|"Talk to me and watch me crumble..."|
Numbers 2 and 101 (aka Myron)
(art by Dean Stahl)
* * *
* * *
* * *
Jesus christ, can anyone hear us? This is (crackle) with the Freedom Force. We're in seriously bad trouble, here. Please come in. If you can (crackle) come in!
Status is... well, !@#$, call it (crackle). Our transporter was shot out from under us as we (crackle) Russian border. We managed to escape that but (crackle) casualties. Hanami is seriously out of commission. We think Russian Steel is dead, it's (crackle) with him.
Everyone else is okay for now, but we're pinned down and getting !@#$ed up if we so much as poke our heads up. !@#$ers have us pinned down hard.
We think we're at 52 north by 109 east, if that means a goddamn thing. High ground between two rivers. And...
Ah, !@#$. They're bombing again. Hang on (crackle)
* * *
"Sir, you cannot leave," Josie insists, standing between New Man and the obvious exit off the Flier's bridge.
"!@#$ that noise, soldier," the older hero insists, his eyes glowing purple under his mask: "If they're up against those Warbots, I'm capable of taking them all out. We know this, now-"
"We do, yes," the large, pink-haired clone says, standing her ground: "But we also know that if you go, and we lose you, we are so screwed it's not even funny."
"If we lose them it's not even funny-"
"Sir," Josie says, raising an eyebrow: "As your second in command, it's my job to keep you safe. You ran off once and fought them. It knocked you out for days. And it left me in the lurch. I don't like either of those outcomes."
"Then what the hell am I supposed to do?" he says, crossing his arms and staring up at her.
"The same thing the COMPANY Director is supposed to be doing, sir," she insists, pointing to his station, and his chair: "Lead us from here. Call the Russians and the Chinese up, get them to help."
"Just like that?"
"Yes. And it wouldn't hurt to look into all these other problems that have cropped up, so far," she says, all but strong-arming him over to his seat: "Like that mystery bullet from Bangkok, for example-"
"Ballistics is looking into it-"
"Okay, how about the guy who melted his brain in Phnom Penh?" she presses on: "The one who killed a whole room full of Cambodian policemen, put Swiftfoot out of action, and pretended to be that outlaw reporter's adopted son?"
"I've got Rakim looking into that," he says, sighing: "But I got your point-"
"Good," she says, no longer having to shove him as hard: "Then while you're calling our partners on this venture, I'll try and call up any strategic talents that aren't taking over for Gosheven and see if we can get them to help the team out, provided our partners even let them over the border after this..."
He sighs again, and does his best to not listen to the one-sided calls coming from Buryat.
* * *(crackle) think they're done for now. Crap, that was close.
Listen, what I said about seriously bad? Make that double (crackle) serious. No one can see these people. They've got cloaks and jammers and (crackle).
Mister Freedom managed to get close but had to get away. He's just saying they're
(crackle), which doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense.
But they're playing it smart, this time. They know they can't beat us in the air so they
(crackle) us down to the ground. Now they're picking us off.
That's how they got Hanami. They just threw everything at her shields and (crackle)
What... dude, get the !@#$ down! What did (crackle)
* * *
"I'm a bit tight for time, doctor," Director Straffer says, looking at the smaller viewscreen off to the side of his office in Pontianak : "Can we keep this short?"
"If you like, sir, but..." the older, bespectacled woman says, not really comfortable with this.
"What's wrong?" he asks, knowing that look. He immediately puts all the other conversations on standby and puts hers front and center: "Is my boyfriend alright?"
"No," she says, shaking her head: "He is not."
"What's going on?" Straffer says, a hard, heavy lump traveling from his neck to his heart, and below.
"It's the damage," she says: "It's getting worse. It's spreading further back into his brain."
He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. He knew this was coming, but didn't think it would be this soon.
"How long does he have?" Straffer says, trying not to cry.
"If we put him into a medically-inducted coma, we might be able to slow it down. The body's recuperative powers might even be able to hold the deterioration in check. He is a super hero, after all."
"But he has been deteriorating all this time," the Director says: "His periods of semi-consciousness have been less frequent. He's been under more than he's been up."
"He's been under for the last 36 hours," she says: "And we don't think he's coming out of it from here."
Straffer nods. He takes a deep breath, and nods again: "Do we have any... I hate to ask this. But we were looking for someone who could replace Major Harvey, and use the equipment we were going to bring in. Did we find anyone?"
"Not with his skills and expertise," she says, very sadly: "I mean, we're not morons, obviously. We have the staff here. We can attempt to do it."
"I sense a 'but,' here," Straffer notes, somewhat sourly.
"But most of us were just flunkies, compared to him. He was like Mozart at the podium, conducting, and all of us were just playing along as ordered.
"I hate to say it, but the music might be dead, here."
He nods again: "I'll see what I can come up with. Keep me posted. As soon as I can manage it, I'll fly in to see him."
"That would be a good idea," she says. Then she respectfully closes communications.
Director Straffer sits there, in the dark, for exactly 60 seconds. Each one feels both like an eternity and yet no time at all.
And then he opens all the screens back up again, and goes back to doing what he was doing before the well-meaning doctor at Mt. Sinai told him that the love of his life is most likely going to die of catastrophic cerebral trauma.
A horrible death for anyone. A truly horrible way for someone like SPYGOD to go.
* * *
Hello? Is this !@#$ing thing working?
(crackle) just got hit by a beam. He's out. This is Yanabah, and I am !@#$ing pissed off!
Here's the situation, okay? We are !@#$ing screwed, (crackle) and royally. We are pinned down. We are being picked off every (crackle) we poke our heads up.
I'm able to do some damage with indirect fire, I (crackle), but I am !@#$ing running out of bloopers, here.
I should be dead already. The Chinese lady (crackle) me from splattering like that metal Russian guy. She's trying to (crackle) the bombs away but she can't do !@#$ against lasers.
And when they come at us... !@#$, we are so (crackle) dead.
* * *
"Well, sir," the well-heeled, German representative from FAUST says, looking down at the President as though he's something he just scraped off his shoe: "I hear you have had a terrible day?"
The President just looks at him from the bed he's been strapped to, not deigning to speak.
"I see," the man says, sitting down in a chair in the President's hospital room, making sure he's still able to look the man in the eyes. He really should be standing, but the AGENTS who've been tasked to escort him don't seem to care too much.
(They really don't like either of these people, frankly.)
"So, since you will not speak, I shall," the man goes on, folding his hands in his lap: "You are a wanted man, sir. You have been on the run for quite some time. There are many questions that need answering regarding your time as the President of the Terre Unifee. Many mysteries that need clearing up.
"And as we are still figuring out what to charge you with, your cooperation in this matter would be greatly appreciated."
The President looks at him as though he's wanting to say something, but failing. He moves his mouth but nothing comes out. He does this just long enough for it to look real, and then slowly closes his eyes and feigns sleep.
"Well, we have some time, I suppose," the man says, getting up and leaning in close to the President's face: "But know this, sir. We have you now. We are not losing you again. We are not letting you go.
"And what happens to you from here on our is entirely up to you, and how merciful I might be feeling that day."
With that he leaves. The President doesn't move from his position of false sleep for at least another fifteen minutes, just in case he's being observed.
But all the while, he's been thinking. Weighing his options. Deciding which way would be the best way to go from here.
Especially now that he has next to nothing to lose...
* * *
Yeah, okay. I'm back. This is Blastman. I took a (crackle) to the head but I think I'm okay.
I think. (crackle) that hurt.
Look, we are screwed. Please send in anyone you can. We are pinned down and our fliers can't (crackle) and our shooters can't get a good line of sight. And if they send in the damn troops to do hand to hand I think we're (crackle) !@#$ed, here.
And I'll tell you why... ah, crap. Incoming!
* * *
Jess Friend opens his eyes, and looks up. The room is dark, but he tell he's not alone. Somehow he just knows that there is someone else in there, with him. Watching. Breathing.
"Who's there?" he sighs, though he's pretty sure he knows who it is.
The person watching him doesn't say anything. He just stands there, maybe about ten feet away from him, in the shadows beyond what little light's coming through the covered-up windows.
"You made your point, man," Jess sighs: "I'm an idiot. You got me."
Still no answer. No noise.
"You need to know something, though," the former Secret Service Agent says, looking at where he's sure the person is standing: "I'm not afraid of you. You're a bully and a coward. You hurt people because you think you're better than them, but all you've ever shown us is that you're broken.
"And maybe that's a good thing where you come from, from what the President told me, but here? You're a freak. The sort of person people feel sorry for when they're kids, and then want blown away when they're adults and spreading their pain around. You're an episode of Steve Wilkos, only maybe he wouldn't hold back from pounding you."
There's movement, just then. The SPYGOD of Alter-Earth steps out of the shadow, so that he can be made out in the darkness. He's naked, and in the quarter-light Jess can tell that his entire body is covered in X-shaped scars -- an elaborate design, almost symmetrical.
He's also quite erect.
"You fear me," the man says: "And quite rightly so. I am a predator, in your eyes. I am the wolf stalking the flock of sheep. The virus in the bloodstream. The enemy.
"But all I am is a warped reflection of you, Jess Friend," he says, coming in closer and leaning down to look his captive in the eyes: "A shadow, cast by the light of your world. Or so you think.
"Me? I think you're the shadow. I think you're the warped reflection. A stunted, deformed thing that scrabbles around like a beggar before this weak and sloppy world finally summons up the balls to fucking kill you.
"So, you know how to fix a warped reflection, Jess?" he asks, his eyes black and dead pits in the darkness: "You get a new mirror. It's just that fucking simple.
With that he slips back into the shadows in two swift and languid steps. And then he really is gone, leaving Jess to shiver and shake until the morning's light makes him able to see into those shadows.
He's too afraid to sleep, otherwise.
* * *
Okay, back... where the (crackle) was I... yeah, Warbots.
Well, Red Storm was able to (crackle) what Mister Freedom said when he came back. (crackle) she said there's a number on their chest,. It's Chinese for 5.
When we fought them in Mexicali, they all had that O on their chest? That was Zero.
Which means they are a !@#$ lot more advanced than they were when we had that damn mockup of them on the (crackle). And that means his idea of how to (crackle) them out isn't worth a damn.
So, yeah. We are kind of !@#$ed, here. And things aren't getting any better.
So if you were going to send in the Machinemarines? Now's the (crackle) time!
Ah, crap. More (crackle)
"You awake?' Jess hears someone ask.
It's well into the day, now. He must have overdone the sleep once he could actually see the room he's been chained up in.
"If I'm not, I must be having a nightmare," he says, his eyes adjusting to the light of day. He's hungry and dehydrated, and not doing very well.
"Maybe to you, but to some I'm a dream come true," the SPYGOD of Alter-Earth says, his features coming into focus. He's dressed for the day, wearing tight black jeans and a printed dress shirt with a bilious green, spiderweb pattern. He's also eating something that looks good and crunchy from a paper plate.
"Angels to some, demons to others," Jess chuckles, in spite of the circumstances. He wonders if this is going to be the beating he was promised, or just more talk.
"You know, I just watched a damn funny movie where they used a phrase like that," his captor says, crouching down and looking up Jess' face: "I think Loreli said it's a horror movie, here. But I'd call it a comedy."
(Loreli. Is that her name? Bad memories of 70's music.)
"You would?" Jess says, trying to ignore how the smell is making him swoon.
"I would. But maybe nails in the head aren't funny over here?"
"Not really, no," Jess says, thinking he knows which movie he's talking about: "Though some of the later ones in the series are pretty laughable-"
He shuts up as soon as he realizes there's a knife at his throat -- curved and serrated, its edge perfectly looping around his neck. She must be standing behind him.
(He didn't hear her breathe. Why didn't he? How is she so silent...?)
"Don't you badmouth my favorite film series, asshole," she hisses: "You're on thin enough ice as it is."
"You so much as nick him, and you'll bleed for it," his captor says, and she immediately pulls the knife away from his neck.
"I'm more of an Evil Dead guy, myself," Jess says: "I guess you haven't seen those. They are comedies. After the first one, anyway-"
"You need to be fucking quiet," the man says, putting his hand around Jess's mouth and squeezing his muscles in such a way that his mouth very painfully closes, leaving him biting on his tongue: "And you need to understand that I am not your friend. Do you understand that?"
"Yes," Jess tries to say, but it comes out in a mumble and then the man squeezes harder, and he tries not to cry out in pain but winds up stifling a whimper the wrong way.
"No talking," he says: "Just nod your head. Do you understand that I am not your friend?"
Jess nods as best he can.
"Do you understand that the only reason I haven't fucking killed you yet is because I need you for something?"
He nods again, truly terrified.
"Do you also understand that, while having you alive makes things more convenient for me, I won't hesitate to kill you if you step out of line? I can always use someone else. I can always find someone else.
"I chose you for... oh, let's call them aesthetic reasons. But any good artist knows how to improvise. And I am a very good artist, when all is said and done.
"You fucking got that?"
Jess nods again. As soon as he's done, the man takes his hand away from Jess' face, allowing him to close his lips and deal with his badly-bitten tongue.
"You aren't even a slave in my eyes," SPYGOD's doppelganger says, getting up and looking down at his captive: "Slaves at least have some rights. You're just a captive of war. And that means your continued existence isn't even a privilege you can earn with obedience. It means that I'll do what I want, how I want, and not feel any issues at all.
"So no more smart mouth out of you. No attempts at conversation. You speak when spoken to. You answer questions truthfully. And you do what you're told, when you're told.
"If you do all that, well, you might just leave here alive. Whether you walk or crawl or have to be carted out of here like a sack of shit is my decision, but at least you'll live to talk about it."
Jess nods, and then gets smacked in the face so hard he actually feels some of his teeth crackle in their sockets.
"That's a form of speaking, too," his captor says: "Unless I tell you to respond, you just sit still. You got that?"
Jess says nothing, does nothing. He sits there and bleeds.
"Very good," the SPYGOD of Alter-Earth says, rearing back up again: "You're learning. I'd hate to break you too badly at this stage of things. It'd just make things less simple, later.
We'll talk more after you've had some time to consider things."
With that, he leaves. Loreli follows after, but not before leaning down and licking the trail of blood that's falling from Jess' lips.
"I'm going to fuck you while he kills you," she whispers in his ear: "Imagine that. Your cock in me while there's a strap-on knife in your asshole, tickling your prostate while he rips up your guts. If we time it just right you'll come in me while you die.."
And then they're gone, and all he hears from then on out is lovemaking that sounds so heated and violent that he eventually dreams of calling the police to report a fight.
Except that, when the cops appear, they all look like Styx, and arrest him instead...
* * *
"A costume party?" Myron asks, looking at the invitation he's just gotten in the mail.
The letter seems straightforward enough. It's printed on nice cardstock in that same weird font that everything in the Village is done up in. He's been invited to a masquerade ball in the Green Dome, Thursday the 8th. 8 PM, sharp. Drinks and light refreshments served. Dancing and gaiety. Blah blah blah.
One thing he finds interesting is the matter of the costume. It will be provided upon his RSVP, they say. All he needs to do is check the box marked YES and put it back in the mail, and they'll send him one.
Amusingly enough, there's only one box on the form -- the YES one.
Myron smirks, and decides he'll just leave it on the table, along with the other invitations and notices he was supposed to put back in the mail, but didn't. So he walks back into his bungalow, goes over to the table, and drops it down in that very spot.
"Oh, I really do wish you would come, 101," a reedy voice says, from almost right behind him.
Myron jumps and turns around, wondering how Number Two got into his house without him noticing. Except that he's not. He's on his otherwise-useless television, sitting in a black ball chair, and smiling at him.
"I see I was right," Myron says, looking down at the funny man on his TV screen: "There really is nothing good on television, anymore."
"Not from where I'm sitting."
"Yes. I guess we're all your reality show?"
"In a manner of speaking. But who's real, here?"
"That would be telling," Myron replies, sitting down on his couch and looking at the man in the cream-colored suit.
"How very droll, 101," the man chuckles, leaning forward a bit: "Don't think we didn't notice that rather amusing bit of social engineering you engaged in, last week. Rather cunning, I thought."
"You can learn a lot from simple observation," Myron says.
"Indeed," Number Two replies, gesturing to the space above him, most likely to indicate the top of Myron's television screen: "But the true test of any society is how it reacts when you stand within it, as participant. Something you haven't been keen to do, I've noticed."
"I don't like being forced into things."
"And yet you thrive within adversity."
"Some see it that way. But maybe the reason I thrive so much is that I'm trying to put in my time and get the !@#$ out. Did you think of that?"
The man smiles, and Myron notices -- once again -- how skeletal a grin he has: "I assure you, 101, we have thought quite a lot about you, and your unique predicament. Believe it or believe it not, we're here to help."
"Now that is a hard one to swallow."
"Well, let me prove it to you," Number Two says: "Come to the masquerade. Mingle, Speak. See what this Village has to offer when everyone takes off their hats and suits and gets to mingle with another. You may be surprised what you'll find."
"And if I refuse?"
"Well, we won't force you," the man says: "But then you'll spend the rest of your time wondering how it might have been if you'd only went."
He smiles again, and something about it tells Myron all he needs to know.
So he nods, bends over, and picks up the letter. He takes a pen and crosses the YES box off. And then he gets up, goes to the door, and puts the letter back in the box.
By the time he gets back onto the couch, the TV is dead, again.
And less than sixty seconds later there's a knock at the door. He opens it to find a man from Deliveries there, holding a small cardboard container, maybe the size of a shirt box.
"Your costume, sir," the man says, handing it over and then making that damned gesture: "Be seeing you."
"Yeah, yeah," Myron says, going back into his house and putting the box onto the table. He takes a deep breath and opens it up.
And then he almost dies laughing.
* * *
"You know, this really isn't !@#$ing funny," Blastman says to Mister Freedom, but before long he's laughing, too. And then Red Wrecker, from where she's sitting, next to Mr. USA, who's too weak to laugh but does anyway.
Yanabah laughs, too, but it's more ironic. Red Storm doesn't laugh because she doesn't get the joke, but at some point Shining Guardian uses his suit's translation apps to tell it to her in Mandarin, and while it doesn't make as much sense in her native tongue, she at least giggles.
Chinmoku doesn't laugh, but he does smile a little wider than usual -- especially when Swiftfoot keeps keeps trying to interrupt the laughter with yet another attempt to take control of things.
(And Russian Steel isn't laughing at anything, as he's working on coming back from the dead.)
They're in a crater, not far from where they landed a couple days ago. Pieces of their transporter are everywhere around them, smashed and burned into even smaller pieces by the almost non-stop barrage of laser fire and implosion bombs they've been dealing with since they fell to Earth.
And so far, there's been no word from the outside, and no sign of any cavalry coming to the rescue.
They're tired and hungry and on the edge of collapse. And yet, somehow, they keep going on.
Mister Freedom looks to the distance. He can already feel the tides shifting. Before long, they'll be firing at them, again, they'll have to fire back and shield and dodge as best they can.
Only this time, they'll be attacked by a new generation -- six, if he's sensing it right.
And still there's no chance for him to reach out and solve the group's puzzle through action, however indirect...
Soon, they'll be dodging and screaming instead of laughing. There will be shouted orders and calls to do this, that, or the other thing. Some of them will be injured, some will be hurt badly. Some may even die.
But for now, there is laughter, and comradeship, and levity even in the face of this disaster.
For now, there is the reason he became a member of this team.
And that's good enough, if only for now.
"Hon, I am so sorry," Antonia sighs, looking at Martha Clutch over the viewscreen: "We had to retask the brain computer to do something else. I have no idea when we're going to be able to reprogram it to help find Thomas."
"I understand," The Owl says, doing her best to not look bitterly disappointed: "I just wish... oh, God. I'm so scared."
"I know, hon-"
"How could you?" Martha shouts: "It's my son I'm talking about, not a damn pair of car keys! I lost him, and then I thought I got him back but he was..."
She stops talking, and then puts her hands over her face and closes her eyes. They're red and puffy.
"I am so, so sorry," she says after a minute: "I'm not handling this well. Not at all."
"Now that I do understand," Antonia says, trying to smile: "My hormones are all jacked up, too. I almost beat Fred senseless yesterday when he gave me a complement."
"Oh, thank God," Martha says, putting her hands over heart: "I'm glad I'm not going crazy. I almost did the same to Mark."
They both laugh at that, long and hearty.
"Look, I know they're not pleasant to deal with, but..." Antonia starts to say, and then regrets it.
"Who, our men?"
"No. Well, they have their uses."
"Don't they ever," Martha sighs: "But did you mean the Supergods?"
"Yes, but I know you went to them for help before, and nothing good came of it."
"Oh, I went back," Martha says, frowning: "I marched right up into Syphon's temple in downtown Chicago and asked to speak to her about finding Thomas. After all, if they put him back together again, there should be some way to track him, right?"
"That's what I was thinking. What did she say?"
"I don't know. They wouldn't even let me into the building this time. They said they'd pass on my request for aid, but I think it went in the circular file. They kept saying how they were all preparing for something really big and important and... well, Thomas isn't big, or important."
"Wow, that stinks."
"I don't blame them. I left a couple of her people with broken noses the last time I went in there."
She laughs at that, and Antonia just smiles.
"Look, I know this might seem like something you don't want to hear right now," Antonia says, leaning back as her hip muscles start to complain: "But, he's your son. You trained him, you taught him. I'm sure he knows how to keep himself safe. Even if he's not doing too well, the sense of self-preservation usually kicks in, especially in us heroes, you know?"
"So you're saying maybe I should stop worrying about him?" Martha asks, frowning a little.
"Well, you know, if anyone tried to mess with him while he's out there? I'd be more worried about them."
She smiles, and Martha doesn't smile back. A second later the viewscreen loses its connection, and when Martha doesn't call back in a few minutes Antonia realizes she may not have said the best thing, just then.
Even if it is, most likely, the truth.
* * *
"Yeah, I know, I can feel it," the kid in the hoodie says as he walks along the city street at twilight, shuddering as every car and truck goes by, and getting stared at by all the people walking alongside him: "The arteries and veins of the city, the cells rolling along, the bacteria on legs, is that what we are, bacteria, I didn't think about it like that before, but then when I was Neo York City I sometimes thought of the people as smaller things inside of me, and they were, but I didn't want to say that, I didn't want to think like that..."
"Hey man, spare some change?" a beggar asks, coming up to him with a Big Gulp cup full of clanking coins. He shakes it right in Thomas' face and grins -- broken and grimy teeth a story of his life.
"... change, that's what I need," Thomas goes on, acting as though he doesn't see the man, even though he's filling up all his senses with information: "Change of scenery, change of profession, change of life, change of mind, change of body, really, this one's no good for me, too alien, too strange, too perfect, I can feel the world moving under my feet, no one should feel that, that's too big a thing for so small a mind..."
There's shouting behind him, then. He turns faster than anyone should and sees that the man who just asked him for money is being accosted by two people in black uniforms, wearing guns that are clearly too large and dangerous for police to be using outside of a hostage situation.
"Hey man, stop it," the beggar says as one of them tries to knock the cup out of his hands: "I ain't hurting nobody-"
"We told you no begging here, pal," the large woman with short, black hair says, putting a finger in his face: "This is private property-"
"This is a street, lady," the beggar insists, waving his arms wide: "I got a right to be here."
"Not anymore," the other guard says, knocking the man's cup out of his hands. The change goes every which way, and each fall makes a new jangle of pain appear in Thomas' frontal lobes.
He's not paying attention to it, though. He's paying attention to the way these two guards are grabbing this man as he tries to get his money back. Those holds are made to incapacitate, not immobilize.
If they keep that up, they'll injure him, maybe severely.
"Man, don't get involved," someone walking by slows down to tell him: "Just keep walking."
"Just do nothing?" Thomas asks, the world slowing down around him, his brain finally quieting enough to actually let him think: "I can't just do nothing. Nothing is something. And that something is wrong."
"He's just some bum, man," the guy says, but Thomas is already heading that way.
"'And the King will reply. 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me...''" Thomas says, every sense he has narrowing down to a sharp focus as he puts his hands out and down, crouches low, and barrels towards the guards.
The two guards almost see him coming in time to react. One of them almost starts to tell him to back the hell off and let them do their jobs. The other almost gets a hand on her sidearm, not liking the look on the face of what's coming.
* * *
"Horseshoesandhandgrenades," Swiftfoot stammers, shaking the shrapnel out of his wild and raggedy hair as the Warbots change from implosion bombs to lasers, once again: "Thisisalotfdifferent."
"Tell me about it," Yanabah says, holding a compress to the wound on her thigh with one hand as she steadies her grenade launcher with the other: "I'm going to need another damn spotting if we're going to get a good hit."
"Those turn is it?" Red Wrecker asks, looking between Mr. USA and Blastman, neither of whom are in good shape to go up.
"No," Red Storm says, holding up both of her hands from where she's laying, flat against the ground: "Need rest."
"Youneedalotof!@#$ingrest," Swiftfoot snarls, zipping over to stand over her, and then kneeling down before their robotic adversaries can get a bead on him: "Isthatwhyyouwereofftheteam? Tooweaktocutit?"
She doesn't understand what he's saying, and shakes her head. So he says a few very rude things to her in a language she does understand, and the confusion gets replaced with anger.
At which point something crackles and booms, off in the distance...
"Leave her alone," Mr. USA says, weakly, trying not to cough: "That's not helping."
"Shut your goddamn mouth or I'll-"
"Cut it out, all of you!" Shining Guardsman shouts from where he is, over by Hanami, his hands laid up against her neck: "I'm trying to get her back up and running, here, and you all falling apart is not !@#$ing helping-"
"And I still !@#$ing need a !@#$ing spotter for this !@#$ing grenade!" Yanabah shouts as another barrage of lasers sends everyone scrambling for cover: "Does someone want to !@#$ing volunteer or do you want me to !@#$ing waste more !@#$ing ammo?"
"I can do it," Chinmoku says to her, leaping around just ahead of the deadly beams.
"What are you going to do, call a damn ghost?"
"I was thinking of leaping up and seeing for myself," he replies, looking to Mister Freedom: "If you would be so kind as to assist me?"
"I'd be pleased to," the Supergod says, smiling as he kneels down and holds out his hands so the martial artist can leap into them, and then be hurled up above the laserfire -- there to spin once, twice, three times, and then come back down on one knee.
"That way," the man says, pointing at the direction he saw the largest concentration of them: "A mile and three quarters. And the wind is three miles from the North."
"No," Red Storm says, closing her eyes. The wind picks that moment to stop.
"Thanks," Yanabah says, and, aiming her blooper accordingly, sends another massively-powerful grenade off at the Metal Plague.
There's the blast, then the sound of it flying through the air. Everyone in danger of losing their hearing to the blast hits the dirt and covers their ears.
And then there's a tremendous explosion -- a white and fiery light, preceded by a BOOM that shakes the entire world. Bits and pieces of their enemy rattle and clank around them.
Amongst them is a chestpiece. In the center, in a circle, is something that looks like a "t" that someone bent at the bottom.
"Qi," Red Storm says, sighing.
"Seven," Chinmoku translates, looking at Mister Freedom.
"Then here comes eight," Red Wrecker says, closing her eyes to enjoy the silence, if only for a moment...
"Will all of you just please shut up?" the Interim President shouts at all his Generals and Secretaries, putting his hands up before him as he sits at his desk in the Oval Office. He looks as though he's trying to ward off further bad news.
"Look, Mister President," one General says, trying to take it down a notch: "I know this is confusing, and very hard to process, even for us. But the bottom line is that we gambled that the Russians wouldn't go this far this fast-"
"And that our people in Buryat would be out of there by now," the Secretary of Defense grouses, looking over at the representative the COMPANY sent over -- one of the Josie clones, only with longer, blonde hair and fewer tattoos.
"But now this thing with Syria is getting really bad really quick," the Secretary of State says: "And I really have to say something-"
"But if you do that, we can kiss Russian help goodbye," the COMPANY representative says: "And then our people stay pinned down-"
"You think I don't know that?" Interim President Quayle says: "You think I don't know how much trouble we're all in right now? And you think I don't know that we need each other's help at the same time we're arguing with each other?"
"Welcome to international politics," Secretary Wheeler sighs, shaking his head: "But we don't have time for you to have a meltdown, sir. We need a decision. Do I go out there and raise hell to get the Russians to stop acting like !@#$holes, and bombing our people in Syria along with these IS people? Or do we stand back and do nothing for the sake of some damn superheroes-"
"Those damn superheroes are trying to stop the Metal Plague, sir," the clone says, standing up and glaring down at him: "The last time it erupted in a town, it killed 300,000 people in Mexico. Do you want to happen on American soil?"
"I don't want the Russians !@#$ing annexing Syria the way they've done to the Ukraine, lady," the portly man says, not bothering to get up, much less look at her: "I don't want them getting any more powerful than they already are."
"Look, I'm sure we can find a way between things," the Secretary of Defense says, but then someone knocks on the door and comes in, holding up a freshly-printed notice. And before he can say what it says, everyone's beeper goes off.
"Russian missiles land in Iran," the President says, looking at it, and then at each person in the room: "Well, I think that did it, folks. We can't remain silent, now. We have to say something."
And the representative from the COMPANY grits her teeth, knowing exactly what that means.
* * *
"I understand," Mr. USA says into his communicator: "I'll... I'll tell the others."
"I'm sorry," New Man says on the other end: "I'm doing my best, here. I am. But we need you to hold out a little longer."
"Yeah," the older hero says, coughing into his fist. It's coated with bloody spittle and chunks of his lungs.
He looks around the crater they can't really depend on for cover anymore. All of them huddling together in a blind spot. All of them waiting for those Warbots to start hurling implosion bombs at them again, so Red Storm can summon winds and hurl them back.
All of them wondering when the bastards will actually charge and get it over with.
Swiftfoot's run to get more supplies from what's left of the transporter. The last time he came back with some very nasty holes in his leg, but he shrugged it off and healed.
They're all healing, some more than others. But sooner or later they're going to run out of food and drinkable water. Sooner or later they'll be hit too hard to come back.
Sooner or later, the one vital link in their chain is going to go down.
He closes his eyes. There's silence on the other side of the conversation. And he thinks he can hear the 8th generation gearing up for another firing.
Or maybe it's the 9th, arriving at last to wipe them all out in one go.
Anywhere but here, he thinks, imagining what a privilege it would have been to just die in bed from old age. To just let this cancer take him when his medicine finally failed to work.
To have something normal happen to him once in a while...
* * *
"Announcing the entrance of... SPYGOD!" one of the costumed guards by the ballroom door says -- very, very loudly -- as he takes Myron's invitation to the masquerade.
Myron walks in, looking around the room as best as he can with a damned eyepatch over his left eye. The black leather suit he's just barely fits him, and all of his side pockets and pouches are crammed with items that are meant to look like guns, grenades, and ammunition, but are really corny, day-glo fakes.
He thinks he looks ridiculous - like someone who takes a water-pistol fight wayyyyyy too seriously. But as he walks into the crowded, blue-hued room, with its knots and whorls of conversation and half-heard music (is the band playing a swing-jazz version of Peek-A-Boo?), he sees that he's not the only one who's been saddled with a somewhat sarcastic costume. Half the party seems to be people dressed like weird super villains he half-remembers from old COMPANY briefings, but the other half are wearing only suits and ties, with handheld masks of ordinary-looking people.
"Announcing the entrance of ... Andrew Parker!" the guards say. In walks a woman wearing a padded man's suit, and holding a full-color paper mask of a fat-faced, bespectacled man in need of a shave.
(Myron thinks he recognizes the name. Wasn't he in MI-5...?)
His train of thought is interrupted by a flash of cream over by the punchbowl, next to one of the pedestals that have been set up for people to drink at or around. He sees the back of Number Two over there, holding court with a number of other people.
"So, was this supposed to be some kind of joke, Number Two?" he says, striding over into the conversation: "If so, it's in poor taste. I expected better."
"I expect you've made a common mistake," the man says, turning around to reveal that he's not, in fact, Number Two -- just a man dressed like him. Rugged good looks, blue eyes, strong chin, proper British accent.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Myron says, shaking his head: "I guess I thought he'd be exempt from the rule, somehow."
"Oh no, my good man," the fellow says with a smile, nodding over to a dais in the corner of the room where a few figures stand -- aloof and alone from the rest of the party: "He's quite in fashion, tonight, he and his cohorts. As you can see?"
Myron looks over there, wondering who everyone there is. Number Two's sort of easy to spot: he's wearing a black pinstripe suit and dark bowler, and using a handheld mask of the man he's just been talking to. But then there's a tiny, old woman dressed like a Jack of Hearts from a playing card, a fey man dressed in a black and white checked suit, and a tall, red-headed woman who's wearing a tight, white dress, spangled with sparkles and round mirrors. She's also got dark "horse-blinder" glasses on.
"He's dressed like you," Myron says: "So what is this, then? We come as our enemies?"
"Not always," the man says: "We come as those who define us, in a sense. Sometimes it's our enemies, sometimes our best friends, sometimes people we can't really tell friend from foe with. Everyone's a different story."
"So we're all here to wear our hearts on our sleeves?"
"Quite," he observes, handing Myron a short, clear plastic cup of red punch, which clearly is not spiked: "One of their many amusements."
"So who's who on the judge's stand?"
"Well, you know Number Two, obviously," the man says: "The short lady is the Chess Master. She's the one who plays us like pieces on the board, all rules and logic and strategy. She's dressed as the man who's talking to her, who's the Card Reader. He's the one who tries to get into our heads, using intuition and psychology, and maybe the ability to read the others at the table."
"So this masque is his idea."
"Bravo," the man says: "You catch on quickly."
"And he's dressed like her," Myron figures, trying some of the punch, and finding it rather crisp and pleasant: "Dissension in the ranks?"
"Possibly," the man says, stepping in a little closer so they can speak quietly: "I hear they're lovers, or possibly enemies. Sometimes I even hear they're brother and sister, or mother and son. I can only expect the truth is a combination, or a mistake in translation. It's all Chinese Whispers around here."
"And what of the tall lady with the red hair?" Myron asks, noticing how tightly she's gripping the ball as she looks around the room.
"That's Queenie. She's the one who takes what those two maybe-friends, maybe-foes have to say and makes a coherent plan. Or maybe she just sits back and lets them have their fun. Especially with the less impressive cases."
"Not you," Myron says, looking back at the man: "You're Number Two, and he's you. Have you been at each other's throats the whole time?"
"In a manner of speaking," the fellow grins: "He's convinced I need to tell him something important. I'm convinced he's deluded himself into thinking I'm the key to the whole thing."
"So that makes you Number 6?"
The man's smile goes a little off, but quickly rebounds: "No numbers here, tonight, friend. That's part of the rule. Here we are all who we pretend to be."
"Oh," Myron says, nodding: "My mistakes. What are the other rules?"
"Well, you may have noticed you can ask questions and get answers, for a change," the man smiles, looking around: "Which is what most people here are doing. It's a bit of a safety valve."
"And of course they're listening."
"Of course," the man smiles, raising his glass and tapping the side. Myron raises and eyebrow and looks at his glass, thinking he can see something running through its bottom - a circle that might be a line in the plastic, or a wire
"!@#$ing hell," Myron chuckles: "Well then, I suppose this is as good a time as any to announce I'm actually Eva Peron in disguise."
The man looks at him, and then laughs. And then stops abruptly as all the conversation, music, and motion comes to a sudden halt.
Someone not two feet away from them gasps and backs away from a pedestal as it puffs up and out, very quickly turning into a large, white ball.
There's that horrible, all-too-familiar roar, and the weird, electronic whine as it bounces after him.
And then it's got him up against a wall, and, as he screams, slurps him up into itself.
They all see his agonized face, pressed against the outside. And then he's gone, and the ball bounces across the room, heading for the door where they all entered.
The music starts back up again. Conversation picks up from where it left off. No one acts like anything just happened.
"It wasn't that bad of a joke," Myron says, the iron grip on his heart slowly loosening.
"No," the man says: "I think he got it."
They sort of both raise eyebrows at each other at that one, and then smile.
"We should talk," the man says: "The cafe? Tomorrow morning?"
"Absolutely," Myron says: "Come as you are."
"Not a chance," he chuckles, and then goes back to the party. The music changes to what is most likely Halloween (someone clearly likes their goth bands, here) and Myron looks over at Number Two, who he's felt looking at him the entire time behind that ridiculous mask.
The man makes the Vitarka Mudra with his free hand. He's most likely saying "be seeing you" behind the face of his foe, but Myron can't see or hear it. Nor does he really care.
He's too busy thinking of how stupid it is to leave a key in clear reach of a prisoner...
* * *
"So," the SPYGOD of Alter-Earth says, straddling the back of a folding chair in front of Jess, his big hands on top of the backrest: "I hope a day away has made a few things clearer to you about your current situation?"
Jess doesn't say anything. He's thirsty and hungry and hurting, but he knows if he responds without permission, this man's going to hit him again. And he really doesn't feel like losing anything else.
"Good," the man says, leaning in and looking up at his captive: "You really are learning, Jess. I'm proud of you."
Still nothing from Jess. Just a look in his eyes.
"Well, you know what? Just for that, I'm going to let you have a conversation with me, okay? I'm going to tell you things, and you can ask me questions, where appropriate. And I'll even be happy to warn you when you're going too far off the plan for me to tolerate it, so no surprise smacks. Sound good?"
Jess remains silent.
"Ah, good, good. You have my permission to speak, prisoner," the man says, waving a hand: "Does that sound good?"
"It sounds... great," Jess says, his voice a crushed and dry whisper in a mouth that tastes of blood: "Can I get some... some water? I won't be good to talk with...dry..."
"Of course," the man says, taking a squeeze bottle from behind him and letting Jess get a good, strong pull from it: "I'll even have Loreli bring you something to eat, eventually. But we've got some talking to do, first."
He gives Jess a while with the water, and then pulls it out: "That's good. That's enough. Don't want you fucking throwing up. Not yet, anyway."
"I already !@#$ed my pants. I don't know how worse... barf would be..."
"Yeah, I thought I smelled something," SPYGOD's doppelganger says: "I've gotten used to it, though. That kid. You thought babies shit themselves before? You should see what they do when you've got them ripped on good drugs. They're just like poop faucets. I'm surprised we haven't fucking run out of diapers, yet."
"Is that your evil plan, then?" Jess asks, really wanting some more water: "Giving drugs to babies?"
"Not really," the man says, smiling: "And let's not get fucking smart with me, Jess. There's nothing so painful as kindness repaid with scorn."
"You made my boss' life... a living hell for years," Jess says, scowling: "You pretended to be his wife. You messed up his... his surviving daughter in his own house. You gave him drugs to make him insane. And since then... well, you've been mailing pieces of that daughter to him in boxes every couple of weeks..."
"Guilty as charged," the doppelganger says, putting his left hand on his heart and his right hand up, as if swearing an oath in court: "So fucking what?"
"So I don't think you know... what kindness even is," Jess goes on: "It's like me trying to describe evil... without having met you."
The man smiles, sighs, and shakes his head: "You really just want me to fucking kill you, don't you? Just get it all over with?"
"No," the man says: "I know I said I could, but... well, plans have changed a bit. I now really do need you."
"Yay for me..."
"Yes indeed," his captor says, getting up and turning the chair around: "But before we get to far ahead of ourselves, let's have some visual aids."
He goes over to the door, where he's stashed some stuff. He brings over a small computer pad, a black box about six inches square, and a weird-looking gun that's only about the size of a .22
"This you probably know about," he says, holding up the gun for inspection -- it seems to pulse and breathe in his hand: "You had it shoved at the back of your head, once. It was what you got that poor cunt the sight for, so she could come and find me?"
"How do you... what...?"
"Well, I know that for two reasons, but mostly because it's two different things," he explains, putting the gun down and picking up the pad: "You see, when Loreli told you that you were being played? She wasn't fucking kidding. I've been riding your tiny bitch ass like you were in heat for years, now."
Jess opens his mouth to say something, but then looks at the screen. It's an encrypted email program -- state of the art, like he's been using -- and there's an email being drafted to his secret address from someone called Nemesis.
"See, I was positive you would fucking figure that out," the SPYGOD of Alter-Earth says, smirking a sharp as one of his knives: "I thought I was being too damn corny for my own good. But I guess everyone on your internet is supposed to have some edgy and cool persona, so I guess 'Nemesis' just blended right in. I guess you had an 'Antichrist' and a 'Doppelganger' in your address book, too?"
"It was you... all along..."
"Yes, me," the man says: "Me, getting you your anti-surveillance gear. It worked, but not from me. I tracked you everywhere you went. I saw and heard everything you were doing. Everything you were planning. I let you go just so far and then fucking punished you, but only when I needed to do some headwork on my special project."
"You mean... his daughter..."
"Yes, I do. My sweet little cunt, all grown up and ready to party. I am so proud of her. She's the one who helped me figure out how to do what I'm about to do, you know that?"
"What do you mean-"
"Oh, wait," the man says, grinning and holding up a hand: "It gets even better. Let's look at this little alien gun, again..."
He holds it up to show off the sight, right on the top, and wills it to become larger and longer: "We had one on our world, too, you know. The same species visited in times past, and we got the gun, too. But ours still had the sight, so our lord high executioner could just walk out of his special room in the palace, take a plane to wherever, and shoot the target from a few miles away.
"A really nice system, at least until he started listening to the gun too much, and got his own ideas about who lived and who died. So after they killed him, they broke up the gun and tossed it into something so fiery hot that it couldn't grow back. Too bad, so sad. Happiness really is a warm gun."
He grins at that, and then frowns a little when his audience doesn't get it.
"So I knew yours had to be missing its sight, as your Red Queen hadn't actually blown me away from outer fucking space. Lucky for me, the scientists who dug it up for your Hitler back in the 30's kept really good records on where everything wound up. Unlucky for me, the Soviet assholes who pilfered the ruins of your Third Reich didn't keep good records at all, and it took me a lot of time, money, and work to track the damn thing down."
"Those wacky Russians," Jess says, not liking where this is going -- at all.
"Well, yeah, but that's a whole different conversation. Let's stay on the path where I tell you that, while I was looking for the thing, it gave me time to work on a few other plans."
"Like the organ boxes, and the red market, at least at first. But then I had his daughter, and I managed to turn her into someone a lot more likable and useful. And then I used what I learned with her on those stupid country girls in Thailand and Cambodia. And what I turned them into? Oh my...
"In fact, I was having so much fun with all that, and getting such amazing results? When I did get the sight, I totally fucking sat on it. I decided to let the game run a little longer, just so I could perfect my technique.
"That and, to be honest, imprinting my mind and ideas onto that sight took a lot longer than I thought it would. That fucking thing put up a fight, but between me and my special little tool... well, we won."
"Oh no," Jess says: "Oh no..."
"Yes, Jess. Think it through. Think about the sight. Nemesis told you who to buy the sight from, and for what price."
"Oh god no..."
"Oh yes. And that the seller was also me. So that terrible thing your boss did to get the sight? I benefited, motherfucker. That was all me."
The SPYGOD of Alter-Earth looks down at his captive as he stammers and shakes, too weak to really scream as he wants to.
"Now, I have to be honest. It was kind of close. I knew that your boss was going to go talk to that spooky nigger with the time powers, down in fucking Africa, to find out where that French teleporter was convalescing. Lucky for me, I already knew."
"I know. You killed him."
"Yes, but let me tell you how I knew," he goes on, smiling: "See, I really got good with that damn transpistol and the fleshlight when I was pretending to be the President's wife. So I figured, fuck it, I was good enough to fool a smart President, why not a Frenchman with some mental problems?"
"You... you pretended to be Red Queen?"
"Gold star for you!" the man says, grinning: "That was about a year, right there. I visited him on the sly, maybe every other week. And I alternated between hard-fucking his cock and slow-fucking his mind, so that he never did get out of bed rest. I had that poor fucker so wound up he didn't know if he was coming or going."
"So that's how you got in to a locked room," Jess says: "He thought he knew you. He let you in."
"And we had allllllllllll the time in the world, he and I," the Alter-Earth SPYGOD says, rubbing his hands together: "All the time to take him apart. And all the while I was wearing her face, her body.
"And he just sat there and died by inches, thinking that this woman he loved, the only person he'd let into his little broken love life, after what happened to him on my world, had betrayed him."
He smiles and looks down at Jess: "And that is, I think, enough truth for one day. You get some rest, and I'll send Loreli in with some food."
"I'm not hungry... anymore..." he stammers weakly, trying not to throw up.
"Oh, you'll eat something," the man says, gathering up his props and heading for the door: "Don't make her shove it up your ass. She's got some weird thing for buttholes, in case you didn't notice..."
"Mudak!" the metal man is shouting into his patched-together communicator: "Nyet!"
He shouts a few other things into it, some of which makes Shining Guardsman's translators burn his ears, and then tosses it over the bluff of the crater. It's instantly turned to powder by the lasers up there.
"What did they say, Dmitri?" Hanami asks from where she sits, her body twitching as she speaks.
"They are saying they cannot be sending help in for us," Russian Steel says, pounding the rock by his sides with his fist: "They are being blown to pieces from the sky by these ass-sucking robots. Tanks and planes and missiles are all being no good."
"Well, !@#$," Yanabah says, looking at what's left of her grenade launcher.
"That's not all I heard," Shining Guardsman says, looking at the metal man as his armor repairs itself for the tenth time today: "How many megatons is that missile?"
The Russian hero glares for a moment, but then lowers his head and sighs: "100. Is being enough to cauterize entire area."
"100megatons?" Swiftfoot shouts: "Areyou!@#$ingserious?"
"I am being very serious, my friend. They are taking no chances, now."
"Then we have to stop these machines, and we need to do it now," Hanami says, her eyes darting around the crater at each team member: "All ideas on the table, people."
"My ghosts are being destroyed by their jamming," Chinmoku says: "Without them, my strikes and blocks are only flesh."
"I'm out of countermeasures and my batteries are damn near gone," Shining Guardsman says: "Sorry."
"I'm..." Mr. USA tries to say from where he lies, but he starts coughing up blood again. Blastman holds him up and shakes his head: "I can still fly, but they're getting through my shields."
"The Earth is my ally, and she is strong," Red Storm says, holding onto the ground: "But they're cutting me off from her. I do not know how this is possible."
"I can no longer withstand the lasers, and their bombs would destroy me," Russian Steel says: "I am being very sorry, comrades."
"I can hit them, but I'm no good with lasers," Red Wrecker says, feeling small and unhelpful: "I'm so sorry. I thought... I knew I could do better than this."
"And I'm immobilized from the neck down," Hanami says: "My shield emitters are blown out, and all weapons are done. Swiftfoot, I think we'll need your speed..."
Everyone looks around. The speeder is gone. And there is a heavy sigh.
"Well, at least he didn't take the !@#$ing rations," Yanabah mutters, looking at the week's worth of food and water he brought back on one of his supply runs.
"Mister Freedom," Hanami says, trying to look at him: "I don't know what all you can do here. But you're the only one who hasn't offered an excuse or started crying. Please tell me you can help us."
And the young man in black looks at her, and...
"...you stupid Negro," the dead man in high-tech, white armor hisses at him, inside his head: "Why do you hold back? I could have defeated these robots a million times over with your true power!"
"If you could use my true power, you would misuse it grotesquely, Bruno," Abdullah Ismail says to Foudre Blanc: "We cannot behave like that. I cannot behave like that."
"There is a puzzle, here," whispers the white statue of a long-bearded man, wrapped in chains of silver and gold: "It is not one that can be solved with fists or feats. It is a question of intent, and only by solving it will this day be survived."
"What do you know, you stupid old man," the disgraced (and dead) racist vigilante hisses, crossing his rotting arms and turning away from the two of them: "All you can talk about is puzzles! This is conneries."
"Yes, it is," Abdullah says, getting up and looking around. There's a lot of activity in the overmind, today. His fellow Gods are busy with something, but they don't seem to want him to know what it is.
"Brother Senchro," he says, calling to ancient, long-bearded man as he passes where the three of them sit: "I would speak with you, if you would hear me."
"I will always hear you, brother Restriit," the God says, turning and coming towards him: "For what are you but the ending of my duties? I can no more ignore you than Brother Noyx could ignore Sister Rahmaa, though I suspect they may wish to, the way they argue."
"All family is a puzzle, solved only by time," Abdullah says to the old man as they clasp hands: "Can you help me solve a puzzle I am now within?"
"If it is what we are about, over there, I have been asked to not speak to you of it."
"I thought as much, but I was referring to this one, over here," he says, gesturing to the crater below, and the team that huddles there in the space between seconds.
"What would you have me do for you?" the old man asks: "Shall I halt or slow the passing of the seconds, so that you might get away, or better defeat them? These I could do for you, though surely you can do something much more impressive."
"I could, yes," Abdullah says, casting an eye at the ghost of the man who tried to kill him: "But my shadow might ask too much of me for it. And I suspect the answer may require less drastic measures."
"Then what can I do for you, Ender of Time?"
"Funny you should put it that way..." Abdullah says, smiling...
"...Mister Freedom?" Hanami asks: "Please, this isn't a good time to try and solve a crossword puzzle in your mind-"
"I already have," the hero says, taking his hands from his manacles and holding them up: "The New York Times for the week, all the days. I've also beaten myself at chess, twice, but I might have been cheating.
"And if you'll all close your eyes and take a deep breath, I think you'll find we have some time."
They all look around, just then, and see that the edges of the crater are glowing a strange color. The world outside seems to be crawling to a standstill. A bird flying overhead, seemingly unaware of the carnage and the danger of the area, flaps its wings slower and slower, until it's barely moving at all.
"What...?" Shining Guardsman says, standing up and looking out into the world beyond. It's filled with swarms of Warbots as far as the eye can see, all moving up the mountain towards them.
"We have a week within a day," Mister Freedom says, gesturing to the field above them: "That will give us time to rest, to heal, to fix ourselves and one another.
"And if we are truly wise, it will give us the time to solve this mystery, so that when the bubble ends, we shall not."
Mr. USA looks up at him and smiles, wondering if he'll even last the week without his medicine. But suddenly he doesn't care as much.
Suddenly he has cause for hope.
* * *
"No I can't call myself that," Thomas says as he runs over the rooftops of the city, no longer bound by naive ideas of what he can and can't do: "I'm not the Talon, anymore, I'm not worthy of that name, I have to give it up as I've given up all over things, my family, my friends, I might be worthy one day, but not today..."
He leaps across a chasm between buildings, barely cognizant of the fact that it's more than fifty feet, any more than he realizes just how well he lands on the other side.
"Not the Owl, no," he continues as he runs, not slowing down for anything: "That's my mother, and I love my mother and she shouldn't feel crowded, and I can't be crowding her, and I can't be the Eagle because there's already an Eagle, somewhere, and I can't be the Bat because that would just be silly and a ripoff, and wow this is hard, who thought picking a darn name would be hard..."
He senses the building before he sees it -- tall and beautiful, with many regular strips of windows. He somehow knows it's been abandoned, if only because he can't sense any life in it.
And best of all, because he can almost feel the quiet that it would provide.
He smiles, thanks God, and runs even faster -- each swift footstep a fervent prayer for deliverance.
* * *
"What kind of temporal disturbance?" New Man asks, leaning over the very large table they've devoted to the Buryat problem on the Flier's bridge.
"Not sure," the AGENT monitoring the situation says, zooming a satellite feed in on it: "But it's definitely chronal energy. It's about twenty feet in diameter, and it's covering the entire crater that the Freedom Force have been pinned down in."
"Hopefully that means they're getting the hell away from there," Josie says, coming over: "I've just heard from the Russians. If the situation isn't solved by tomorrow, they're launching the nuke."
"Do we have anyone that can help us?" he asks, looking desperate as anything: "Anyone at all?"
"No sir," she says: "And they've stated that if we go in, they're going to shoot us down. And if we don't get shot down, we'll get court-martialed for disobeying the President, because he doesn't want us making things any more complicated."
"!@#$ing hell!" New Man shouts, purple crackles lighting up on his raised hairs: "Doesn't anyone have any good news to give me?"
"I do have something, sir," an AGENT says, coming up with a pad: "It's from the Brain Computer. Rakim says he was able to get an ID on that guy from Cambodia. The one who pretended to be Karl Scott?"
"Well, that's something at least," the COMPANY Director says, taking the pad away: "Who the !@#$ is Cosimo Cernuci?"
"Well, that's an interesting story, sir," the AGENT says: "I looked him up. He was once known as Il Vigliacco in Milan. He was a sneak-thief, infamous for breaking into the homes of the wealthy while they were out. He vanished after the Reclamation War, and the police there figured he'd died or given up crime.
"But then, after the Terre Unifee comes around, there's an Italian hero named Cavaliere Oscuro working for Le Compagnie. The Dark Knight. He wears black armor and a facemask, does a lot of sneaking around."
"So he's a villain they turned into a hero," Josie says, looking at the pad: "How does he wind up in Phnom Penh with a high-tech facemask and a canister of killer knock-out gas?"
"Well, I'm glad you asked that, ma'am," the AGENT says, taking the pad back and tapping onto a report: "We've got Gosheven's report from Madrid, following those fascist organizations. Democracia Nacional was pressing the flesh with some interesting people a little while ago, including some neo-fascists from Italy. Here's a photo of them meeting with some folks with Forza Nuova... and look who's at the meeting."
New Man and Josie look at the skinny, weasel-faced person. Then they look at a booking photo of Il Vigliacco, a quick snap someone made of the impostor in Cambodia before his head melted, and the eyes behind the mask of Cavaliere Oscuro.
According to the best facial recognition software The COMPANY's computer system can run, they're all the same person.
"So this has all just !@#$ing turned back on itself," Josie whistles: "But at least we've got an angle. Good job, AGENT."
"Thank you, Ma'am. Now, Rakim would like to know if he can free the computer up to help find that missing person-"
"Not right now, solider," New Man says, putting a hand on the AGENT's shoulder: "I want it hacking into the Russian defense network. There's a 100 megaton bomb with the Freedom Force's name on it. I want to know where it is, when it's set to launch. And I want it stopped by any means necessary."
The AGENT nods, salutes, and goes to make it happen.
"They get one more day of radio silence, Josie," he tells his second in command: "One more day for them to be heroes.
"And then, if I don't hear anything, I'm going in if I have to knock you out and walk over your ass on the way to the transport."
The large, pink-haired woman looks at him, and nods: "One more day and I'll fly you in personally, sir."
"You got yourself a deal," he says, shaking her hand and going on to put out the next fire.
* * *
"Please, this is a house of medicine and healing!" the Thai nurse says, chasing the Diviners down the hall as they slowly walk towards the special quarantine room at the end of the hallway: "Not superstition! You are not welcome here!"
Two of them keep walking, and the third turns around to regard her: "You deny that our lord, Satanoth, is the God of death, keeper of the dead?"
"I deny you your claim to know he's coming!" she says, putting a finger under the man's skull-face and snarling: "You just get your bony ass out of my ward, or so help me I'll-"
She grimaces, suddenly, and then falls down -- alive, but stunned.
"Forgive her, my lord," the Diviner says, turning to join the others on their grim errand: "She knows not what she does."
Someone calls the security, after that. The large, uniformed men race up the stairs and onto the landing, and then barrel down the hallway towards the quarantine room -- the one they were keeping that horribly mutilated farang in until they could figure out how to move her, much less care for her.
But once they get there, the room is deserted. All the equipment has been taken. The two gurneys they had her on are gone.
And no one saw them leave...
"So," the dark, cruel-looking woman at the table in the cave says to Myron: "Now that you're here, let's hear what you can bring to the group."
Myron looks at her, and then the man he met at the party, and the two other people at the table. And then he just shrugs: "I do a great impersonation of Vincent from Eureka when I'm too chunky for my own good, but I kind of drank the excess pounds away, lately."
"You're being too modest, surely," one of the other men says, tapping his grey mustache: "Our good friend in the cream suit seems to think you're quite the catch. He's spending almost as much time on you as he is on our friend, here."
"You mean Number-" Myron starts to say, but the man in question holds up a hand.
"No numbers here, friend," he says, smiling: "No names, either. We're all just friends, engaged in a... community project."
"Ah, well that's different," Myron says, putting his hands on the table: "What sort of project are we going to engage in?"
"That would be telling," the other guy at the table says, snorting. Some of them laugh at that, some don't.
Myron sighs and looks around the cavern. He followed a set of overly-complicated directions to get here, based on the note his new friend slipped him at coffee the other day. And the moment he arrived he was afraid the lady, who was guarding the door, was going to stab him with the rusty, old knife she had in her hand.
And now, everyone's being an !@#$hole. Great.
"Well, I could be useful in any number of projects, provided I knew what they were," he says, smiling back.
No one says anything to that. The friend from the party just smiles, and the woman looks from him to Myron, and scowls even harder.
"Do I have to guess?" Myron asks.
"You're not really well-suited for this sort of thing, are you?" the woman says, quite disappointed: "I expected better, I must say-"
"Well, you're not exactly catching me at my best," Myron snarls at her: "I spent a lot of time up in space, in a spaceship designed by the last things that tried to kill the planet, waiting for another, even worse thing that was going to do the same damn thing. And then, after we all just barely beat it, and barely survived to come back and accept the thanks for doing so, I spent the better part of a year in a cabin trying to finish the job that damn space monster started.
"And then, a couple weeks ago, I have a really weird day, and I wind up here, in what appears to be the actual Village from this old TV show I was forced to watch by my insane former boss. I can't ask questions of anyone who actually knows anything, and every time I turn around something weird and surreal is either happening to me, or someone else.
"And if I screw up too hard, well, I'll either get eaten by the big white ball, carted off to medical for some more drugs and brainwashing, or sent down the beach with a couple days' worth of Fruity Oaty Bars and a flashlight. And I don't think any of those sound very appealing, thank you very much.
"So you're just going to have to !@#$ing excuse me if I forgot to dress like an eager beaver for your little community improvement meeting, lady. Now either talk straight to me or stop wasting my goddamn time."
The man smiles, as does one of the other men there. The older fellow with the mustache seems as unmoved as the stern lady, though: "You say you faced this thing down, this Decreator. And yet you want to kill yourself? Why is that, friend?"
"Because... Jesus, weren't you paying attention? Were you living under a rock when it came?"
"Because you're weak," the lady says: "You're damaged. Just like one of the boys who went over the top one time to many back during the Wars-"
"Because to see it is to die, and I !@#$ing saw it," Myron says, pounding his fist on the table: "It was only for a goddamn picosecond, but that's all it takes. My VR rig hiccuped, and I saw it, and I should have died with my brains leaking out of my damn eyes... and I didn't.
"I lived. I actually saw the @#$ing Decreator and lived.
"But there's a piece of my brain that has that horrible thing in it, now. I close my eyes for too long and it's there. I think about nothing and it's there. That horrible thing, with that eye like an open !@#$hole, a tunnel leading to nothing, the darkness made alive and visible..."
He stops talking. He closes his mouth, and then his eyes. He shakes his head, takes a deep breath, and then opens his eyes again.
"This place has no alcohol. I can't get drunk and not think about it. I wake up screaming most nights, and it's a wonder no one complains."
"A lot of people here wake up screaming in the night," the man he met at the party says, looking him in the eyes: "A lot more wish they could scream. And some of them stop, eventually. They give up, and become like cabbages, sitting in a garden, waiting to be plucked."
"That's not us," the lady says, no longer as frosty: "No cabbages. No soup. We want to... improve our lot."
"Then let's improve it," Myron says, looking around: "I was thinking maybe some work on the trees. They seem a bit high."
"We were thinking something nice on the beach, actually," the other, younger man says, smiling.
"We'd just have to deal with the inflatable toys," the man from the party says, also smiling: "I thought you might be interested in helping with that?"
"I just might," Myron says, pulling something out of his coat pocket. It's a little something he found at the bottom of one of those plastic cups from the party -- a micro-transmitter, deactivated for safety's sake.
And everyone at the table smiles, then.
* * *
"Well, good sir," the man from FAUST says, sitting back down in the chair in the former President's room: "I hear you have been doing better over the last few days. Perhaps you are more ready to talk?"
"That depends," the President says, still strapped to the bed, no longer weak from screaming so much: "Are you here to charge me?"
"Not as such, no," the man says, gladdened to have his quarry talk to him: "I think we need to see this as a preliminary interview, perhaps? A laying out of the cards upon the table-"
"Excuse me," he says to the AGENTS standing behind the man, opening his eyes to look at them: "I am still an American citizen. I never gave that up at any time. And as an American citizen, I am entitled to due process of law."
"Whatever do you mean?" the man from FAUST asks, smirking a little.
"He means that he doesn't have to talk to you without a lawyer present," one of the AGENTS says, sighing: "And he's right."
"Well, if that is your wish," the man says, getting up: "But I should inform you that this can go two ways. There is the way where you cooperate fully with us, and we do all on your behalf to get you a reduced sentence. And then there is the other way, where we simply... how do you say? Throw the book at you?"
"You don't do this a lot, do you?" the President says, smiling up at him: "I bet you're so used to scaring stupid punks instead of people who used to teach Constitutional law. Well, no deal, sir. You want to talk legal action against me, then I want to talk to a lawyer.
"And then we'll see what you've really got to charge me with, other than having been in the wrong place at the wrong time."
That gets the FAUST representative good and mad, but thankfully one of the AGENTS gets him out of the room before he says anything that might be difficult to explain before a judge.
The President smiles and leans back a bit, considering things. Much to his surprise, it's almost as if he wants to live, now. He wants to fight and be free to walk away from the sad and sorry ruin his life's been turned into -- if only so he can find the man responsible and !@#$ing kill him for it.
Suddenly, he's very glad he took one, last precaution before leaving the apartment...
* * *
"Well, hopefully this works," Hanami says, not really liking riding on the shoulders of the Russian giant, though he seems to be happy to have his hands on her legs.
"It doesn't sound any crazier than anything else we came up with," Red Wrecker says, working with Blastman to steady Mr. USA, who's so weak he can barely walk.
"I kind of still like the idea of one straight, solid punch right through them," Blastman says: "But I guess we can't think about that...?"
"No," Mister Freedom says, smiling: "We all need to think differently. All of us."
"I can accept this," Chinmoku says, standing beside the Supergod: "Though I think, for safety's sake, any who cannot should stay here."
No one seems to volunteer for that, at least at first. But Yanabah picks that moment to take a big step backwards, along with Red Queen.
"I'm sorry," she says, looking at the top of the dome as it starts to fail, and time starts to resume as normal: "I just can't !@#$ing see anything there but targets. I'll !@#$ up the plan."
"I... am afraid," the Chinese heroine says, putting her hands to her eyes and crying.
"Should I stay and throw up shields, then?" Shining Guardsman asks: "I mean, if this works, you all won't need them. But they'll be sitting ducks."
Hanami looks to Mister Freedom, who nods: "We will be fine. Protect them, friend. We shouldn't be too long."
"If this doesn't work?" Hanami says: "I just want to say that it's been an honor. Thank you all."
"Thank you," Mr. USA says, smiling through red, tired lips: "You're an awesome leader. Gonna be great, someday."
"I think I'm pretty good right now, actually," she says, smiling back.
"This has been amazing week," Russian Steel says: "Thank you for the time. I am proud to be calling you all comrades."
"Me too, Dimitri," Blastman says: "Even if you do fart like a dying horse."
"Is horrible American rations," he laughs: "When we are done, we go to Moscow, I get you proper borscht. We see who farts like dying horse then!"
"I can hardly wait," Red Wrecker sighs, smiling a little.
"We will live through this," Chinmoku says: "And even if we do not, we will."
With that, he turns to the head of their small procession, and Mister Freedom puts his hands out, in what appears to be loving friendship.
And the dome goes away, and every single Warbot -- now generation 11 -- swarms into the crater with murder in its eyes...
* * *
"Oh god no..." Jess screams, his eyes wild and staring as he strains against his bonds.
"No, no use praying to him," the SPYGOD of Alter-Earth says, putting the TV tray right in front of the man's face: "He's not going to fucking help you, here. No one is. The only person who can do that is yourself, Jess.
"And I'm going to prove it to you, here and now."
"No, please," Jess begs: "Please don't do this... do what you want to me, okay? Anything to me! Just not to him-"
"You're fucking weak," Loreli says from where she stands, holding the baby at arm's length. He's naked and confused, maybe coming off the drugs that have made him poop himself into near-dehydration.
"Now," the man says, standing up and taking the black box in his hands: "Here's the deal, Jess. I've told you a lot of things. You need to get out of here and tell them. The bonds you're attached to are triggered by the pressure pad on this table.
"You eat what's put in front of you? It's going to let you go. But if you kick it over, well, you go boom."
"Well, what can I say, I'm really fucking fond of explosives."
"Please..." Jess begs: "Please, just let me go. I'll tell them. I will-"
"Yes, but I want you to do more than tell them, little useless bodyguard," SPYGOD's doppelganger says: "I want you to show them. I want you to be proof positive that you aren't just some fucking moron who backed the wrong horse twice, and is now peddling some doomsday story to save his ass.
"I want you to prove to them that the Devil is real, and Hell exists," he smirks, leaning down and giving Jess a big, nasty kiss: "I want you to sell my damnation to the world. I want you to promise them doom, in big fucking neon letters.
"And to do that, well, you're going to have to look the part..."
With that, he smacks Jess upside the head so hard that it almost gives him a concussion. He stops talking, and stops thinking, and becomes unable to move his head, close his eyes, or do anything more than gasp for breath.
Then he takes the lid off the black box, and puts the open end in front of Jess's face.
"That's it," he says, letting the nasty, pretty colors play across the man's face, and smiling as his expression turns from one of stupefaction into a bestial snarl: "Let it see you. Let it change you. Become you."
"Can I kill the fucking kid, yet?" Loreli asks, taking her baby by the legs and holding him upside down. He doesn't even make a peep.
"Just about," the man says: "I figure forty more seconds of this will give him about a day's worth of it. I don't want him winding down too soon. He's got a gospel to spread."
"I wonder if Josie'll taste any good?" Loreli asks, getting ready to swing the baby's head into the wall.
"I think he's going to be fucking delicious," the SPYGOD of Alter-Earth says as he watches Jess turn from man into monster -- or vice-versa, from his own standpoint -- though he really isn't thinking of the baby at all...
And as New Man sits in a COMPANY transport, heading for the Soviet weapons silo at top speed -- as Josie really knows how to push these things -- he wonders if he really knows anything about how this world works at all.
"It might not be him, sir," Josie says, for what's probably the fourth time this trip: "It might just be a mistake."
But he doesn't really hear that, either...
* * *
"So, you think you had a productive discussion with your friend, then?" Number Two asks his nemesis over coffee at the Green Dome: "Do you think he's going to help you?"
"I think we're all going to get along just fine," the man with blue eyes says, smiling as he calmly sips at his drink: "Past that, well... you'll just have to ask him yourself. Maybe at the next masquerade?"
"This is a damned dangerous game you're playing, Number 42," the man says, shaking his head: "If you go too far, I shan't be able to help you."
"Maybe that's the point," his guest says, staring holes into the cream-suited man over the coffee: "Sometimes you just can't help anyone..."
* * *
"... identified as former Secret Service Agent, Jess Friend, who'd been the bodyguard for Benjamin Franklin before that man's mysterious disappearance, not long after the fall of the Terre Unifee.
"Witnesses claim that he was raving as he shot his weapons, and screaming horrible abuse at them. He was also reported to have been naked, except for a helmet, and smeared in blood and fecal matter.
"The standoff ended when a police sniper shot him through the heart, as his head was too protected to get a clear shot. He was pronounced dead at the scene at 12:48 PM.
"Casualty lists are still coming in, but current estimates are that he killed upwards of 50 people and wounded dozens more over the course of ten hours. Many more are in shock from the utter ferocity and horror of the assault...
* * *
"Oh my god," Velma says, grabbing hold of Randolph and holding him while he cries in front of the TV screen, replaying the same horrible scenes from Baltimore, over and over in a bloody, violent loop.
"Oh god," he says, holding her: "Oh god. I loved him."
"I know, honey," she says: "I know."
"I loved him and I never told him..." he weeps: "I never said it. I just never followed up... god, I'm so sorry... I loved him..."
And then all he can do is weep, and all she can do is hold him.
Maybe that's enough, for now:
* * *
"I have no idea why he would have done that," the former President says, a lump forming in his throat: "None at all. He was a good man. A caring, compassionate person."
"We need to find out where he's been since the fall of the Terre Unifee, sir," the AGENT who's brought him the bad news says: "As far as we can tell, as soon as Ben Franklin... disappeared, so did he. We initially thought maybe they'd gone away together, or something, but as far as we can tell that's not the case. We were hoping you might be able to shed some light on all this, seeing as how you were close at one point."
The President looks askance, and then smiles, wistfully: "I wish I could help you. I have no idea what happened to him after Ben went back to his own time. Maybe you should send someone back to ask him before he died?"
The AGENT winces, wishing he'd known how much this man knew about what really happened before he'd been sent in here...
* * *
"My God, what has happened to this man?" the strangely-young Russian Army doctor says, looking at Mr. USA: "These symptoms..."
"He's got terminal lung cancer," Blastman says, holding the older hero's hand as he goes in and out of consciousness, here inside the silo they practically strolled into yesterday: "He's been taking medicine for it, but it ran out about... heh... about a week ago..."
"Well, at least he's still alive," the man says, looking into the room at the far end of the hall -- the one where the other members of the Freedom Force are gathered, waiting for someone to come and see what they've called in.
"Yeah," Blastman sighs as another long line of generation 11 Warbots march past, following Shining Guardsman: "At least there's that..."
* * *
"Were there any complications?" she hears someone say after a long time of silence. His voice is deep and brooding, as though coming from the other side of the grave.
"None, my lord Satanoth," someone says, his voice shaky and fearful: "I had to give the gift of sleep to a nurse, but no harm came to her."
"That's acceptable," the voice bellows: "You may go. Await my orders outside."
There's scuffling, and then the sense of being seen by something not of this world intensifies.
"Red Queen," she hears him say: "You have always served me well, woman, so I shall give you a choice. Will you have death, now? Or will you allow me to return you to life as something greater than you could ever imagine...?"
* * *
"I could stay here forever and ever," Thomas says, hanging upside down from the top of the abandoned theater he found in the building: "It's so beautiful so beautiful so quiet so peaceful and yet I can hear the whole city from here if I want to if I want to but that's the trick I have to want to I have to desire to put my feelers out my feathers my yes feathers I like that feathers but still what should I call myself I can't really do the Owl or the Talon or the Condor or the Eagle or the Bat and leaves a whole lot of other names but I really think that..."
He stops as something flies past him, and lands nearby. It's a crow, and it regards him with a large, black eye.
"Oh that's just silly," he says: "Come on God I love you with all my heart but there's already been a movie about that and the poor guy died making it and the sequels were terrible and mom wouldn't let me read the comic until I was older and I can see why but really I can't be the Crow there's already a crow and they'd laugh if they saw me..."
And then he looks again, and realizes he's made the same mistake that so many people tend to make on first sight. It's not a crow at all. It's a raven.
"'Who provides for the raven its prey...?'" Thomas quotes, in part. The Book of Job.
And he laughs, long and happy...
* * *
"I really don't want to be here, right now," Director Straffer says, looking at the person who's sitting across from him with a mixture of pity and disgust: "If there was anyone else I could talk to, I'd be there.
"But I don't have anyone else to talk to. Not really. And I'm told that's because of you, in the long run, even if it's not really your fault.
"But... here's the deal. I am told that you are amazing with surgery. I am told that you are capable of doing something incredible with another human being. Something terrible, certainly, but if you used it for good-"
"Fuck your good, faggot," the President's daughter says -- chained to the table and under armed guard -- "Your evil is my good. I have a human right to be what you call selfish."
"Then help me out of selfishness," Straffer says, leaning forward: "Because I'm in a position to get you everything you might ever want, provided you help me with my problem."
"Anything?" she says, raising an eyebrow.
"You save my fiance's life, and yes, anything," Straffer says: "I have the authority. And I'll be damned if I don't have the right to be selfish and use it for this."
She grins, just then -- big and wide. Her face reminds him of a skeleton's, and there's a moment of experience where he almost imagines himself walking into another room, somewhere else in the world.
In that room, there's a dais, surrounded by all kinds of strange, old industrial electronics -- things that look distinctively Soviet, and yet not.
On that dais is a chair, made to contain a human rather than sit him comfortably.
There is such a human there, but he's little more than a skeleton covered in paper-thin skin. Almost every inch of his body has wires going into or out of him.
And he can almost sense the eyes he's seeing through tearing up in horrible anguish as he recognizes his own, long-missing son under all those wires...
... and then the moment's gone, and it's just him and the guards and the victim of the most evil man on this world.
A victim who has agreed -- in her own profane and offensive way -- to help him save the life of the double of the man who turned her into a monster.
But can barely hear it over the sound of a wail, carried across continents, of a father who's just lost the last hope he ever saw of finding his son alive.
(SPYGOD is listening to Help Me Lose My Mind (Disclosure) and having an Abita Purple Haze)