|"City and desert coexist / Depending on the things you're wearing."|
Chinmoku, Russian Steel, New Man, Epee Rouge
Bouclier Blanc, Yanabah, Tonnerre Bleu
(Art by Dean Stahl)
* * *
* * *
"Grossbartig" Der Fuhrer says as he watches the Ubermenschen drill, spar, and fly -- totally in awe of what he's seeing: "Herrlich."
He's standing on a balcony with his closest advisers, observing the choicest fruits of Nazi science as they exercise their powers -- some for the first time. Older, more seasoned U-Men are on hand to guide these beginners, and ensure they don't go too far with their new abilities.
(There were some unfortunate accidents, early on, which no one likes to talk about.)
"It does me great honor to hear that you approve, Mein Fuhrer," says a man in a black mask -- his eyes white, burning stars in that darkness -- with an officer's cap upon his head: "We strive to make your wishes a reality, here, and to bring them to bear upon the battlefield in the name of the Fatherland."
"And the name of Der Fuhrer, of course," a slimy, short, dark-haired toad of a man insists.
"Of course, Reichsleiter Goebbels," Nacht-Maske says, deferring to the man as politely as possible.
"How soon can these Ubermenschen be sent out into the field?" their leader asks, his brow gone sweaty with excitement: "How soon can we have them in Russia? North Africa? Britain?"
"Not long, Mein Fuhrer," the officer in the black mask says: "Some more testing is needed to ensure we have weeded out any imperfections. Some more political indoctrination as well, to ensure that only the best are sent forth-"
"As soon as possible, my friend," Hitler says, putting his hand on the U-Man's arm: "What you have done here will make this war as short as it will be glorious. With a hundred more such Ubermenchen we could have the world at our feet within months!"
He says more, and his advisers smile and listen. But not all of them are as enthusiastic as their leader.
Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Kietel, for one, is especially reticent.
This isn't the first time he's seen his leader go clearly off the deep end -- ultra-enthusiastic about some new device, tactic, or the like -- and gamble the entirety of the war effort on that thing paying out in full. And sometimes he's been right, and the results have proven him out. But most often he's merely been wrong, and only obscene luck has carried the day for the armed forces he controls.
He wishes he could say something, right now. He wishes he could tell the Fuhrer that these Ubermenschen are like any other weapon in his arsenal -- merely a part of a much larger scheme, and not anything to build an entire campaign around.
After all, what if the weapon fails...?
But Keitel cannot say anything, now. He is too damaged -- too undercut. The Fuhrer has lost his confidence in his ability to make sound decisions, due to his reluctance to approve the war against the Russians, among other decisions that were tactically sound, but not to his liking.
And now, after this latest thing with List? Well, it's a miracle he's still in uniform. It's all he can do to exercise authority over his own people, and loudly and publicly defer to Hitler in all things, in all cases.
That and try not to hear his comrades when they call him "Lackietel" -- supposedly behind his back, but not so far that he can't hear...
As the day drags on, and the exhibition turns to self-congratulation for the Fuhrer -- and numerous chances for his advisers to build his ego, and curry his favor -- he eventually can take no more. He excuses himself to use the toilet, and while there alternates between being sick and weeping.
"From now on, when I speak, people will listen," he vows when he's finished, staring at his red, puffy eyes in the mirror. Imagining crowds of people cheering on his every word, rabid in their love and adoration.
Saluting him, for once...
So, about that speech the Candidate gave in Las Vegas, at the Westgate...
I got in, of course. Someone owed me a favor. I won't say who, or why, but it was enough to make sure I got my gear in past the gorillas the fat-faced !@#$er had at the doors, making sure no one brought anything dangerous in.
Of course, this is the man who thinks refugees fleeing a goddamn war zone in Syria are dangerous because they share a religion with the worthless !@#$roaches who attacked that concert in Paris.
This is also the man who thinks the Martians -- who've been screwed six and a half ways to !@#$ing Sunday since they helped us kill that damned spacemonster just over a year ago -- are also dangerous, but only because the radicals and fearmongers are attacking them, and not the other way around.
In the Candidate's America, you can't be feared or an object of fear to come here and live free from it.
So what does this big-haired, often-bankrupt smirk machine consider dangerous? Protesters, apparently. But we'll get to that.
He started to his speech. It wasn't anything new or amazing, except that he struck a somewhat conciliatory tone with his big rivals in tonight's debate. He could have gone for some more of his increasingly-cheap attacks, but he didn't.
Maybe he didn't want to have the words come back and haunt him, tonight? I don't know.
What I do know is that, by all accounts, this was a far cry from the one he delivered at the VFW on Sunday. He talked smack about Mexicans, Muslims and Martians, but didn't go too far. He appealed to baser instincts, but didn't drag his audience too deeply through the mud.
And he played with fear, as usual, even bringing a well-meaning black man to come up and talk about his dead son, killed by an illegal alien gangster. Which is when the Black Lives Matter people started to bring the noise, leading to their enthusiastic ejection from the hall.
But it was another protest, about five minutes later, that brought it all into sharp focus.
I wasn't too far away from the scrum when it started happening. A black man shouted. The gorillas moved in. It took them a while to get him off the floor, though.
And as their Candidate said "get him out of here," and the crowd cheered, someone nearby said "Light the mother!@#$er on fire" to much cheering.
And someone else said "Sieg Heil," also to cheering.
I looked around, stunned. Did I actually hear all of that? Murderous threats and a Nazi slogan, all within a minute of each other?
I searched the faces of those nearby, cheering. Their eyes were blackened and blank, as though they were possessed by something hideous.
Something unspeakable that could only shine through the darkness of the human soul.
I really should have intervened. I should have followed after the gorillas, beaten their sorry asses, gotten that guy out of the hall, and granted him an interview. It would have been a lot more interesting than the speech that followed, which was essentially paint-by-number Candidate.
But I kept looking around at the eyes of the people there as they cheered, and cried, and stomped their feet, and waved their cardboard signs with his name on it. And I kept seeing that vacuousness there, in them.
An emptiness begging to be filled with hate and fear.
I'm not much of a praying man, even with a city full of gods just south of the border. But as I'm sitting here, waiting for this !@#$ing debate to start, and anticipating that slimy, fat-faced moneybag of a man trying to act like his followers are actually sane, I find myself begging any higher power that will listen that someone on that stage -- !@#$ing anyone -- will just verbally stake this hate vampire out on prime time TV for once and for all.
To quote a certain whiny britpop star -- just this once, please, please, please let me get what I want.
-- Randolph Scott.
"Hey boss man," Yanabah says, walking over to the edge of the encampment, where New Man has been sitting for some time: "Josie's on the phone for you."
"Oh boy," he says, rolling his eyes: "I can guess what that's about."
"Yeah," she snorts, not even ducking as a very loud explosion happens, not too far away: "Shining Guardsman. You think she's going to throw the book at him?"
"I sure hope not," he sighs, getting to his feet and looking over at the explosion, off beyond some jagged mountains: "I'm going to try and talk her into cutting him a break."
"What the @#$ for?" she asks, honestly perplexed.
"Well, for starters, he's a teammate, in case you've forgotten," New Man says, somewhat puzzled by her unsympathetic reaction: "He's had your back a dozen times that I've seen."
"Not that last time he didn't."
"And for another, he clearly broke under fire. Wouldn't be the first time-"
"Um, I do need to remind you we were actually being !@#$ing attacked when he flew off and refused to fight anyone?" she says, not looking at all happy.
"Yeah, in a combat situation against non-powered combatants the rest of you turned to dog food in five minutes. We had it under control."
"Yeah, but that's still desertion, technically."
"Which is my call to make, not yours," the old hero says, turning to look her in the mirror shades: "I say he just broke, then he just broke. End of story."
"But nothing," New Man growls, his eyes turning a crackling and poisonous purple as he takes her to task: "He didn't sign up with the Freedom Force to come over here and kill people in a war no one can understand without cue cards and cliff notes, damn it. He signed up to help people-"
"He's no !@#$ing virgin," she shouts in reply: "We were getting our hands red and dirty a lot just busting crooks and terrorists back home!"
"Yeah, and how many of them were twelve year old boys with guns they couldn't even fire properly?" he shouts back: "How many kids have we killed so far this war, Yanabah?"
"They point a gun at me, or you, or anyone on our team, they're not kids anymore," she replies, trying to keep camp: "They're the enemy. The enemy is fought. And we don't take prisoners on this kind of mission. Sir."
"No, we don't," New Man says, agreeing: "But we don't have to like it. And we sure as hell don't have to throw our own people under the damn bus wheels when they can't take it, anymore."
"I'll remember that the next time I have to save your ass," she says scowling behind her shades: "Or did you ever notice you were being sniper-bait the whole time you were stumbling around in the kill field, crying over people who wanted to kill you?"
"Not that's out of line-"
"No!" she shouts, getting right in his face: "What's out of line is you! This is a military operation, now! Just like that war you old !@#$s keep going on about! And I know for a fact you didn't get all weepy over Japs when you were mowing them down on Okinawa! Or the Koreans, or the Vietnamese, or who the !@#$ ever you went and beamed into !@#$ing oblivion when Uncle Sam told you to march your ass off to war!
"And now here we are again, old man! In another war! Different landscape, different enemy, but the same !@#$ing idea! You got a mission, you do it. You got a gun, you use it. You go out there and kill until someone higher up than you says to stop! And you don't !@#$ing cry and whine about it until you're out of the damn battlefield and back at a bar, or your tent, or the damn chapel, or whatever!
"I don't know what the !@#$ happened to you, old man," she growls, her teeth suddenly very long and sharp: "You weren't the best COMPANY Director ever, but you weren't a damn wussy, either. And then Hanami just !@#$s off to wherever and they !@#$ing put you in charge instead of Mr. USA or whoever-"
"He didn't want it, anymore," New Man says, trying to keep his composure: "And you know why, even if no one wants to say it. And Blastman would be the first to admit he wouldn't know what to do with it. And everyone else is too either too young, too inexperienced, too damn weird, or, in your case, too !@#$ing bloodthirsty to handle it!"
She recoils at that, and for a moment he thinks she might be about to rear back and take his throat out. But then she catches herself, takes a shaky step back, and looks down at the sand below their feet.
"This is hell, Yanabah," he says: "And yes, I fought in a war. Several of them. I didn't like them. I still don't. And all that I've ever done, then or now, I've done to try and keep us out of a war. To try and keep this world from flying apart at the seams. To keep soldiers at home, and off of a battlefield.
"Because this isn't an extension of what we do, Yanabah," he goes on, waving to the smoking clouds where the air strike just happened: "This is the failure of it. This is what happens when heroes fail.
"And if Shining Guardsman was the only one who's seen it with such clarity that he couldn't do it anymore? Well, that means there isn't anything wrong with him. It means there's something wrong with the rest of us."
With that he looks at her, shakes his head, and goes to take his call.
"Got that half right," she snorts, once he's out of earshot.
"Excuse me" someone says, walking up to her side: "I was supposed to meet out commander?"
"And who the !@#$ are you?" she asks, turning to regard the swarthy fellow in desert camouflage, and the small, Arab-looking man at his side -- a long sword dangling from either side of his belt.
"We were just deployed here to join the group," he says, smiling and indicating the two of them: "My codename is Demir Ruzgar, from Turkey. And this is Al Mubaraz, from Qatar."
"Well, welcome to Fort Armpit," she says, grinning: "The commander's going to be indisposed for a while. I'll show you around."
"That would be nice," the fellow from Qatar says: "We tried to introduce ourselves to the woman in the red armor. She didn't seem very happy to see us."
"Yeah," she sighs: "But if you think she's bad? The asshole in the white armor makes her look like Mrs. Claus. You hear anyone speaking French around here, just leave them to it. They suck."
"That sounds... disturbing," Demir Ruzgar says, looking over at the woman in red in question -- a cloud of sharp swords floating around her as she glowers at them -- "I thought we were all on the same team, here?"
"Well, in theory, yes," she grunts, taking them over to meet the rest of the team: "But theory ain't on the damn map, around here."
"I don't like this," Myron says, tapping the map of the second sublevel with the marker pen he's been using to make changes -- and map where things have moved to: "74 should have come back by now."
"He might be hurt, somewhere," the woman from the improvement committee says, wincing as the lights flicker on and off, again.
"Then we should have found him by now," the Chess Master opines, smiling a little: "Or at least run across his body."
"That's a sickening viewpoint."
"Also realistic," the older woman replies, seemingly unconcerned about the other woman's viewpoint: "This place has always been a danger. Only Number Two was keeping it in check. And now that he's utterly useless-"
"Mostly utterly useless," Myron says, holding up a finger: "He still comes around every so often to tell us we're doomed."
"He never says why, though," the woman says: "And I don't think he ever will. I think he wants to see us fail."
"Not surprising," the Chess Master says. And when Myron looks at her, she raises an eyebrow -- her special way of saying 'we'll discuss that later.'
After a few days of wandering about with the lights out, thanks to Hook and Crook, they managed to get them all back on. They still flicker a bit, unfortunately, but at least they're on more than off.
Since then, they've been wondering what shoe will drop next. The few technicians they have left assure Myron that anything the duo could affect has already been affected, and all the other systems are too deep within the Green Dome's structure for their EMPs to hit.
(However, they also said that Hook and Crook couldn't even touch the lights, before this, so Myron's not holding them to that promise.)
Now that the power's back on, however, they've actually been able to look into their missing person. So far the prognosis doesn't look good, and the theories run from unsympathetic to outright terrifying.
One of the ideas is something that Myron's been very hesitant to consider, much less bring up: that there might be another entrance to the outside, and that someone -- or something -- has gotten inside the Green Dome, and started to pick them off, one by one.
Rather than say it out loud, he decides to talk around the issue: "Is there a possibility he might have gotten out of the complex without our seeing it? Another exit, somewhere, we don't know about?"
"There could be something further down," the Chess Master says, seeing where he's going with it: "There could be anything further down."
"But then we run into the same problem. How could anyone access it without Number Two?"
"Maybe you should ask him, just to be sure?" the woman from the Improvement Committee suggests.
"Provided he'll say anything at all," the Chess Master says, clearly displeased that suggestion has come around yet again: "Much less anything worth listening to."
"Well, he is nuttier than a can of Planters," Myron admits: "But yeah, I'm willing to go see if he'll cooperate, today. It beats playing 'what if' all afternoon when we've got a missing man."
"Your choice," the older woman sniffs: "But if you keep going to him when you have a problem, then sooner or later he'll use it to his advantage. And then you won't be able to rid yourself of him, if it becomes a necessity."
"Is this just a game to you?" the woman from the Improvement Committee says, shocked at how brazen she's being.
"Of course," the Chess Master says, grinning: "You were paying attention, before, were you not?"
"Ladies?" Myron says, holding up a hand: "Missing man. Possible problem. Working together is good?"
And yes, it is. And they both nod. But he can't help but notice the tension is still there, between them.
* * *
Number Two is kept in the medical wing, which is where they used to do some of their crazier, more barbaric medical experiments and procedures. It's been converted to a sick bay by the survivors who used to work at the hospital, only now doing much less sadistic procedures.
But the irony has not been lost on anyone there -- Myron least of all.
"How's he doing today?" he asks the tall, grayish-haired doctor who used to preside over the new intakes. She smiles grimly and leads him over to the corner of the long sick room, where a curtained-off area provides their star patient some sort of privacy.
"Sir, you've a visitor," she says, pulling the curtain aside so Myron can see the man. And what he sees makes him recoil in disgust.
Clearly he needs help going to the toilet. They shouldn't have left his bedpan, though. He's taken what he just left there and is sitting on his bed, using his own filth to draw upon the wall.
"He's been doing it for days, now," she confides to Myron as he tries to not throw up at the sight and the smell: "If I didn't know any better, I'd say he's regressing."
"I'll say," Myron replies, deciding to just breathe through his mouth, which works (sort of): "From man to monkey in less than a month. I'll alert Devo."
"Not like that," she says, creating in him the terrifying notion that this snarky torture technician actually knows who that band is: "I mean to say that he's become a child to escape some horrifying event or truth his adult self knows."
"And what might that be?" he asks, looking at what the man's been drawing. It looks like a map of some kind: parallel lines, connected by straight and curving lines, and terminating in a dot at the very bottom.
A dot that seems to be made of something that's been written over and over again, until it's just a nasty, brown smear.
"He used to be in control of this entire place," she says, almost like a lament: "Now he's lost it all. I would say it was stress, except that this was a very high-stress position. He was specifically picked for his resistance to such things."
"It was the loss of 42," Myron says, looking at her: "I was right there when he was eaten by that thing. Number Two just collapsed, weeping. He said he loved him."
"Loved him?" the woman almost laughs: "Oh, I fear you're wrong. He hated 42 with a passion. His betrayal was-"
She shuts up when a nasty gob of Number Two's inner chocolates slaps her right in the face, though. Thankfully, none of it spatters onto Myron, but it does make him almost lose control of his gag reflex.
"I think I'll come back another day," Myron says, turning to go, just as the doctor starts to vomit through a mouthful of !@#$: "Have a pleasant time cleaning up his, um, number two..."
He manages to make it out of the sick bay without barfing, and the longer he doesn't, the less he has to.
But as he stands there, leaning up against the wall -- breathing slowly and deeply to fight off the nausea -- he thinks about the word the doctor used: betrayal.
"A curious word to use to talk about a prisoner," he says, and decides that at some point he really needs to talk to the Chess Master about what was going on here, before he arrived.
Maybe a history lesson is exactly what he needs.
"Can we come in?" Josie asks the patient over the very loud audio file he's currently listening to, along with some music she thinks might be the Doors, though there's something weird and unfamiliar about it.
"You here with my damn meatball sub?" SPYGOD asks, reaching to feel out the volume control, and then turning it down just a little -- but not off. He's wearing a button-down shirt, open to his navel, and sweat pants.
He's also working on the third beer of a six pack, which probably shouldn't be allowed in a hospital. But no one wants to say no to him, as usual.
"No," she says: "My name's Josie. You probably don't remember me-"
"Sure I do," he says, turning to look at her with his sightless eyes -- thankfully covered by dark sunglasses: "You're that clone that runs the COMPANY, now."
"Yes, I am," she says, clearly not liking to be reminded of her origins.
"And... who the !@#$ is that with you?" he asks, cocking an ear: "Sounds like !@#$ing Iron Man to me."
"I'm Shining Guardsman, sir," the young, armored hero says, coming a step closer: "I'm here to... well, this is-"
"We're here so he can ask you some questions, if you'll let him," Josie interrupts.
"Oh god, he's not that !@#$ing reporter I got involved with, is he?" SPYGOD winces: "That liberal whiner on the television who's going on about bull!@#$? The one I apparently saved the life of through some big damn experimental cybernetics a couple years ago?"
"No, sir," Shining Guardsman says: "I'm not him."
"Then why do you sound like a damn machine, son?"
"I'm in armor designed by Gold Standard. He saved my life when I was a kid-"
"Oh!" the superspy says, holding up a finger: "That's right. Gotcha. Took me a !@#$ing minute to remember. But at least I'm getting somewhere."
"That's good to hear," Josie says: "Is it coming back to you, or...?"
"Hard to !@#$ing tell," SPYGOD admits, looking off into space: "I don't know if listening to this !@#$ is actually helping me remember, or if I'm just !@#$ing relearning it all."
"Not a great feeling," she agrees.
"No, but you didn't come here to listen to an old !@#$ing warhorse complain about his battle scars, did you?" he asks: "You said the metal man wanted to ask me some questions. I'm all !@#$ing ears, lady. Literally."
"Alright then," she says: "Our friend's having some issues about being a strategic talent in a time of war. It seems he really wanted to be a super hero, and not a super soldier. And the things we're asking of him are a little too much to handle."
"Well," SPYGOD says, raising an eyebrow behind his glasses and turning the audio completely off: "Sounds like you got yourself a big damn problem there, son. Didn't we tell you when you signed up for this !@#$ing gig that you might have to kill for your country while trying to protect it?"
"It might have been mentioned, yes," the metal-clad hero admits: "But not like this. I didn't sign up for a war-"
"Yes you !@#$ing did, son," SPYGOD interrupts him, pointing a finger in his direction: "You did. And let me !@#$ing tell you why.
"You know what crime is? It's war, son. It's war on the peace, and war on justice. It's someone !@#$ing thinking that because they're more powerful than you, they can !@#$ing take what you have and leave you to cry or bleed. Maybe both if you're really !@#$ing unlucky.
"You follow that so far, son?"
"Yes, sir," Shining Guardsman says, feeling very foolish.
"Now, in crime, you're working with the cops, true. And they've got their own war going on. But they deal with ordinary crime, and we deal with extraordinary crime. The !@#$ers who can fly, steal bank trucks, melt safe doors down, what the !@#$ ever.
"Those kinds of things, maybe you don't kill people. The cops don't !@#$ing like that. Due process and the rule of law and human rights and all that crazy !@#$. You know how that goes, right?"
"I have some idea, yes, sir,"
"Alright then. Now, we go to actual, capital-W war with someone?" SPYGOD goes on: "That whole thing goes right out the !@#$ing window. No due process. No rights. No law.
"We fight, we win. And if we don't win, we lose. And if we lose, well, we all wind up speaking !@#$ing German or something.
" I hear we're at war in Afghanistan and Syria, right now, so that's a whole lot of languages we're gonna have to !@#$ing learn. And I really don't feel like learning anything new if I can !@#$ing help it. You got that?"
"Yes, sir," Shining Guardsman says, looking at Josie as if to say 'please make this stop.'
And she, for her part, just stares at him, and points back to SPYGOD, indicating that he should be paying attention to the man they've come to see.
"Alright, then, son," SPYGOD says, crossing his arms: "So you agree that crime is war. And war is war. And if you're in for a penny, you're in for a pound."
"I didn't sign up to kill kids with guns, sir," Shining Guardsman says: "I didn't get into this to perform air strikes on villages where the civilians weren't evacuated yet. I didn't become a hero to walk through dead bodies I created and pretend I'm making a difference."
"Jesus !@#$ing Christ, what the hell kind of COMPANY are you running, lady?" SPYGOD snorts, shaking his head.
"The kind where we listen to our elders," Josie says, smiling.
"Alright, then," the super spy says, uncrossing his arms: "Let me see if I can explain this in a way that'll make sense. You know about the War, right?"
"I do, yes," the armor-clad man says: "If you mean World War II, that is-"
"Bull!@#$, son!" SPYGOD all but shouts: "You don't know !@#$ing nothing about it. But I do, because I was !@#$ing there. So let's talk about what I saw that you only see on !@#$ing old films if you're lucky.
"You say you don't want to !@#$ing kill kids with guns? Well, let me tell you something, son. By the time we !@#$ing got to Berlin, all the damn Germans had left was kids with guns. Scared boys and girls pressed into service, mixed in with some honest to !@#$ true believers who thought Hitler !@#$ gold and farted rainbows.
"And you can bet your tin-covered ass they shot those guns at us, son. They were !@#$ing dead if they didn't. They were !@#$ing dead either way, really, so they went down fighting. And I can respect that.
"And you say you don't want to !@#$ing blow up civilians in air strikes? Well boo !@#$ing hoo. You think those bombers wired ahead to their targets and said 'hey, Dresden? We're nailing you like a two franc hooker tonight. Best be elsewhere if you want to live'?
"Well!?" SPYGOD shouts, not liking the silence.
"No, sir," Shining Guardsman says, trying not to cry: "I don't... no, they wouldn't have. They'd have been shot out of the sky."
"Exactly," the superspy says, pointing his finger in the armored man's direction: "And you say you don't want to march through the bodies of the dead and go 'oh dear me, I think I !@#$ing killed these people,' and wonder if you made a !@#$ing difference?
"Well, suck it the !@#$ up, you tin-plated buttercup. Because that's how you make a difference in war. You kill the !@#$ out of the enemy. And by the enemy I mean not only the people who are actively shooting at you, but the people who gave them the guns and !@#$ing told them to shoot. The ordinary citizens who said 'let's have a war,' or elected leaders who !@#$ing talked them into it, or sat by and did nothing while their own damn dictator marched them off to it.
"That's how you measure progress in a war, son. Territory you !@#$ing take and hold. Things you deny to the enemy. And the price you make them pay for everything they did to actually !@#$ing get you into that war in the first place.
"The crime they committed against you , son." he says, putting his hand down on his knee: "Pearl !@#$ing Harbor. Poland, and then France. The !@#$ing Blitz.
"Crimes, son, one and all. Crimes that a hero is supposed to stand up and stop."
He stops then, and looks over to where Josie is standing, he thinks: "So, let me ask you this, Ms. I Run The !@#$ing COMPANY, Now. You got any room for a hero who won't act like a !@#$ing hero?"
"That's what we're trying to determine, here," she says: "I have a lot of options on my plate. I just want him to understand exactly why he's screwed up."
"Jesus, no wonder the kid's confused," SPYGOD says: "You gotta contract out your ass-chewing, you might as well hang up your damn boots, lady."
She shrugs: "The head of Freedom Force is sympathetic to his situation. I'm not. I want him to understand why his CO is wrong. And no one's better at that than you."
"Well, if you put it like that," SPYGOD sighs: "Alright then. Son, let me put it to you as straight as I can. Do you like wearing that suit of armor and calling yourself a goddamned hero?"
"Yes," Shining Guardsman says, shaking under it all.
"Then are you ready and willing to do what it takes to fight crime, son?" SPYGOD goes on: "And I mean all crime. Because being a hero ain't about cats in !@#$ing trees and idiots knocking over banks. It's making the hard !@#$ing choices. It's doing the things ordinary people !@#$ing can't.
"It's about putting your !@#$ing life on the line. And it's about being willing and able to take lives when you have to, too. Not all the goddamn time, obviously. But push comes to shove, and you're in a spot, and innocent lives are on the line?
"Well, that's how you tell a hero from just another asshole in a cape, son," the superspy says, crossing his arms again: "He does the hard thing. The terrible thing. The !@#$ing necessary thing.
"He goes to !@#$ing war. He does what he's told, there. He makes the hard decisions, day after day after !@#$ing day!
"And when it's all over, he says 'man, that !@#$ing sucked, and I never want to do it again.' And then he does his best to keep the !@#$ing peace so it doesn't !@#$ing happen again. And that's a good thing.
"But that isn't the !@#$ing time for that, now, son. Now's the war. Now's the time to end that war by winning it. And you ain't gonna win it by being a !@#$ing wimp who won't act like a hero.
"And if you won't act like a hero, then I say you got no !@#$ing business wearing that damn suit and calling yourself one. I say you're an asshole in a cape who wants people to call him a hero, is all.
"And that ain't the same damn thing, son," SPYGOD says, leaning back in the chair: "Not at all. Not at all."
There's silence, then. SPYGOD thinks he can hear the kid weeping in his suit.
He doesn't give a !@#$.
"Get him the !@#$ out of my room, Ms. COMPANY Director," he says to her, turning away: "Go take him to see that new Star Wars movie everyone's !@#$ing talking about. Buy him a damn beer, if he's old enough to !@#$ing drink. Hell, even if he isn't.
"Especially if he isn't," he chuckles.
"I might just do that," she says, distinctly uncomfortable by all this, now: "And then?"
"And then, tomorrow? After he's had a night to sleep on it? You drag him back into that !@#$ing office and ask him what he wants to !@#$ing do. And you make him stand by that decision.
"You hearing me?"
"Yes, I am," she says, putting a hand on Shining Guardsman's shoulder and leading him out of the room, docile as a lamb: "Thank you for your time."
"Anytime, Ms. COMPANY Director," he says, turning back a little to shout after her: "But the next time you need someone to talk some !@#$ing sense into someone? You just tell them what I !@#$ing told him, word for !@#$ing word. And leave me the !@#$ out of it, okay?"
She doesn't reply to that. She's already left the room and headed down the hallway.
"And my meatball sub's still !@#$ing late," SPYGOD sighs, turning the audio back up and wondering when it will arrive.
And wondering if the man who claims he loves him is going to bring him back good news or not.
Director Straffer sighs as he exits the Martian shelter -- disappointed yet again, only doubly-so today.
Normally he relishes the strange feeling as Earth's stronger gravity overtakes the artificial, lower one the shelters maintain for their inhabitants. Normally he loves every aspect of visiting the spacious, high-tech environmental domes the Space Service has constructed, both here in Kalimantan, and elsewhere around the world.
It's when he goes outside into the slum that surrounds those domes that his heart sinks, and he realizes the full weight of the situation.
These weren't meant to be long-term accommodations. Refugee camps never are. But as time has gone by, and what was supposed to be a short stay become months, and then a year for some of these people, despair and boredom set in. Supplies became erratic, the Martians became stir crazy, and now his guards spend as much time keeping their guests under control as they do keeping outsiders from causing problems.
Not that they've been very successful at keeping the locals at bay: just the other day Straffer found out that one of his guards was running a tour service for high-paying gawkers, who gladly paid $500 a head to be led around the camp at night, pretending to be dignitaries from a nonexistent international refugee welfare organization. And the only reason he got caught was because the Martians paraded in front of them -- made to do calisthenics and answer uncomfortable questions -- finally asked when those nice people from that group were going to do something about all this.
(That guard is now doing some very degrading and dangerous work, somewhere with a much less pleasant view.)
Straffer keeps thinking he could have done something different, but he doesn't know what. He knew the kind of mess that refugee camps turn into over time. He knew the problems they create, the despair they breed, and the indifference they create in the countries they sit within.
He thinks he could have found another, better way to help these brave and noble people. He can't. And that makes him ashamed.
Today, however, he feels even worse.
Today, he had to go to the oldest, most respected archivist the Martians ever had -- Remembers the Times Long Gone -- and ask him if they'd ever performed in-depth medical experiments on humans, and, if so, if they had any ideas on how to repair damaged brains.
At first, he thought the old Martian was laughing at him. He didn't realize until the wizened being's assistants suggested he may wish to leave as quickly as possible that he was actually crying at the suggestion.
But no. As the eldest living archivist assured him -- in the noble and stilted way they speak -- the Martians had visited Earth, time and again, but they had not ever behaved in the manner ascribed to them by so many of this world's ugly -- frankly racist -- portrayals of their people. They had not sought to interbreed, nor kidnapped its people, nor interfered with their lives or livelihoods in any way.
They just watched, these Martians -- watched and learned from a respectable distance, hoping that one day we would be mature enough to have a real relationship with.
And, as the hoary Remembers the Times Long Gone acidly put it, whatever progress had been made so far showed only that there was a long, long way to go before that day.
And he's not wrong.
Straffer knows he should have known better than to have asked him. Yes, he was desperate -- and he still is. But even in that utter desperation, he should have found another way to phrase the question, or gone through a different channel.
Ever if he did suspect this had happened, he should have been better to his guests, given the overall situation.
Has he been so blinded by love, and the hopes of getting that love back, that he'd do the unthinkable to get the impossible?
And if so, how far will he go...?
He doesn't know the answer to that question. He never does -- at least until he's crossed another line he drew for himself, however long ago.
But as he stands there, looking at the shambles this supposedly-humane refugee camp has turned into under his organization's watch, he can't help but think of the long lines outside the White City, down in Mexicali. The way they stretch to every horizon, and yet move fairly swiftly.
The way the Olympians seem to have no problems handling that many refugees, immigrants, and would-be citizens.
"!@#$ it," he says, deciding it's time he went back there and started demanding instead of asking.
Even if it means there will be the devil to pay.
"So," Josie says, looking at the hero in her office...
"Here we are," the Spanish assassin says, looking in the mirror.
"Have you made a decision?" she asks, hoping she's wrong.
"Are we ready for this?" Gunblade smiles, snapping his fingers.
"Yes," Shining Guardsman says, hands behind his back: "I have."
"How could we not?" he grins, taking a medallion from a box.
"What's it going to be?" she asks: "Hero, or no hero?"
"Life or death?" Gunblade muses as he puts it on: "Life in death, more like."
As if to answer, he reaches to his chest, and presses something at his heart.
One touch of the medallion, and it all starts to happen.
The armor hisses and clanks, and begins to retract.
The golden disc shines, and clothing begins to appear.
Hands and feet, ankles and elbows, exposed for the first time in ages.
Fine, white and gold clothing that bends blades and breaks bullets.
Up and in the armor slides, until it's just a band around his ribcage.
Out and away the layers form, until he's well-padded, but moves like he's nude.
He hands her a box from inside: "My firing controls."
He grabs his gun-sword: "My darling."
"You understand this is binding?" she asks: "No sneaking around?"
"You know we have to kill," he says: "And won't it be fabulous?"
"Not so much as a purse snatcher," Shining Guardsman replies.
"And not a word of explanation," Gunblade grins.
"If you change your mind..." she says, but he's already leaving.
"Our target's already dead," the assassin chuckles, heading out.
"Thank you for the movie," he says on the way out, but no more.
"Thank you for not looking," he says to the crucifix he's left behind, as an afterthought.
The now ex-hero hears ridicule as he goes, but it's nothing to be scared of, anymore.
"Tu nunca, tu nunca," Gunblade sings: "Deja de ser un dandi, mostrandome que tu eres un guapo"