|"Serving death by remote control / and unrestricted firearms"|
(Art by Dean Stahl)
* * *
* * *
* * *
“Dad?” the young boy asks, looking over at his father – his body framed against the setting sun as they dig into the hungry sand of the desert.
“Yes, son?” the man says, not turning around to look.
“How much longer do we have to dig here?” he asks, wincing as his hands find yet another splinter in the ragged shovel he’s using. The gloves he was given didn’t fit him, and are too hot.
The whole world is too hot, right now.
“As long as it takes, Wendell,” the shadow his father’s become answers, pausing just enough to look back at his boy: “All the signs pointed to something being here. We just have to find it. We just have to believe."
“But what if it’s not here?”
His father shovels once more, and then stops, turning around more fully. For a moment the boy thinks he’s going to get yelled at, again, but his father surprises him by just smiling: “Son, if I didn’t think it was here, we wouldn’t be digging. I’d have the others do it.”
He gestures to the men over in the shade of a lean-to, hiding from the hot sun.
“This is our discovery, son,” the man says: “We’re going to put our shovels into the past, here and now, and pull it out for all to see. We’re going to own this moment and call it our own. And no one’s going to take it from us.
“Not now. Not ever.”
He smiles, then, and goes back to digging – maybe a little more energetically than before. Wendell nods and tries to keep up with him, but fails, and is soon just content to be here with his father, looking for treasure in the hot, swirling sands of this desert waste.
“Herr Williams?” someone asks. A German accent – sharp as a knife, but not without a certain warmth.
His father keeps digging, so Wendell looks around. He doesn’t see who says it, though. There’s just his father, the men in the lean-to, and him.
That and the sand, stretching all the way to the horizon…
“Herr Williams?” the voice comes again, and this time Wendell realizes he’s the one being spoken to. Which is when the dream begins to disintegrate around him, and he slowly opens his old, tired eyes to see who’s chosen to wake him up.
His sickroom is bright white – much too luminous to wake up to – and he can’t focus on anything, at least not at first. But, by degrees, he realizes there’s a man who’s mysteriously appeared in his room, by his bed.
He’s an older fellow, this interloper, and wearing a black, leather uniform with a bearing that can only be military. Short, grey hair that’s meticulously groomed, along with a smart mustache. A large pistol at either hip.
A red swastika wrapped around his upper left arm.
“Good morning to you, sir,” the man says, smiling as he leans forward to look at the face of the old, bedridden man: “I must sincerely apologize for interrupting your nap. I find I am needing them more and more, myself.”
Wendell Williams tries to ask the obvious question, but his words come out wrong. They often do, these days.
“Your nurse? Well, I find I must apologize again. He was not very welcoming to us, and we are on something of a tight schedule.”
The old man turns his head to the left, to look at the door to his sickroom. Masked men in black leather uniforms are carrying the sorry and bloody ruins of his nurse away, out into the hall.
They also wear the red swastika on their left arm, and carry high-tech rifles he hasn’t seen the like of in many years.
“You are a very difficult man to find, Herr Williams,” the man by his bedside says, pulling a silver cigarette case from the inside of his coat: “Especially since your stroke, some six years ago. They say that you died, then. Indeed, I have stood by your grave, and seen the documents.”
He lights up a smoke, reveling in the taste and the smell, and closes his eyes to enjoy both. When he opens his eyes there’s a sharpness to them that was not there before.
“ But they were obviously forgeries,” the man continues, waving his free hand as he exhales a cloud of sweet tobacco: “After your accident, you wanted the world to think you were dead. You did not want to be questioned about what had befallen your special friends. Not in your condition, at any rate. And especially not without them to come and save you from such an interrogation.
“ And who can blame you,” the man continues, gesturing to his body: “A man of your age, done in by misfortune. I understand you can only move the right side of your body, and then only just a little. Speech is difficult and tiresome. You are mostly fed through these tubes, and must be changed like a small child.
“Not a great ending for such a man as yourself, who has lived such an amazing life, yes?”
Wendell closes his eyes, wishing he could still use his body to do more than thrash around helplessly in his nightmares. This would be a perfect time to put a gun to his head.
“But I am being rude,” the man says, putting the cigarette out on the bottom of his boot: “Do forgive me. We have not even been properly introduced. My name is Wilhelm Keitel. I am with ABWEHR. I expect you know what that must mean, even in your condition.”
Wendell nods, weakly.
“Good. Good. We are men of some intelligence, you and I. It would do no good to lie to one another. Not when this meeting has been so difficult to arrange, and is so truly important.”
Wendell tries to say something, but fails.
“How? Well, that was the most difficult bit. We had to find the man who has been treating you, and persuade him to tell us what we wished to know. You will be pleased to know that he was very difficult to persuade. A very loyal man, even to the last, but then we are experts at making people talk.
“And yes, when we were done with him, we killed him. But we did so quickly and with some degree of mercy. He was, after all, very cooperative by the end.
“We can afford such kindnesses, even in time of war.”
“Josef, bringen sie das gerat hier,” he says to one of the men in black leather. He receives a smart, heel-clicking Nazi salute in response, and then the man whirls around to obey.
“So we understand one another, Herr Williams,” Kietel says, clasping his hands together: “I have come here to find out all you know about the gods you brought back with you to Earth. The ones you called the Olympians. And such is the gravity of what you know that I must know all that you know.”
The man comes back, thumps a very large briefcase down on a table, nearby, and then pushes it over to the edge of the bed. Keitel nods to him, and the man opens it up to reveal a strange sort of device, there within the case.
“I don’t know if you know what this is, to your right. It is something the Soviets created, some time ago. It is called a Nebylitsin machine. Its purpose it to extract all the information from a human brain.”
He lights up another cigarette, taking his time to enjoy it.
“It was originally created to remove all knowledge and experience from their more useful dead, so that they could go on serving their state even in reduced circumstances. But they also used it as an interrogation tool, as it’s quite useful as a… what do they call it, a punishment weapon?”
The man smiles, almost wolflike: “Yes, that is the term. You see, it is a rather painful thing to have one’s entire life ripped from one’s mind. It works just as well whether one is alive or dead, but they say that to die at the hands of this machine is the worst sort of prolonged torture.
“They also say that, by some quirk of the machine, the pain that would normally kill a man instead keeps him alive, so that the full process must be endured before death will finally occur.”
Wendell nods again, weakly, and the ABWEHR man leans in a little closer: “So, to be clear? I do not need to have you alive to take what I need from you. I could, if I chose to, kill you before the process began. A simple injection of poison into your feeding tube should to it. You would be dead in minutes, and there would be no pain.
“I could do that, if I wished to.”
Wendell’s eyes get as large as plates, and he tries to say something. It comes out gibberish, as always, and Keitel nods as though he understands every word – and perhaps he does.
“Well, that depends on something, Herr Williams. A small gesture from you to me, I think we could say?”
He takes a drag from the cigarette and smiles, clearly looking forward to this explanation.
“Now, this may shock you, Herr Williams. But when we learned, all those years ago, that you were the one who had brought these Olympians to Earth, we had to marvel at how the world works in such strange circles. Synchronicity, I think they call it, now?
“You see, we have had problems with another person with your name. Your father, in fact. During the time before the War, he was a constant thorn in our side. Our Ahnenerbe was always running into trouble, thanks to him. He was notorious for knowing what they were about to do before they did it, and arriving before they did to try and stop them.”
The man nods at a strange expression Wendell makes: “Yes, this is the truth. I suspect you did not know what your father did during the war because he wished to protect you, knowing how impulsive you were, even as a child. So rash, so quick to anger and to act. Had he died, then, you might have been pushed to avenge him against us.
“As it was, we had to wait a long time to gain our vengeance upon him. His last expedition into the Amazon, in search of the lost city of the gill-men? We are the ones who put him into that particular scent, Herr Williams.
“And we were the ones who ensured his expedition went into the jungle, but never came out…"
The man smiles at that, once more, but stops smiling when he sees the furious expression on his captive’s face: “Ah, well, this was not the best time for you to have learned this, clearly. But as I said, I want there to be no secrets between us, now. I want us to be clear and honest.
“So, to that gesture. I was happy to avenge ourselves upon your father for his foolish interference in our affairs. And I consider that chapter essentially closed, but yet this ironic meeting represents a new situation for us.
“You see, though the others will not admit it? I think we are all very jealous of you, Herr Williams. Very jealous indeed.
“We tried to become gods, my friend. We took dangerous drugs, exposed ourselves to weird science and odd accidents, sold our lives and souls to things that promised power, and did not always follow through on their end of the bargain. And while some of us got a measure of power, so many others simply died, if they were lucky.
“Some would eventually wish they had died, as I am sure you know.
“And there you were, Herr Williams, coming back to the world with this group of real gods, all ready to enforce their will upon the world? Smiling as though you’d truly discovered something? ‘The ultimate in archaeology,’ I think you once called this?
“Well, we were quite jealous. Also very embarrassed, and ashamed.
The old supernazi frowns for a moment, and then goes back to a smile: “Now, please do not misunderstand me, Herr Williams. I am not a cruel man. I like to think that I am practical and decent, especially compared to some of my contemporaries and fellow travelers.
“But I am also a proud man, and must do as honor dictates.
“So, here is what I propose,” Keitel says, leaning back: “I want a sign of fealty from you, Herr Williams. I want you to recognize, through your actions, that we have at last won through. I want your last action and your last words to reflect that fact that, after years of standing there and smiling as your gods destroyed our plans and schemes, we have finally beaten you.
“I want you to raise your arm like this,” he says, giving a Nazi salute: “And say to me ‘Heil Hitler,’ as loudly as you can.”
Wendell’s eyes go wide. He begins to stammer, not certain if he’s being mocked. Doesn’t this man know he can’t talk..?
Keitel’s smile tells him all he needs to know – full and evil, and very, very wide.
“Heil Hitler, Herr Williams,” Keitel says, raising his own arm and saying the words without difficulty: “I know you can do this, if you try. If you just believe.
“You can believe, can’t you?”
And Wendell Williams, at long last, begins to scream.
He won’t stop for several hours from now.
“So, how is he doing?” Josie asks the blonde man on the other side of her office viewscreen. Below her, Washington DC slowly slides by – its buildings like hazy toys in the morning sun.
“Well, the doctors tell me he’s healing well,” DirectorStraffer says, all but nursing the cup of coffee he’s cradling in his hands: “From the surgery, I mean. It’s quite a thing to open someone’s head up and remake their brains, even for Mt. Sinai.”
“And everything else?”
Straffer sighs, not really wanting to explain this one more time to a well-meaning friend: “As near as they can tell, the parts of his brain that handle visual input are gone. Completely wiped out. His optic nerves are there, but they might as well be going into his damn kidneys for all the good they’re doing.”
“Can’t they go back in?” she asks, running a hand through her pink hair. She’s been letting it get longer, lately. She’s not sure she doesn’t like it this way.
“No,” Straffer shakes his head: “Not with the device that Hoosk gave them, anyway. Apparently one of the conditions is that it can only be used once per person. That’s why it was so essential to get it right the first time."
“And why you moved heaven and Earth to get her to do it.”
“I don’t think Heaven wants any part of what we did,” he grouses: “And what’s worse, he doesn’t remember anything after he put the Chandra Eye in his head.”
“Nothing at all?” Josie blinks.
“Not so far as I can tell,” Straffer says, trying to not cry into his java: “He looks at me like I’m a complete stranger. Treats me with suspicion. Talks like it’s still the sixties."
“That’s got to be damned awkward.”
“Tell me about it. He still thinks Nixon is President. Wants to get together with Jack and Jackie when he gets better.”
“Is that what he says, though?” Josie asks: “About getting better?”
Straffer shakes his head: “I’m not sure. Sometimes I think we’re getting through. Sometimes I think he thinks we’re Soviets, and he’s been captured and we’re trying to get information from him.”
“That sounds like him,” she smiles a little: “From what I understand, anyway.”
“I don’t know what to do, here,” he sighs, wiping away a tear: “I’ve lost him. The man I fell in love with is gone. All the experiences and ideas that shaped him, they’re wiped away. And seeing him just sit there in that bed, not sure if he’s going to accept his condition or try and kill me and get away…”
“He’s going to have to work hard to do that,” she says: “And brains are weird things. Neural pathways reform all the time, they just do it slower than you’d like.”
“So he might get it back after all,” Straffer says: “Which is what the neurologists are all telling me. But they don’t really know, either.
“It’s entirely up to him,” Josie says, leaning forward: “And I know you don’t like hearing that, because it means you have no damn control over this. But you have to get used to that. You have to be strong for both of you, now. And you have to trust in him to get himself out of that bed and back up again.”
“I don’t know if he can,” Straffer admits: “Blindness is a terrible thing. I had an uncle lose his sight to glaucoma. He just wasted away as his sight got worse. By the end he just let himself go.”
“Well, it’s a good thing he’s got you to catch him, then,” she says, trying to smile: “Listen, I’m sorry, but I have to get back to the Deck. We’re still picking up all the pieces, you know?”
He nods: “Same here. Ever since Paris…”
She nods in return – they don’t need to say any more about that – and then they close their viewscreens almost simultaneously.
The sudden darkness in their respective offices says it all.
“So what do we know about these people?” the large, middle-aged German man says to his rough and tumble, overly-tattooed – and much younger – fellows as they tromp down a darkened, smelly hall. All of them wear leather jackets and sport very short haircuts, as well as illegal handguns down the backs of their jeans.
“They’re with the cause, Jens,” the one leading them says: “They don’t care about nations or language, or even politics, really, as long as you’re not some communist arschfotze.”
“That’s a relief,” the big man replies to Heinrich, spitting a rather fragrant slop of tobacco at the wall: “I’m a free market man, myself.”
The men are all that’s left of the Berlin group of the FreeGerman Worker’s Party – or at least Jens is. He’s old enough to have been politically active when the neo-nazi organization was banned, back in 1995. Since then he’s been running quiet, recruiting the right people at the right time, and careful not to draw too much attention to himself.
At least until now.
Now, after the shameful attack in Paris, he’s had something of an epiphany. Now that the message that his group was trying to spread all those years ago – that those foreigners were best left outside Europe, if not shot dead in a ditch somewhere – was becoming part of popular political culture, again, he might actually be able to resurface.
And now maybe they’d listen to what he had to say, rather than try to sweep him under the rug with all the embarrassing antiques of the 20th century...
They get all the way to the end of the hallway, and Heinrich knocks on the large, metal door that sits there. Three loud bangs, each exactly a second apart.
A few seconds later someone opens it up, and takes a good, long look at the small group there:
“Heinrich, these are your men?” the man asks, his accent a guttural French.
“And you are…?”
“FAP,” Jens says, smiling with pride.
“And this is all of you?"
“All the true warriors. The rest are either dead or in prison.”
“No one just quit, eh?” their interrogator asks, smiling a little. His teeth are blackened, like decaying snow.
“No quitters allowed,” Heinrich says, returning the smile: “You’re in or you’re out, and if you’re out, you’re under.”
“Six feet under,” one of their fellows giggles, and the others snort at his cleverness.“I like dedicated men,” the fellow at the door says, opening it up just another inch: “But just to be certain? We operate the same way. Tonight’s just the sales talk, in both directions. But if we let you in all the way, well, you can go home anytime you like, but you can never leave.”
“Heinrich explained the situation,” the Jens says, putting his hands into his coat pockets: “It sounds like you have a lot to offer. So do we. If you want to talk, we’ll be happy to listen.”
“Good,” the man says, opening the door the rest of the way: “Please come in, gentlemen.”
They do, and once they step inside the room beyond they are astounded by how well-appointed it is: rich wooden furniture, fine wallpaper, gilded pictures of luxurious scenes, and very modern technology and equipment. It’s like walking through a junkyard and finding a perfect sportscar, restored to cherry condition, just sitting in the ruins.
“Unglaublich,” Jens says, looking around, and then fixing his eyes on what’s clearly the focal point of the room. It’s a large, wooden desk, up against the wall, sitting in front of a long, red banner with a big, black O in its center.
Behind that desk is a strange man, wrapped in a shiny, grey suit that must have cost as much as the desk itself. His skin is white as ash, his lips are as black as coal, and his eyes are blood red and smoldering, like live coals.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” Helvete says, standing up behind the desk: “Welcome to Odal.”
And maybe it’s how he looks, or the way his breath makes the air before his face shimmer and warp, but Jens suddenly remembers the way he felt, watching those old movies of the Third Reich. The way he felt the first time he went to a FAP rally, and felt the power of hundreds of young men and women saluting and shouting their leader.
It’s all he can do to not start to do the same to this man, here and now. He has no idea why. But as the man speaks, and tells them of what Odal is – how many others have joined, what they can do, and what they will do – he realizes he’s finally found the leader he’s been searching for, all his adult life.
And by the end of it the big man is actually weeping tears of joy.
* * *
There’s a tent on the edge of the desert, far and away.
It’s a large and opulent thing, that tent. It looks like someone was trying to remake an Ottoman palace in white fabric, complete with minarets. One almost expects to hear fanfares when the flaps open up.
Inside, there’s a man. He sits on a mountain of cushions, enshrouded in shadows so dense no one can see him. Not even the armed guards who patrol the insides of the tent – somehow able to do complete circuits within a structure that should only be thirty feet in diameter – can make out his exact contours.
All they know for certain is that when he asks for things, he must reach out of the shadows to take them. And when they do, he appears to be wearing a silken, saffron robe.
And his hands are so clean and pale that they seem to gleam in the light.
It’s some time after the morning call to prayer that he asks for a phone. One of them has the honor of handing him a satellite phone – bulky and large, but untraceable – and standing nearby as he makes a call.
“Today, my servant,” the leader of El Hadhih says, using Urdu for some reason: “Today, you must show them fear. Do as we discussed. Know that you will soon be with me in paradise.”
That done, he returns the phone. He makes no comment as to his actions, and his guards know better than to ask.
Russian jets streak overhead, heading for their targets, some distance away. They have no idea that the true enemy is below them. They couldn’t even see the tent if they were standing right next to it.
It is as if the hand of God were hiding it from view.
And maybe he is.
* * *
“You know, this must be the strangest commission I have ever taken,” the brown-haired man in the luscious, gilt and white suit says, smelling the rose he’s placed in his lapel pocket. His voice is deep, with touches of Andalucía about its edges.
“But you will do it?” the old woman says, her body wrapped what seems a thousand layers of cloth, so that only her gnarled, old hands and sunken, dark eyes are visible.
“Well, that depends,” the Spanish assassin replies, looking up at the soothsayer before him, here in this squalid, Cairo apartment with its flies, smells, and sounds of Cheb Mami coming from next door: “Will I be paid in coin or in cards?”
“You will be given your choice of reward, sir,” the old woman says, tapping the cards before her: “Coin or favors. Men or women. Power for yourself, or the taking of it from another. Anything you may need. Anything you would desire.”
“Needs and desires are two different things,” the assassin replies, smiling and twirling his long, delicately curled mustache: “But I take your meaning, my lady.”
“Then you will do this for our friend?” she asks, almost pleading with him.
“I will,” Gunblade says, sliding from a seated to a standing position like a man made from snakes: “I will find SPYGOD, weakened and in hospital. I will not speak to him, nor engage him, but will instead run him through with this blade” – he pats the strange shotgun-sword he’s taken his name from – “and shoot him in the face as he lays dying.
“And none, not even my target, shall know who I am, or why I have done this. Only that it has been done.”
“Then it is agreed,” the old woman says, seeming amazingly relieved: “I have fulfilled my bargain at last. My curse is lifted. My life is ended.”
“Well, good,” Gunblade says, smirking as she reaches under her fabrics to find the knife she’s been wanting to use on herself for a long, long time: “But tell me this, my dear. Was it worth it?”
“Every moment,”: she says, and perhaps it’s true.
He doesn’t stay to watch her kill herself. He goes into the other room, takes a robe from where he hung it, and disappears into the heat of the city beyond – just another effendi hiding amongst the faithful.
And suddenly very, very hungry.
So, nothing like wearing your !@#$ing breakfast to wake you the !@#$ up in the morning, son. Especially when you can’t see the damn sun.
The guy who’s been looking after me for the last month? Well, he came in with my eggs and bacon, and was all upset about something that happened out in California, yesterday. Apparently two shooters had taken out over a dozen people in San Bernadino, and everyone was talking terrorism and whatever.
(No real details, yet, or else he’s withholding something. Damned if I know what, though.)
Well, I started needling him. How did I know this wasn’t all some ruse to get me !@#$ing talking? How did I know he was who he said he was, or that I was actually blind?
How did I know I wasn’t in !@#$ing Moscow, having a damn game run on me?
There was a long silence. I thought maybe he’d left. But then I hear him stomp over, grab my tray, and drop it on my head. And he leaves, muttering something about can he get a divorce before he actually says ‘I do.’
Let me tell you, son, one of the worst things about being a prisoner is not really !@#$ing knowing what’s going on.
I mean, you got a sense of some things. Call it prison math. There’s the !@#$ing prison, and it’s where your damn cell is. There’s the cell, and it’s where you’re staying, either all or some of the time. There’s other prisoners, unless you’re so damn dangerous they made a jail just for you.
And there’s the guards, even if you can’t !@#$ing see them.
I’ve been in jails before, son. Korea, especially. And that !@#$ing sucked giant horse balls through a damn straw. Taught me a lot about what it meant to be !@#$ing powerless. Unable to save my friends and teammates.
Unable to do a goddamn thing but sit there and watch while horrible things went on around me.
So I figure I got a sense of when I’m in a jail and when I’m just being !@#$ing inconvenienced. Which is why it’s so damn aggravating that I have no idea what’s going on right now.
The guy who claims he’s my damn husband, or fiancé, or whatever the !@#$? He says it’s 2015. He says we’ve been lovers for an age. He says he came back from the dead for me, and I more or less returned the !@#$ing complement.
Except that I didn’t really come back in one piece. I’m blind, at least according to him. And I can’t !@#$ing remember a damn thing since that day I went into that temple in Bangladesh and got that damn eye in my noggin.
Apparently, I had some really wild !@#$ing times since then, especially over the last couple of years.
He says I got settled into a long game with all those crazy science villain outfits I used to fight. I spied on them and let them spy on me in order to keep everyone from going !@#$ing crazy and blowing the world to !@#$ with space laser bombs, or whatever. I settled for letting them kill however many civilians a year, and then only retaliating so far, for fear of them setting off doomsday weapons if I kicked their asses too !@#$ing hard.
And then, a few years ago, I just stopped being so damn timid and careful and decided I was going to go after all them. Which is, according to him, when a whole lot of bad, weird !@#$ went down.
He hasn’t told me the whole story. He says I’ve been keeping audio logs and maybe I should listen to them. And I have, at least a little.
But I listen to this person talking, son. And while it’s my voice, and my personality, and he sort of reminds me of myself…
Well, !@#$, son. You ever get so damn !@#$ed up at a party that you don’t remember what you did, but everyone tells you what an asshole you made of yourself the next day. And then you actually see a movie they made of you that night, and you can’t !@#$ing recognize yourself doing those insane things they told you about?
You ever see yourself from the outside, naked and unashamed, and have no goddamn idea who that !@#$ing clown is?
Well, son, that’s who I’m seeing. It’s like someone gave Hunter S. Thompson a million really bad drugs, told him he could make foreign policy decisions, handed him guns they haven’t even !@#$ing invented yet to do it with, and then just let him loose on the world.
Good news is that I finally !@#$ing killed ABWEHR and put the Big Man from the Legion away. I got a bunch of harmless ex-supervillains killed doing that last one, but !@#$ them.
Bad news is that I got Costa Rica blown off the damn map taking down HONEYCOMB, and caused the world to get taken over by GORGON, who were actually space invaders all the damn time. Called themselves the Imago, took us over, killed most of our political structure, right and left, and I had to waste most of the Unknown Armies to get rid of them.
And then I really !@#$ed up, apparently. Got the current President really !@#$ing mad at me. Well, ex-President. He went from being President to a prisoner on Alter-Earth, then my sidekick, then President, then President of the world, then a damn fugitive, and now he’s !@#$ing dead after a botched jailbreak.
(Yeah, tell me about it. Does this !@#$ come with an index? If you keep needing someone to say “previously” when you have to explain your life, you know things got way too damn complicated for their own good.)
But yeah, in the time the now-dead President was in charge of things, I was under house arrest for some damn dumb but apparently necessary mistakes I made while saving the world from these Imago !@#$ers. And then we got out, got busted again, but it was all part of the damn plan. And then I was in space saving the world from a goddamn space monster that was going to !@#$ing kill us all.
And to do that, I had to give up the Chandra Eye, which left me half-dead and was going to kill me. Except that the now-dead President’s daughter used a thing to save me, but she actually !@#$ed me up in the process. And that’s because she’s gone crazy because the evil Alter-Earth twin of myself that I didn’t think existed, but did, turned her insane.
And to top it all off? The cherry on this !@#$ing sundae of a life I can’t !@#$ing remember?
Apparently there were gods walking the Earth, once. They acted like superheroes, back then. Then they went away, and no one can really give me a straight !@#$ing answer as to what the hell happened to them. In fact, they keep !@#$ing asking me, like I was involved or something.
And now they’re back, and they’ve created some kind of white city, down in !@#$ing Mexico of all places. And there’s long-ass lines stretching to either horizon full of people who want to get in and drink their damn water. And some crazy group of racists, who also hate Martians, who we’ve been taking in since Mars got !@#$ on when I killed that space monster, are trying to burn that city down, and…
Yeah, yeah, son. I guess I do need a big damn index for all this !@#$.
So I figure the question is simple, son. How badly do I want to believe that I’m actually okay? That I’m just being !@#$ed with in a dungeon under the damn Kremlin, and they’re trying to get me to talk without using a N-machine on me?
And how willing am I to admit that maybe, just maybe, they are telling me the damn truth? That it is 2015, and I’m engaged to a man I can’t even !@#$ing see anymore, and never ever will?
That the COMPANY’s not mine, anymore. That all my old enemies are gone, and new, more complicated ones are waiting to take the !@#$ over?
That I’m stuck in this strange, new world I can’t !@#$ing remember, and not really well equipped to handle it?
Time was, to hear this guy tell it, I’d have just drunk twice my damn weight in booze, grabbed a big damn gun, said !@#$ it, and went out into the world to make it make sense with a bullet or fifty.
But now I’m not sure that’s an option.
Now I think maybe I better get serious about accepting this !@#$ sandwich I’ve been handed, before this guy decides to just let me cook my own damn eggs and wear them.
Or maybe I’ll just sit here, listening to the !@#$ing birds outside, and seeing if I can hear the tape loop, or catch them in a mistake.
Just in case they’re really that good.
“Man, this sucks,” Blastman snorts, looking at the front doors of the Inland Regional Center.
“What part?” Mister Freedom asks, tensing his wrists inside the manacles he always wears.
“How about all of it?” the older hero asks: “I mean, Jesus. They were having a holiday party. The place helps kids with disabilities. Of all the places to just open up firing…”
The old man grits his teeth and looks away, over at the media trucks, and all the cameras. Red Wrecker’s over there, being photogenic and trying to have a decent conversation with someone from FOX News. She doesn’t seem to be succeeding.
“And then there’s the damn press,” Blastman grumbles, wishing he could just go over there and toss their trucks down the block: “All happy to take our picture and say oh, look at the heroes. Where were they when we needed them?”
“We were elsewhere,” the escapist says, looking to the southeast – many, many miles away from here – and considering how many layers of truth he just spoke.
“Exactly!” Blastman exclaims, throwing his hands up: “And so they blame us for not stopping those bastards. It’s not like we knew this was coming or anything.”
“Not at all,” Mister Freedom says, wondering whether Kanaan is smiling or not, just then.
“Whack jobs with guns. I swear, they’ll be the death of us all.”
“It’s worse than that, gentlemen,” Mr. USA says, landing behind them. He’s not smiling at all, which is distinctly unnerving.
“How?” Blastman asks: “Did they take out the reborn Dalai Lama while they were at it?”
“If only,” the hero says, looking at the cameras as they all swivel towards him, and he waves – smiling as warmly as possible: “We might need to be on hand to prevent hate crimes.”
“Because the two shooters weren’t just shooters,” the hero says, sighing: “I just got back from the tactical command on this. They were Muslims.”
“Oh,” Blastman says, shuddering.
“Yes,” Mr. USA says, looking back at him: “Now, we don’t know everything yet. It’s possible they were just acting on their own accord, rather than this being done on someone else’s behalf. They’re looking through their correspondence and email right now to see if there’s a link.”
“All things are linked,” Mister Freedom says, noticing how the news cameras have suddenly gone away from Mr. USA and Red Wrecker, and onto their respective reporters, as a certain piece of news suddenly hits the fan.
“Yeah,” Blastman says, looking at his teammate: “Should you be out in public, man? I mean, I know you’re not part of this, but…”
“We’re all part of this, even if we aren’t,” the escapist says, not turning around to look the older hero in the eyes: “All one big story, full of little words that live and breathe. Only we words can decide where the narrative ends, even if we had no choice over its beginning.”
“That’s amazing,” Mr. USA says, honestly in awe at the man’s gift with phrasing
“That’s not going to go over well with John Q Gunowner,” Blastman says, shaking his head: “Maybe we should look into getting him off the streets before someone tries to hatecrime him.”
“Maybe we should stand firm with our friend and show people there’s no need to fear,” Mr. USA insists, putting a hand on Mister Freedom’s shoulder: “That’s what I’d want to do, anyway.”
Mister Freedom nods, but does not smile. As he turns around to face a different direction – perhaps feeling the weight of so many cameras upon him – he sees a trio of advertising trucks go by. Each one bears the poster he’s seen so many times over the last month: the image of the White City of Olympos, and the promise DESTINY AWAITS.
“But whose?” he muses under his breath, already knowing more than he wants to about a number of things his own teammates have yet to learn, much less imagine.
He’d like to think they’ll take the news well, when it comes, but for a man who deals in illusions he has precious few remaining.
“Uh, you know, that really is a damn good way to get killed,” the hired gun says, looking at the man they’ve been hired on to accompany on this particular job.
“I’ve been thinking about that,” the hooded man says, looking down at the bright Detroit night, below the penthouse wall he’s standing upon.
“And?” the gunsel asks, hearing his colleagues grumbling and cursing as they work like mad to defeat the door that keeps them from getting into the glass and plastic home, perched atop this super-modern building.
“And I think this city really likes its sacrifices,” the man answers, turning to look his underling in the eyes. It’s not a comfortable meeting of visual organs, and the gunman quickly looks away, genuinely terrified by what he sees there.
The man on the wall just laughs, and then – with a superhuman speed and agility – he leaps up, over, and then down onto the safe side of things, his long, black coat flapping about him as he does.
“No need to worry about me, disposable henchman number two,” the Penitent says, sauntering over to the door: “Worry instead that our employer fails to receive the package we’ve been sent to retrieve. Worry that I will have to make amends to him by slaughtering each and every one of you for his amusement.
“And worry that I will have to do the same to your families, should that fail to please him.”
The men at the door all gulp in unison, and then redouble their efforts. The hooded, cloaked man crosses his arms and smirks, wondering if he should chew the razor blade now or later – when then job is done and he actually has something to be repentant about.
“I think we got it,” the one at the door says, and, sure enough, the door finally gives way. All the men around it back out of its swing, allowing their terrifying leader to enter first.
“Tear this glass house down to the stone!” he commands, twirling around the classy atrium they’ve just entered, a darkened Chihuly forming the centerpiece of the ceiling: “Find the thing we’ve been sent to uncover! Each minute you delay is a minute I consider killing one or more of you just to make an example! Move!”
And they scatter about in the dark, their footfalls creating a surge of echoes as they practically fall over one another to find the object in question.
The Penitent laughs at this spectacle, and decides it’s a good time to chew a razor after all. He blesses the one he pulls from his pocket – old, rusty, and dulled with use – and prepares to slap it onto his tongue.
But then he hears something different, here with him. Another set of footsteps, running. Another set of lungs, breathing.
And then, one by one, the others stop making so much noise, until it’s just him and that other, there
“Well,” the Penitent says, putting the razor blade away and pulling out a very long knife, sticky with his own blood: “I see my attempts to be quiet have failed.”
“Yes,” the Raven says, stepping from the darkness and into a small patch of light, his white-painted face a strange counterpoint in a world of black: “You forgot that this city is my garden to tend. I can hear the grass grow and the leaves turning in the trees.
“And I can hear the poison you spread, no matter how softly you whisper.”
“You should have stuck with bad poetry and apologias,” the man grins, his teeth a broken fence of decay in a face scarred and scabbed by constant self-abuse: “But if you want to do some gardening, I’ll happily give you some fertilizer.”
And then he’s leaping at the hero, the knife a sharp and gruesome accusation in the dark…
* * *
“And they found him wrapped around a bike rack at the nearest police station,” Gary says, sighing as he hands the report they just got from their man at the precinct in question to Mr. Stone: “They weren’t sure whether to take him to jail or the hospital.”
“So we finally have him brutalizing someone?” the head of Arrow Securities asks, smiling from behind his desk.
“No, sir. He knocked him out by putting him in a choke hold from the looks of things. All the damage they’re listing was all old and most likely self-inflicted, including the DIY colostomy and castration.”
“Well then,” Mr. Stone says, looking at the paper and then putting it down on his desk: “How many villains does this make, Gary?”
“Seven, sir. Six if you don’t count the idiot who set himself on fire before he even started the job.”
“We have to remember our failures along with our successes,” the man says, getting up: “Let’s see what we can learn from these people. And then, once we have that knowledge, we’ll put it to work in making our very own villain who can actually rid us of this Raven, once and for all.”
Gary nods and smiles, but can’t help but wonder how long they can keep this insanity up.
“Look, you just !@#$ing get used to it, man,” Yanabah tells Shining Guardsman, who’s shaking like a leaf inside his suit: “Nothing to worry about.”
“Get used to this?” the armor-clad hero says, pointing to the village they just obliterated from the face of Syria – burning bright under the moon: “How many people did we just kill?”
“Two hundred and thirty eight,” Chinmoku says from where he sits, over on a nearby hillock: “And three more will most likely not last the night.”
“See?” the woman grins, going to disassemble, reassemble, and clean the living !@#$ out of the massive gun she’s been using: “It’s just numbers, kid. Point and shoot.”
“Is she serious?” he asks, knowing he won’t get an answer: “Is she really serious?"
“She is, yeah,” New Man says, looking around the horizon, wishing he was in his uniform instead of these fatigues, and all this gear: “And so is this. As much as we hate it, we’re at war, again. And we’ve got a job to do.”
Shining Guardsman just looks at the older hero, and then turns to go away – maybe off to do some thinking, the hero hopes, but he just knows he won’t be accepting this anytime soon.
Lord knows he’s not, either.
“Is becoming quite glorious, yes?” Russian Steel asks, coming up from behind a dune, having just done something rather smelly and rude: “One more victory in this war against the terror. I am feeling better every day.”
“Terror cannot be won, merely beaten,” Chinmoku opines, but the words are lost on his new Russian comrade, who simply shrugs and goes off to sleep, or try to.
“Why’d you have to leave us, Hanami?” New Man asks, feeling the weight of leading the Freedom Force even more than before, just now: “Why won’t you come home?”
There’s no answer, though. Just the far-off sounds of a bombing raid – French, from the sound of things – and the promise of more slaughter before the sun comes up.
(SPYGOD is listening to I Thought The Future Would Be Cooler (Yacht) and having a War Flag)