COMPANY. I do not trust your people. And I know this feeling is mutual."
"Hey, you people started this !@#$," New Man says, poking a finger at the viewscreen: "We were perfectly happy to shake hands and be friends when NEU came together. You were the one who had to be an !@#$hole about it."
"Sir, please control yourself," the man says, holding up a hand: "I could go into the many reasons why I do not wish to work with your organization, but I have neither the time nor the patience, especially if all you'll be doing is pointing your finger in my direction and using such colorful language."
"So what are we going to do, then?" the old man says, rubbing his domino mask in frustration: "Pretend to work together? That'll go over real well with Director Straffer, let me tell you."
"I suggest a compromise," the head of FAUST says: "I have spoken with the head of BOWLER. He has no issues working with your organization. He also has some strange respect for your COMPANY. As they are allied with us, within the NEU, they would have access to our files and resources. So you would get the same results, only we would not have to deal with one another."
"That doesn't sound too bad," New Man admits: "Let me ask Straffer and see if he's okay with it?"
"Very well," the man says, smiling a little: "Then we can consider this matter closed."
"Fine by me-"
"One more thing," he says, leaning into the viewscreen: "We have learned that you are running operations on our soil, tracking some of the nationalist organizations that the Terre Unifee was in league with."
"I don't know what you mean," New Man lies, shrugging his shoulders.
"I'm sure you do. And in the grand design of international espionage, this is not a terrible thing. But we also have learned that you are directly interfering with those organizations, especially where strategic talents are concerned. We know you are actively hunting the last members of Le Compagnie. And we have learned of your intent to capture or kill them."
"Again, I don't-"
"This stops, now," the man says: "The next time we catch your AGENTS on our soil without our permission to be there, we will consider them enemy agents, and treat them accordingly. You know what that means. Do not test us."
With that, he turns off his screen, leaving New Man to grouse in the dark of his office, wondering what to do with Gosheven, now.
And wondering how in the hell Red Queen got made.
"What do you mean you don't know where she is?" Randolph whispers into his last remaining burner phone, almost incredulous. The Seine flows along before him, uncaring and eternal.
"Just that, friend. I wish I did-"
"I thought you said you had some idea-"
"We put a tracker on the box, itself," Jess Friend says, standing around the corner from the Bangkok 8, his boss' order in hand: "She kept it in her safehouse in Queens for a couple days. I told her not to use the thing for a week, and in that time I was hoping to get a better idea of where she might be going. But then she ran on us, and... well, she left the box behind."
"!@#$," Randolph mutters.
"Yeah, that's about what I feel like right now. I am so sorry, man. I wish I knew more."
"Alright," Randolph says: "Here's what we need to do. Your boss was doing his best to find this !@#$er before he ever got wind that Red Queen's alien pop-gun had a !@#$ing global tracker on it, right?"
"Yes. For years. And every time he got closer to that !@#$er he got wind of it and sent him another piece of his daughter."
"I know. But he was getting closer. That's why he !@#$ing dissuaded him, right?"
"So I need everything he ever had, and I need it yesterday."
"You got it," Jess says: "I got it all on a stick. Usual email?"
"Yes, please," the reporter says, looking at the people going up and down the walkway, glad he's got his hoodie up: "But don't tell your boss, okay?"
"Because there's got to be a reason the bastard always knew what he was up to," Randolph replies: "And I don't want to walk into a goddamn bear trap."
With that he disconnects, and tosses his phone out into the river. It skips a few times, and then sinks, and he watches it tumble out of sight with some satisfaction.
Now he just has to figure out what to tell his ally...
* * *
"Ah, good, you're awake."
Red Queen blinks a few times, and then gasps. She immediately coils into a ball on the floor, looking herself over in a panic to see if she lost any limbs.
"I decided to be merciful, slave," the SPYGOD of Alter-Earth says, walking towards the pool of filth and sweat she's been lying in: "I loosened the razor rope when you finally fell asleep. I decided I like having you having both hands, and able to walk."
She shivers, looking at the red welts on her wrists and ankles. Feeling the dull echoes of the pain in her crotch, where the !@#$er kicked her after violating her.
"So," he continues: "I wasn't even going to see you coming, huh?"
She tries to gasp in response to that, but her throat is too parched and dry.
"'He won't see me coming,'" the monster in human shape quotes, chilling her to the bone with each word: "'He won't even smell me coming, okay? I will bust his watermelon before he knows it, and then light up his asshole to make sure he's dead.' That was what you said, right?"
He leans in, makes a gun with his finger and thumb, puts it to his temple, and 'fires': "Bang bang, baby. You seem to have fucking missed."
She looks up at him, then, angry and seething.
And no sooner does she get a look at his face -- so much like the man she knows, and yet not -- then he very quickly strikes her on the head with that damned cudgel of his.
She comes around again, a few minutes later, she thinks. Her mouth is full of blood and the ache in her head is worse, now.
"Do not look at me, ever," he orders, tapping her head with that thing: "Not until you've earned the right to."
She opens her mouth to respond, and then he kicks her -- right in the chest. All the air goes out of her and she falls forward, again.
"Don't talk to me, either," he says: "You will be spoken to. You will not speak until I say you can. And I'd better fucking like what I hear, slave, or you'll be finding out that you don't have permission to scream as well."
She grits her teeth. Licks them, tasting the blood. She wants to look at him but her head's spinning too much, and she wants to tell him to !@#$ off but she can't inhale enough to speak.
So she spits a bloody gob out onto the floor, aiming for his feet.
He's faster than that, though. By the time the crimson spittle lands at where his right foot was, just a second before, he's already on the other side of her.
And then he's hit her again, right between the shoulders.
She falls down, suddenly unable to support her weight with her arms because they won't work.
"I can keep this up all day," he warns her, his voice just an inch from her left ear, his cudgel right at the back of her neck: "And sooner or later I'm going to stop warning you and start doing real damage. Especially since I was merciful with you, and you've chosen such a poor way to repay me."
She literally can't respond to that, except to twitch. So he leans back up, languid as a tropical snake, and goes on.
"So this is how it works," he says, walking around her, his cudgel tucked under his armpit, his hands clasped together: "You are my slave, now. You do not have the right to do anything without my permission. Anything includes everything past simply being alive. So if you want to be allowed to stand up and walk? To say anything at all? To eat by yourself? To wear clothes, and use the toilet? To not be beaten just because I'm bored and feel like it?
"You have to earn it," he continues, turning around to look down at her: "It's all a privilege, now. And you earn privileges by doing exactly what I say, exactly when I say. Failure is punished once. Disobedience is punished twice. And if I get the idea you're trying to subvert my dominion over you?"
He kicks her once more, just under the chin. It sends her spinning into the wall. She can hardly breathe and think he may have almost crushed her larynx.
"I'll make that feel like a kiss from your mother, slave," he says, pointing a finger in her face, and then smacking her head down to the ground when she looks up at him in panic: "I'll do things to you that you can't even fucking conceive. Take you apart and put you back together again all wrong. Fuck you with your own detached limbs. Or make you watch as I unspool your guts and feed you the things you don't need, or don't need all of.
"You don't need a body to feel pain," he hisses in her ear: "You don't need skin to serve me. You don't need eyes to make me my fucking dinner, or arms or legs to be useful sexually. I can do whatever I want to you, anytime I want, and keep you awake and alive through all of it.
"And then, when I've decided you're not worth the bother? I won't even give you the mercy of death. I'll just loop you into a big, senseless circle of pain and leave you to twitch and writhe in silence, forever.
That threat given, he slides back up again -- cudgel tucked, hands together: "Do you understand me?"
She tries to say something. She can't.
"Ah, right. Let me fix that, slave," he says, leaning down quickly and, with two quick, painful motions, completely undoing the damage to her throat. It's like pulling a plug in a clogged sink, and suddenly she can breathe and make sounds again.
"Now... do you understand me?" he says, pointing the cudgel at her nose: "Think carefully about how to answer this."
She says nothing. And she thinks he hears him smile, it's so wet and full.
"You're learning," he says: "That's excellent, slave. You have my permission to answer the question."
"I understand..." she says.
"You understand, master," he emphasizes: "I won't hit you for that because I forgot to mention it. But from now on-"
"I understand why I'm going to kill you," the Red Queen continues, looking him right in the eyes as he does.
He looks down at her as though she were a gruesome spider he found squatting on his dinner plate, and then -- faster than she can see -- strikes her in the right temple with his cudgel.
Something goes crunch, and then splatters. She feels a horrid wetness and pain. She won't let herself scream but the shock is overwhelming.
And as she goes down into unconsciousness, she realizes she's only seeing the world through one eye...
* * *
"You see what I mean," Straffer says, allowing the nurse to put the bandages back on SPYGOD's face after Major Harvey's quick examination.
"Extraordinary," the cyborg says, tapping his chin with a robotic finger: "Removed it right then and there? No hesitation?"
"None," Straffer beams, holding his lover's hand. Every time he squeezes it he hopes there will be a conscious response, and sometimes he gets something in return.
And when he's more ambulatory, well, that's something entirely different...
"Amazing," the disgraced cyber-surgeon says: "Never knew."
"Well, you know how he was when he was looking after me," Straffer chuckles: "I was just down the hall from here, you know. Wouldn't take no for an answer. Wouldn't stop until he got what he wanted."
"Not afraid to threaten, either."
"Yeah. Sorry about that. I heard the nurses were taking a betting pool on how soon before he killed someone."
"Had a Franklin riding on it," Harvey says, and Straffer doesn't know if he's serious or not: "Walk?"
"Sure," Straffer says, leaning over to give his man a kiss goodbye before moving on: "So, if what they promised us works out, do you think it's possible?"
"Very," the cyborg says, leaving the room with the man who rescued him from the asylum: "Excited to try it out. Also worried."
"Don't trust these Supergods," Major Harvey says, rather matter-of-fact: "Not impressed so far. Could do more but won't. And what they do..."
"Yeah," Straffer says, watching as a small and solemn group of Diviners walks down the hall -- white-clad, wearing skull-masks to match their God -- "But I've worked with Hoosk before. He's gruff and unpleasant, but he's pretty straight-up. It's all about the achievement for him. And if this thing works the way he says it will, well, that'll be something."
"Sure will," the cyborg replies, not taking his eyes off the Diviners. They walk into a room, unannounced, and someone inside of it starts to cry and weep, knowing why they're here...
"Anyway," Straffer says, putting a hand on the man's shoulder: "How's your other patient doing?"
"Dr. Suspezyk's patient, now," Harvey gently corrects, looking around at Shining Guardsman's private room, right next to SPYGOD's: "Just needs to sleep. To heal. Armor's doing it all. Be okay."
"Lucky kid," Straffer says, looking in and seeing that Mr. USA is sitting next to the young man, reading aloud from a book he must have picked up downstairs...
... but he might like it," Mr. USA says, handing the paperback novel over to Blastman, as the older hero's come to relieve his vigil.
"Never know," Blastman chuckles, looking at the cover: "What the damn hell is that on the cover?"
"Not sure. We haven't gotten to that part of the book, yet."
"Ah well," the hero chuckles, putting his coffee down on the table where Mr. USA was parked next to, and taking up position: "I'll call if there's any news, okay?"
"Sounds good," Mr. USA says, yawning a little: "How's things back at the Flier?"
"Well, New Man and Hanami are still going around and around about the new kid," Blastman says, taking his pyramidal helmet off and putting it on the table, next to his coffee: "And we're all waiting for those damn robots to pop back up. And no one wants to say anything about the elephant in the room."
"I liked that kid," Mr. USA says.
"Who, the new Mister Freedom?"
"No, though he seems okay, too. I mean Violet Demon. New New Man. Whatever we were calling him that week."
They both laugh at that: "Yeah, he was a good kid," Blastman says, shaking his head: "Smart, good ideas. Really had a head for it."
"That's why I hope it's not him," Mr. USA says: "It'd just be sad if all that good got turned bad, somehow."
They have nothing to say about that, and Mr. USA leaves not long thereafter.
"Yeah," Blastman says, looking at the kid in the bed. He's got a lot more armor on him than he used to, and as he looks he can actually see it regrowing on his ribs and arms.
"You just get better, kid," the older hero says, flipping through the book to find where his friend left it, and then deciding to leave it be for a while.
As he does, he completely fails to notice that time seems to have slowed down, just a little. And he would be far from the only one.
But as the book slowly moves towards the table, an unseen presence stands beside the door of the next room over -- scowling in displeasure.
Everything has been changed. This new surgery on his target has moved things up considerably, and makes a mockery of everything he bargained for with the former President.
The Wandering Shadow will have to strike sooner than he'd like. And he isn't very happy about having his schedule changed.
Not at all.
* * *
"Where's the drone," Myron mumbles, stumbling towards the door because he thought he heard something.
It's not there, though. The drone has not dropped off his food and his booze. And it's well past the time it should be here...
He crumbles and curses. He mumbles and wonders if he's pissed himself.
He wanders back into his cabin, with all its careful arrangements of hooch bottles and things, and wonders if he should call someone. Who could he call? Who brings him the alcohol, anyway?
Who did he set this up with, all those months ago, when he decided he didn't want to think about what he'd seen in space, ever again?
He sits down on the couch. It's still wet from last night. Sweat and spilled booze, maybe piss, too. He can't tell, anymore. All the smells blend together, now.
Just like the days.
"Who are you, really?" the person on the television is saying. Some black guy, well-dressed. It might be a talk show, it might be an infomercial, or a televangelist.
"No, really, have you thought about it?" the man says, his teeth gleaming like pearls under the studio lights: "Take a moment and ask yourself, ladies and gentlemen. Who are you really?"
"I used to be so !@#$ing cool," he says to the television, talking over the guy as he goes on: "I used to be a superhero. I used to do things. I used to be !@#$ing amazing and save the world.
"And now, I'm a drunk," he says, nodding and looking over at last night's booze bottles, which he still hasn't categorized and displayed accordingly: "I admit it. I'm a drunk. I get !@#$holed every damn night and fall asleep on the couch, and I piss myself. And I wake up the next day and I wait until the drone gets here and then I !@#$ing do it all over again.
"And I do it because... I don't want to remember, anymore," he admits: "I saw hell, man. I saw the end of the world. I saw the thing that !@#$ing eats suns and !@#$s them out on its way out of a !@#$ing solar system. And I fought it in my own way, all the way.
"And now... I can't close my eyes without seeing it. I can't dream without seeing it. I only got the smallest glimpse of the !@#$ing thing when my VR rig started breaking down, and it wasn't enough to kill me... but I saw it. Damn it, I saw it. And..."
He stops talking. He closes his eyes and shakes his head.
He hears the drone coming, at long last.
"Thank !@#$ing god," he says, stumbling for the door: "Mother!@#$ing thing. Probably got lost. Bastard."
Then he opens the door, and takes a step back when he sees who's standing there.
He has enough time to say something, but then it's lights-out.
And then he's somewhere else...
There are places all over Russia where no one goes.
Radioactive wastelands outside of abandoned towns. Ruined military bases, their true purpose long censored from existence. Disaster areas created by accident too weird to describe, much less believe in.
And then there are some places so strange that no one cares to remember them, anymore. Just thinking about them makes the head hurt, and the eyes strain.
One such place lies in the Buryat Republic, in the mountains east of Lake Baikal. There, in the cold and the dark, SQUASH began working on something to help bring about Soviet victory over the West in the strangest days of the Cold War.
That they failed goes without saying. But that they failed so spectacularly that no one -- even in SQUASH -- ever found out exactly what happened is something entirely different.
And now, no one will go within miles of the place that this happened. No one dares.
They say the souls of those stationed at the secret base move at night. They say they can be seen, glowing, as they stumble towards the closest inhabited areas looking for the help they couldn't get when the accident happened.
They say the "help" they need leaves onlookers dead, or worse...
But they also say those are all stories meant to frighten people.
They say that, out there, in the holes that they dug, and the caves they lined with concrete and steel, lies a fantastic achievement. The sort of thing that cannot be admitted to, much less hinted at, for fear of the world going mad with envy and desire.
The sort of thing that everyone would kill entire nations to possess, if they knew it was real.
Which is true? As with so many things about the Soviet Union, it depends on who's asking, and who's telling, and the perspective of each.
But as the Purple Demon strides through the disused ruins of what used to be Experimental Silo Zero -- a homecoming, of sorts -- he can't help but smile behind his wide, tall collar, and be proud of all he's done here.
"The future is now," he pronounces, reaching out to give his energy to the great machine in the center of the massive, underground silo. As he goes, the entire room begins to glow a deep, resonant purple.
As he does, the sound of long-disused machines begins to fill the air, and the smells of rust, oil, and ozone begin to be detected once more.
As he does, he feels his very life slip away from the effort, but "dies" knowing he's never truly gone for long...
* * *
"So, you were Mister Freedom," Red Wrecker says, looking at the long-haired young man in the black uniform, who's something of the center of attention in the Flier's rather large practice room.
"Yes," the newly-recreated Supergod says, puzzling over the manacles his wrists are bound in.
"And now you're him, even though you're also someone else?"
"Sort of," the young man smiles, looking at all the other members of the Freedom Force: "When we joined, he became me, and I became he. I begin where he ends, but yet he begins where I end. There is no real end or beginning to us. Just one long road."
With that, he moves his wrists just so. The chains fall off, but are now one long, whole piece rather than several.
"Nice !@#$in trick," Yanabah snorts, oiling her guns and wincing as she moves the wrong muscles on her still-healing place.
"It's not really a trick, friend," Mister Freedom says, picking up the chain and fiddling with it: "It's the truth. It's just that the truth is sometimes best expressed as a lie."
"Are you following any of this?" Blastman asks Chinmoku, who's folded up into a lotus position on the floor.
"Brilliantly," the Japanese man says, clearly enraptured by what the young man is saying.
"Wow," the older hero chuckles: "Well, if we ever have to philosophize someone to death, I guess we got the corner on the market..."
Hanami picks that moment to float down from the observation platform, and when she gets there everyone gets to their feet: "We are only missing Mr. USA, I see," she says.
"Yeah, it's his turn to look after Shining Guardsman," Blastman says: "Not that he needs much looking after. His doc says it's just a matter of the armor bringing him back."
"I'm sure he would like to awaken to a friendly face," Chinmoku says, smiling a little.
"I know I sure would," Red Wrecker says.
"That is a secondary matter," Hanami says, rather abruptly: "We have analyzed what we have brought back from Mexicali, as well as what was found in Xinlin. From those things, we have determined we have a much worse problem than we thought."
"Really?" Yanabah says: "How could it be any !@#$ing worse? Do they sing techno, too?"
"Antonia?" Hanami says, gesturing to the center of the room. A hologram of their pregnant colleague -- the new Gold Standard -- appears, and she waves: "Hey folks. Sorry I couldn't come on up, myself. I'm a little queasy today-"
"The point, Antonia?" Hanami interrupts.
"Um, yes," the heroine says, rather surprised to be spoken to like that: "The point is that the robots you attacked in Akron aren't the same ones you dealt with in Mexicali, and the Xinlin wreckage shows us why."
She waves her hands, and shows a picture of a circuit board. Then she expands it out, and as she does everyone there can see that it's moving, ever so much.
"This is a positronic circuit," Antonia says: "It works by changing the structure of the circuit in order to store information, much in the same way our brains create neural pathways to store memories. Until now, it's been science fiction, but they figured out how to do it."
"So what does that mean?" Blastman asks.
"It means that they've created a machine that can process a lot faster than anything else currently made by us," Gold Standard says: "Almost as fast as Hanami, which is damn scary. No offense, Hanami."
"None taken," she says: "But you spoke to me of evolution?"
"Yes," Gold Standard says: "The reason why the parts you've been getting me have been decaying when you take them out of their housing? Upon the destruction of each Warbot, it converts part of its matter into energy in order to send a signal. All that it learned gets uploaded, somewhere. And when the next generation gets made, they now know everything the previous one did, and also upgrade their physical form to deal with it."
"Which is why the rather laughable ones we dealt with in Akron were less amusing when the People's Red Guard encountered them in Tianjin, and no laughing matter at all when we fought them again," Hanami says: "And that means the next time we meet them, they will be much deadlier, and ready for what we did to them last time."
That kind of kills the conversation.
"Can you extrapolate what we might be dealing with next?" Mister Freedom breaks the silence, walking forward to take a good look at the circuit she's got floating.
"Well, it's highly conjectural... but I did get enough information on how you dealt with them to make some educated guesses, so... yeah," Antonia says, smiling a little.
"Alright then," Yanabah says, clapping her hands: "Let's see the son of a !@#$. I want to know how big of a gun I'm going to need to pack."
Antonia grimaces and makes a few adjustments to her virtual keyboard. Seconds later, another hologram appears -- a Warbot, much larger and better armed than the previous ones.
"Gonna need bigger !@#$ing guns, Yanabah," Blastman says, coughing a little.
"I sure hope you can fight as well as you philosophize," Hanami says to Mister Freedom: "You may have picked the wrong time to test your immortality."
"Oh, I don't fight," Mister Freedom says, taking a closer look at the warbot that Gold Standard conjured up: "It's not in my nature."
"It's not in your... what?" Blastman says: "Are you !@#$ing kidding me?"
"Um, honey," Red Wrecker says: "You know we wind up doing a lot of fighting in this group, right?"
"I do, yes," the young man smiles, walking right up to the hologram and looking into it, as if he were searching for something: "But that's not who I am. I don't beat people up or down, or harm them. I seek to free them, one way or the other. And while that's not always a painless process, and while I am willing to incarcerate them, battle isn't really a worthwhile pursuit."
"Then what is?" Hanami asks, suddenly wondering what she allowed onto her team.
"Solving puzzles," Mister Freedom says, suddenly reaching up into the warbot's hologram and -- turning his hand into hard light -- doing something to the machine: "Like this one."
At which point the warbot shudders, lurches to one side, and collapses all over the floor in pieces.
"Um..." Yanabah says. Someone starts laughing. Red Wrecker jumps for joy and claps.
And Hanami smiles, in spite of it all.
* * *
"Wow," Gosheven says, looking at all the holographic information he and Randolph have to sift through, floating in the main room of the Paris safehouse.
"Yeah," Randolph says: "And we really need to get a !@#$ing jump on this. I have a damn bad feeling that if we didn't hear from her by now..."
He doesn't have to complete that thought. Gosheven understands.
And wishes he could split off another hollow man, just to have one more set of eyes to make this go faster...
Red Queen wakes up to the sound of music.
It's haunting and beautiful, whatever it is. Just a woman singing in what's she;'s almost certain is a Romance language, but she's not entirely sure which.
She's in the main room, now, but still naked. Someone's thoughtfully put her up against a wall, and put a tarp under her to keep her from making a stain.
In another room, she can hear him talking. Something about not needing eyes to see, or a mouth to speak.
She can, if she tries, just about move her head over to see what's going on. When she does she becomes aware of two things.
The first is that the President's daughter is now wearing some obscenely-tight, black PVC leather getup that leaves too little to the imagination at the back. She's also wearing a leather facemask that effectively blinds and gags her, but allows her hair to spill out the back in handle-like braids.
(The better to pull her around like a caveman, she thinks.)
The second is that she can't see out of her left eye. And there's a lot of bandages on that side of her face.
She gasps for just a second, and that proves to be a mistake. The music ends a second later, and then, just after, he's out of his room and coming towards her.
"Well, hello there," he says, looking down at her: "I see you've finally come around. It was kind of touch and go for a bit, there."
"What... my eye..." she mumbles, her mouth parched.
"Yes. Well, that's gone," he admits, tapping the side of her bandaged face: "'And if your neighbor's eye causes you harm, pluck it out,' as the Emperor said."
"Oh, just some old nonsense," the man explains, shrugging: "But you know how it is. Can't walk through blood and not have red shoes."
Something about how he smiles reminds her that she's going to kill him. But then she remembers he's got her gun -- or what was her gun -- and has her severely outclassed.
She's going to have to think her way out of this one.
"So, done hitting me, huh?" she says: "Thought I couldn't look you in the eye."
"Yes, I've decided to take a different direction, here," he says, clapping his hands. At that moment the girl comes into the room, somehow able to see through the leather of her mask: "Bring me a chair, love?"
She does, almost immediately. He takes it, turns it around, and straddles it all in one smooth motion -- folding his arms over the back and resting his chin on his wrists: "You see, as fun as it is to have another slave, I don't have to time to properly break you in. And I'm a bit of a perfectionist, as you might have guessed. So I think we're going to change things up a bit."
"Well," he says, gesturing towards the girl, who goes over to him right away so he can wrap an arm around her: "For starters, this young woman has served me fairly well over the last couple of years. She took a little breaking in, of course, and, as you saw the other day, nothing's perfect."
"True," he replies, smiling up at the girl with pride as he squeezes her leather-clad ass: "But I think she's about as good as she's going to get. So I've granted her manumission. And she's agreed to stay on as my apprentice."
"How noble of you-"
"And you now belong to her," he interrupts, smiling: "So, if I were you? I'd get a lot more fucking respectful. Because she's really wanting to show me what she learned. And, a little secret? Unlike me, she's not very nice."
The girl giggles behind her leather mask: "We're going to have a real fucking good time, slave."
"I thought..." Red Queen says, confused (and noticing how she's cursing, now): "I thought you... took out her tongue?"
"Oh, yes, I did," he says: "Her dad will probably be getting it by now. I told the delivery people not to fucking rush deliver it, this time."
"I got her a new one," he explains, getting up from the chair: "Are you really that fucking dense? I thought you'd figure that out when you saw she had all her fingers, and wasn't shitting in a bag, anymore."
"You mean... you're growing her parts back?"
"Give the shooter a half a gold star," the SPYGOD of Alter-Earth says, grinning: "I can put back what I take out, but I can also just make what I want from the original. Some things take longer than others, and some things are too damn complicated. But for what I was doing? Child's play. Literally."
The girl giggles again, running a finger up a long, shiny scar that goes from her knee to her thigh, and then even higher...
"And every time I cut her? Every time I took something out?" he says, leaning down to look Red Queen in the eye: "I was never kinder or gentler to her -- before, during, or after. I kissed her gently, fed her good food, called her 'cunt' instead of 'slave.'"
"How nice of you-"
"It was calculated, you little twat," he says: "I turned her into a surgical addict, and now she'll follow me anywhere as long as I promise to find new and interesting ways to take things out, and put them back."
"You... you sick..." Red Queen says, the leering in his eyes too much to take: "Sick... !@#$ing evil."
"Be quiet, slave!" the President's daughter says, pulling one of her former master's signature curved and serrated knives out of her rubber dress: "It's going to be hard to lick my cunt clean with a stump in your mouth!"
"Well said," the man says, patting her on the shoulder: "But you know something, hon? She's not wrong? I am fucking evil. And quite literally. I've been fucking evil for a long time, here on your broken planet."
The way he says all that is filled with a lost and sick bitterness that Red Queen's only heard reserved for one's worst enemies. In fact, it's the only time she hasn't seen him be another other than smug, manic, or cruel. So she decides to push her luck.
"Our planet's broken?" she says, looking up at him: "I heard about your world, buddy. SPYGOD told me all about it, one night, when he got really !@#$ing drunk and it all came pouring out. Sounds to me like you got it !@#$ing backwards."
"Oh, is that what you think?" he says, scowling at her: "Honey, could you give me and your slave a minute alone? I promise I won't ruin her before you get a chance to play."
"Of course," she says, kissing him on the cheek through her leather mask: "I'll get your things ready for your business trip, tomorrow?"
"Yes, just don't touch the gun," he instructs, giving her a good smack on her semi-exposed bottom as she goes: "It's fucking dangerous."
"The gun," Red Queen says: "You've got-"
"Do not. Change. The subject," he says, whipping out a knife and sticking the tip of the blade into the skin just under her last remaining eyelid: "You want to insult my world, girl? Really? You want to tell me that my brave and strong and... and honest world was broken?"
"Yes," Red Queen says, staring him in the eyes, no longer afraid of the worst: "Broken and evil."
"Oh please," he says, getting up and stepping away, incredulous: "You have to be fucking joking. You think this world is good? You think this sorry speck of rock is superior to mine?
"You coddle your weak and allow them to breed even weaker people. You give things to other people instead of taking them for yourself. Your law is based on false notions of equality, and you think you're actually helping people by putting them into prison, instead of just fucking punishing them for their crimes.
"And in war? Well, you're ruthless enough when the shooting's happening. But then, when you win? You forgive your enemies, just so they can turn around and fucking kill you, later. And even when you do get the balls to kill your enemies? You let their women and children alone to rebuild instead of killing them, too, or at least enslaving them if you need more breeding stock. And why-"
"Because we love each other, even in war," she says, hardly believing that she's the one to be saying these things: "And we forgive, because otherwise we never stop killing."
"Love," he almost spits the word: "You don't even !@#$ing know what that means."
"It means to care about someone else so much that you'd give everything for them to be happy and safe," she says, thinking of the times she's loved before: "It means you'd take a !@#$ing bullet for them. It means-"
"It means you're fucking insane!" he shrieks, getting right in her face: "Loving someone else? The best love, the only true love, is of the self! To say that you deserve everything you want, and can take it, because you are worth it! To say that you are better and more important than everyone else, and therefore deserve to continue in spite of them!"
"Well, if you don't like our planet, feel free to !@#$ing leave," she snorts: "Oh, wait, you can't."
"True," he says, not rising to her insult: "But now that I'm here for the rest of my life, well... I'm going to have to make some changes."
"Like what?" Red Queen asks, raising her remaining eyebrow at this preening madman who claims she's the crazy one.
"Oh, I've been busy," he says, grinning: "In addition to my ongoing project with the daughter of that jackass who sent you out after me, I've been doing good work with the whoremongers, in this city. I turn their darling sweet and shy girls into slaves or masters, depending on what they want.
"And based on what I've learned, I think I now know how to do the same to entire populations."
"Oh boy," she sighs: "Planet Evil SPYGOD. I can't !@#$ing wait."
"Oh, don't be too glib, slave," he grins: "You see, by the time my darling's done with you? You'll be in full agreement with us. You'll either be gloriously happy to be a slave, or deliriously privileged to be a master. Your choice, of course, but I'm kind of hoping you bottom out a slave, if you'll pardon the expression..."
"You'll never succeed," she says.
"Oh, I will. We will. We have ways to break you that you can't even fucking dream of-"
"I meant about the world, you moron," she says: "You wouldn't be the only would-be king who got a big whiff of his own !@#$ and thought he could get other people to like the smell."
"I'm not like them," he insists: "See, I appeal to the true side of humanity. The things you don't like to admit. The side that needs to fuck and kill and be strong enough to be selfish-"
"And when the good people see you for who and what you are, they'll be disgusted and smash you," she says: "Just like we did to the Decreator-"
"It's called the Nihil," he says, like a petulant schoolboy.
"Call it !@#$ing Santa Claus for all I care. We killed it. And you all just sat there and watched it come in because you were too busy being selfish and waiting for us to die so you could get our planet. But if you'd actually been decent and warned us, we could have helped each other-"
"Your weak and worthless planet deserved to die," he corrects her: "And we'd have outlasted you if you'd been visited by the Nihil first-"
"And you haters can't even do your math right," she chuckles: "Again, you lose. What more do you want? Maybe your Emperor can hold up a sign saying-"
That's it. He screams and jabs the knife right into her remaining eye, through the socket.
She doesn't scream, this time. She just gasps and lets it happen, hoping he actually ran it all the way back into her brain.
But no. He doesn't kill her. She can hear him walking away.
"Honey, I'm sorry," she hears him apologize -- apologize! -- to his former slave, now apprentice/lover: "I sort of broke your new toy after all."
And then she's out again...
"... oh, my head," Myron mumbles: "My goddamn !@#$ing head..."
He gets up off the couch, patting his temples. His skull feels like someone used it to throw bean bags at, his eyes hurt to move, and everything behind them is as hard as clay.
Hung over. He's hung over, and bad.
Normally he just drinks himself out of it, but he's been a while without booze. He can tell.
He licks his lips. Pats his crotch and smells his hand. Nothing to eat or drink for a while, and he hasn't pissed himself.
He looks around his living room, noting how weird everything looks. Like it's the same, but different.
Atnd he light from the windows seems wrong, somehow.
* * *
"No, it can't be !@#$ing Amsterdam," Gosheven says: "If we accept that this trade is going from east to west, then Amsterdam's too damn close to where it ends up."
"Unless he's there to throw us off," Randolph says: "I mean, !@#$, wouldn't that be perfect? Send the containers off to Asia, have them flow back to where you are, and by the time anyone goes poking around in China or Russia or whatever, you already know?"
"Well, that's true," the shapeshifter says, looking askance to deal with something in Moscow, and then Madrid: "And Amsterdam would be right up his !@#$ing alley, given the !@#$ he gets up to."
"And as long as he's !@#$ing smart enough to not !@#$ where he eats, he could be there indefinitely."
"Yeah, but you could say the same of a lot of places in Russia and Asia," Gosheven says: "I could see him hanging out in Moscow."
"True. And there's also a few places in Thailand and Indonesia."
"Also true. And, !@#$, Cambodia's a haven for some real freaks, these days."
"'Well it's a holiday in Cam-bodiaaaaa...'" Randolph sings, somewhat off-key.
"Oh no, we are not listening to that !@#$ again."
"Oh, come on-"
* * *
"I'm getting very tired of hearing that word," Straffer says, looking at the representative that BOWLER's sent over to the Space Service's Geneva station.
"Well, you will simply have to become more used to it," the thin woman in the dark, pinstriped suit says, adjusting her monocle as she crosses her legs once more: "I am authorized to deliver certain items of information to you, but not at the risk of jeopardizing any ongoing investigations we might have."
"And I think that, should you really consider the matter, you would agree that, were our situations reversed, you would behave in the same manner?"
He looks down at her and scowls, and then looks out of his small office onto the main floor, where their Martian "Guests" are still cooling their claws, a whole week later.
"I've been essentially stonewalled by the Martian government on this," Straffer says, sitting down at his desk: "And I've been promised cooperation from the NEU on this. And so far all I am getting is... this."
"You need only ask for specific pieces of information, and we will give them to you-"
"Provided they don't jeopardize any ongoing investigations, right," he sighs: "And without much in the way of context, as the background information might also jeopardize an ongoing investigation."
"Provided they don't jeopardize any ongoing investigations, right," he sighs: "And without much in the way of context, as the background information might also jeopardize an ongoing investigation."
"That is correct, sir," she says, smiling.
"Did I wake up in the Twilight Zone or something?"
"That's an excellent question," she says, still smiling: "When I was a little girl I wanted to wake up and find out that UFO was real, and SHADO was recruiting. And now I'm in charge of our extraterrestrial affairs branch. Isn't that wonderful?"
He just looks at her, wondering if he's still dreaming...
* * *
"Not that time of day," Myron says, getting up and moving around.
He's not 100% sure of when he was out -- or what he saw just before he went under -- but he's had a reliable internal clock since he became a Lithonaut, and it shouldn't be afternoon.
It should be approaching evening, now. Maybe even night.
He goes over to the television and turns it on. The channel he normally gets is out.
He clicks to the next, and it's nothing. Click. Nothing. Click. Nothing. Click. Nothing.
"On, but not connected," he surmises. Hits the radio on the stereo he has. Nothing but...
Wait, something. Wrong part of the dial.
Marching band music. Strange and jaunty.
And if he cocks his ears, he can hear it coming from outside his window, too...
* * *
"Man, I wish I could just go to Rakim with this," Gosheven says as Randolph plays with the shuttered blinds, clearly frustrated.
"Oh, never call him that, anymore. He's done with that !@#$."
"But he's still got the Brain Computer, right?"
"Oh yeah. I bet it could make easy sense of all this."
"I bet it could, too. But if we did that, they'd know you were still on the case," the outlaw journalist points out.
"Yeah, and then I'd be really !@#$ed."
"And when they asked where you got it, you'd have to either finger me, or else confess that Jess Friend is involved, and then they'll be after the President."
"Right," Gosheven says.
"So we can't do that."
"So we have to choose."
"And if we're wrong, she's probably !@#$ing dead."
They both sigh. And then look at the map at the one place that, all things considered, seems the most likely place for the most evil man in existence to be holed up in....
* * *
"Birmingham?" Straffer asks.
"That's where the ore was mined from, yes," the annoying woman from BOWLER says, gesturing to the photo of the container that Disparaitre's brains were inside: "In all cases, the containers were made from that metal."
"So, do you have any idea who might have bought it?"
"Well, that's the curious thing," she says, smiling: "That mine was tapped out in the early part of the 20th century. It was picked clean by the second world war, and hasn't been used since."
"Seems a long time for useful metal to be lying around before being made into something."
"Oh, no," she says: "The metal hasn't degraded that much. It was created fairly recently. Possibly within the last five years."
He thinks he understands what she's getting at: "This container was made from metal smelted from ore from a mine that hasn't been in use in a human lifetime here. On this planet."
"But not a certain other planet we have had the cosmic misfortune of encountering before," she says, raising an eyebrow: "I think we all know what I mean."
"Well well," Straffer says, realizing that this validates a lot of what the COMPANY's been finding out, lately: "Talk about an unpleasant surprise..."
* * *
... and the President howls and screams as he gets yet another mocking, rude note from his nemesis -- this time complete with a severed tongue, and photos of Red Queen being beaten and violated in a darkened room...
... and the Wandering Shadow sits in the dark of the room he's "borrowed," not far from the hospital, and decides the best way to kill SPYGOD before the operation...
... and Red Queen goes in and out of consciousness, as her new owner lovingly takes her apart and puts her back together again, giggling all the while...
... and Red Queen goes in and out of consciousness, as her new owner lovingly takes her apart and puts her back together again, giggling all the while...
... and Randolph Scott and Gosheven look at the map, deciding how to get to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and where to find their friend...
... and New Man, who's been listening into Straffer's conversation the whole time, and realizes that SPYGOD's doppleganger is behind the organ trade, after all, gets interrupted by an AGENT with some puzzling news about Myron...
* * *
... who gasps as he looks outside the window, seeing not a woodsy wilderness, but something entirely different.
Something very uncomfortably familiar.
"Ah, good," a voice comes from his door: "You're awake."
The door opens with a weird, humming noise. Standing on the other side of it is a tall, light-skinned man in a cream colored suit, wearing a bowler and a monacle, leaning on a complicated-looking cane.
"Who the... what... the !@#$?" Myron stammers, looking around: "What is this?"
"Well, I suppose you can't be blamed for resorting to profanity," the man says, gesturing to the area before him: "May I come in?"
"What is going on?" Myron demands: "Who the !@#$ are you? Where the !@#$ am I?"
"Ah, well," the man says, tapping the threshold with his cane: "Normally we answer questions with more questions, here. But this is early days, yet, so I'll be happy to oblige you."
"We have brought you here to answer a few questions for us," the man says, smiling: "I am the new Number Two.
"And you, my friend, are in the Village."
Myron blinks, and looks back out the window at a strange and surreal conglomeration of Italianate bungalows and buildings, all overlooking a long shoreline. Green lawns and archways. Small cars and people in bowler hats and dark suits. A band playing at a stand, seeming way too cheerful.
And everyone stopping in place as a horrible, metallic roarrrrrrrrrr comes from somewhere, and something akin to a weather balloon bounces along the road outside his window....
And everyone stopping in place as a horrible, metallic roarrrrrrrrrr comes from somewhere, and something akin to a weather balloon bounces along the road outside his window....
"!@#$ me," he says.
And then picks that moment to be horribly, violently sick.
And then picks that moment to be horribly, violently sick.