Monday, January 18, 2016

TechnOlympos: 1/11/16 - 1/17/16

"How Did I Get Here? / I Heard A Rumor..."

(Woman from Improvement Committee, Number Two, Myron, Chess Master)

(Art by Dean Stahl)

* * *
* * *

Monday: 1/11/16

In the White City of the gods, the great Martian immigration is taking place.

The refugees come from all over the world. They are trundled across the ruins of Mexicali on specialized transports, made to keep their occupants hale and hearty in the greater gravity of Earth.

Once they arrive, they are shown to special entrances. There they are checked by means no mortal man can know -- making sure the death-spoor of the destroyer of worlds has not entered their bodies.

So far, all pass the test. The humans at the Space Elevator made certain that any who bypassed security on the Martian end have been intercepted and detained at Pontianak.

And once they pass, they are shuttled to their new habitat -- strange, massive, almost brutalist white pods that have sprouted in the air about the pyramid of shining Rahmaa, arranged in a floating geodesic pattern.

Inside those white pods, there is Mars.

There is Mars as it once was -- green and blue, filled with beautiful plants that sway in the slightest of breezes. Rivers of cool water that move as though they had all the time in the world. And buildings carved from the living stone, warm and inviting.

Within the pods there is sunlight and nourishment. There is atmosphere and diversions.

Children laugh. Lovers cuddle. Poets speak and historians write the new chapter of their people. 

But there is also the sad understanding that this is not real.

This is not Mars. This is merely a copy of what once was, made to keep them comfortable and content.

This is not their true home -- now burning as warping, black matter falls down through thin skies, seeping through the red sands and infecting what lies below.

("Terrorforming," they call it.)

And this is not what they wanted. But it is what they have, now and possibly forever, thanks to the strange new Goddess that commands their fealty.

However pleasing to the eye, there is no escape that this is the last refuge of the once-proud people of Mars.

However alive they are, they know they have been scattered like the leaves of the great river-trees when the seasons changed from Plenty to Fallow.

And however much they try to forget their predicament, through songs or love, there is no mistaking this for what it is.

A tomb. 

* * *

Elsewhere, perched halfway up the endless, central spire that dominates the skyline of Olympos, its eternal sentinel watches all things at once.

The Red Queen is no longer recognizable as human. She resembles nothing more than a massive sea urchin that has been stretched into a long, thin ring. Gruesome spines and fronds slowly move in an alien rhythm, allowing her to sense what goes on below with near total capability. 

And if a problem arises, she can bud off a small, almost-human portion of herself to swoop down and deal with it. 

She does not have to intervene all that often, given the mostly-gentle nature of those who come here. And when she does appear, her fearsome appearance is often all that's needed to deter further wrongdoing. 

(Stories of the very few times she's had to mete out the harsh justice of the Gods have gotten around. No one wants to see it in person.)

Once limited by two eyes and two hands to hold a sniper rifle, she can now see all. Hideous and remote, she watches with eyes no longer shackled to human mores and morality. 

She is impartial and sere, calm and unerring.

And as the days have become weeks, and the weeks turned to months, she has realized that something is wrong, within the city. 

She can feel it, though she cannot see it. An infection has come within it. Something evil and unhealthy has entered.

But, try as hard as she can, the Red Queen cannot focus her new, all-seeing eyes well enough. 

Is she correct, then? Is she merely imagining things into reality? 

(Or is it just what Tombo said, before all this happened, playing with her mind...?)

The Red Queen is not certain. All she can do is watch, and wait. 

And hopefully one day learn the true nature of this disease her city has caught.

 * * *

Down below, on a gold bridge above a sapphire-blue stream, the disease the Red Queen cannot see looks up at the impotent guardian and smiles. 

Her mind boils with artistic atrocity and mayhem. She dreams of bodies laid out to spell obscenities. Of the medical wonders turned to murder and maim. 

Of the joy turned to pain and agony, harsh and unending...

She flips both birds to the guardian, who cannot see her, and disappears into the sheep she's come to slaughter, giggling at her restraint -- but not for very much longer. 

Word has come to her. The time is drawing near. 

And the end of this god-city's time will be heralded by her hand...

Tuesday: 1/12/16

It's 0500 in the goddamn AM local time when the Army transport touches down at Incirlik, and I'm not nearly as drunk as I need to be to handle what comes next.

In spite of the size of the aircraft, or maybe because of it, we bounce one !@#$ing time too many on the runway for some of the more green hands to handle. The sound of vomit serenades us as we screech to a halt, adding a weird counterpoint to the cheers from the way back, and the Jimi Hendrix some wiseass put on their cellphone just before we hit the tarmac.

And then there's the captain's voice over the PA saying "Welcome to Turkey," which is something I haven't !@#$ing heard in a long damn time.  

"Scuse me while I kiss the sky..." someone sings. People laugh. Someone officer with more bars than sense tells them to can it, but she's laughing too, so it doesn't !@#$ing work too well.

The poor kid next to me is pale as death and sweating like he caught malaria from a one-eyed, cockroach-eating hooker in Bangalore. I consider letting him have a pull off the illicit canteen of hooch I've been snorting since we left Phillips, however many goddamn hours ago, but figure he won't be able to !@#$ing keep it in or down.

And I am not wasting good whiskey on this trip, son. No chance in hell.

Sunrise is too damn far away, but no one's been able to sleep a !@#$ing wink all the way from Maryland however many hours ago. The trans-Atlantic jaunt was too bumpy, and the rotors too damn loud. So we're all on that weird edge of being too tired to !@#$ing think straight, but too wired to just crash out.

Most of the folks I've been traveling with are replacements for the US Army's part in Operation Enduring Freedom. They're all here to swap out with someone who wasn't as !@#$ing lucky, or rotate out with someone who's been here too damn long for their own good. And they're all happy to chat about their families, their destination, and the first thing they're going to do when they get back home.

But some of us aren't wanting to !@#$ing talk, mostly because we got orders to keep it zipped. That's because we're Strategic Talents, here to sneak over the border into Syria and kick some loyalist and IS ass for Uncle Sam.

And that means we got !@#$ing zero in common with the others, and even less to talk about.

Though there's one thing we do share, and that's that we're replacements, too. Both because the Interim President's decided to widen our secret ground war, and because we've got casualties of our own to replace.

And that's why I'm here, son. I'm supposed to join up and assist, but then also quietly figure out what the goddamn !@#$ is going on, over the border. 

Because something really !@#$ing stinks, and for once it ain't me. 

* * *

So what am I doing here, other than looking a lot more blonde, and needing to be a lot more drunk?

Well, after that android tried to shoot the hell out of my fine gay ass at the Lovegun, I got back in touch with the COMPANY. Weirdly enough, they'd been trying to get a hold of me, but using the wrong !@#$ing number. 

(I'm sure the AGENT sent to get me is still pounding a fist on the door of that luxury apartment my fiancee gave me, but that's his tough luck.)

Why did they want me? Because the !@#$ is hitting the fan on multiple levels, and they need all hands on deck. Especially someone with both combat and intelligence training, which is their nice way of saying "yeah, you lost half a century, (REDACTED), but you're still one mean mother!@#$er who knows Soviets from Shinola."

(Not that that really !@#$ing matters, anymore. Mostly.)

My mission, which I have !@#$ing chosen to accept, is to be injected into the !@#$ing three-ring circus that Syria has turned into over the last few years. Apparently it went to !@#$ while I was in that coma, and now reminds me a lot of postwar Germany, only with more sand and shooting. 

On one side, you got the loyalists that support the current regime, run by one of the late Bashar al-Assad's many cousins, and supported by the Russians and a couple other douchebags. On the other, you got the rebels who want to topple it, supported by the US of A and a couple other countries. 

And then you got the IS folks, who want to !@#$ over the whole show for Allah, and are busy fighting both sides, which makes this resemble a goddamn bar brawl at times. And you also got all the bystanders who pitting one or more sides against the other to settle old scores, or saying that their rival's hiding IS folks so their encampment gets !@#$ing bombed back to the stone age.

So there's
all kinds of friendly fire, blowback, and general !@#$ery going on here. And when you peel back all the layers on this goddamn onion, you find out it's all a big proxy battle between Russia, which is being run by one of Putin's loathsome ex-KGB creatures, and the United States, which is being shepherded by a sorry joke of an interim President.

And you know what you call that in military terms, son? A cluster!@#$.

Which makes what happened understandable, but still highly !@#$ing suspect. 

Hence my being here, as I am, as Josie put it, the cluster!@#$ king. And they figure the best use for my fine, gay ass is to put it on the frontline and start handing the enemy their own. 

Me, I'd rather be back at the COMPANY, calling the shots and shooting the !@#$. But, Josie pointed out, I'm about as useful on the Flier bridge as tits on a goddamn bull with my memory this !@#$ty. 

Now, once I've !@#$ing acclimated to the here and now, more? Maybe we can !@#$ing see about getting me something more befitting the man who made and ran that organization for over half a century. Maybe a leadership position, maybe something more advisory. Who knows?

But for now? They figure I'm best used in my precious capacity as a field AGENT.  Which means I'm shot at a goddamn problem with next to no prep time, told all I need to !@#$ing know on the way over, expected to achieve the impossible with three toothpicks and a pickled monkey, and not expected to survive.

Which !@#$ing suits me just fine, son. Totally. 



* * *

We bounce down the gangplank under red lights. The Soldiers all go one way, two-timing it. We go a different direction, off into the dark.

Not that I need a light to see where the !@#$ing going, here, son. I know the way of old, because I used to park my ass here fairly frequently, back in the day.

See, this airport was anti-commie central, back in the 50's and 60's. They ran U-2 flights out of here all the damn time, and I was always checking out new intel and photos when the flights came back. We also used this place a lot when Lebanon !@#$ing blew up, though I wasn't as directly involved with that.


Back then, it was just me, most of the time. This time there's four of us, heading for the Strategic Talent wing to get some !@#$ing shut-eye. Or just pretend to, anyway.

The other three are all new talent -- two armorboys and a gizmo queen. I don't know a goddamn thing about any of them, other than what I read on their dossiers. But after being stuck in a transport with them for however many goddamn hours I can already tell who's here by choice, and who got shafted.

I also know who's going to be the first to crack the !@#$ up...

But then, they don't know who the !@#$ I really am, either. I used a fleshlight to change my appearance, so now I'm a somewhat pretty blonde behind these sexy sunglasses. Between that and the desert camouflage, I haven't scored so much as a !@#$ing doubletake.

(Hopefully no one catches me !@#$ing using that thing. I hear it's a real joke for some reason.)

I did tell them to call me Shatter, which I'll admit was a bit risky. But no one knows their damn history well enough to figure it the !@#$ out. Thank God for our nation's lousy, commie-run school system.

The real trick will be maintaining this cover all the way into Syria, and into the thick of battle. I understand I'll be working with two people I used to command, once. Provided they haven't been blown to hell and gone by the time I get there.  

Just like the third, whose death is what !@#$ing brought me into this cluster!@#$ in the first place. 
* * *

What are we doing here, anyway? I'm glad you !@#$ing asked, son.

See, as far as anyone knows, the four of us are not here at all.  We're just dogfaces who've linked up with the military forces of a bunch of other countries, here to airstrike the living !@#$ out of the loyalists and IS forces. That and train the locals to deal with the bastards on the ground, so our boys and girls don't come home in !@#$ing human remains pouches, as they call them now. 

And that is, as far as the American taxpayer knows, the extent of our nation's commitment to this !@#$ed-up situation. 

In reality, though, we've been quietly buttressing all those bombs, missiles, and trained locals by sending in strategic talents to blow the !@#$ out of the loyalists and IS. And we have been for some time, now, with varying degrees of hard-boiled, cold-blooded bastardy.

Why would we do that? Well, mostly because we say the Syrians are employing their own superpowered combatants, even though Josie assures me that we have zero !@#$ing evidence that they are. Which really !@#$ing reminds me of how we got snared into that 8-year fist!@#$ in Korea.

But also because it's been pointed out that our US-trained Syrian opposition forces are about as !@#$ing useless as US-trained opposition forces have ever been in every damn war I've been in. Not that I !@#$ing remember Vietnam, but I do remember Korea. 

And Jesus Christ Mother!@#$er in a Volkswagen on fire with a backseat full of !@#$ do I remember Korea.

And that's why we're here, working alongside the French, the British, and a couple Gulf states who want to suck off Uncle Sam. The Russians are on our side, too, oddly enough, though it's mostly to deal with IS.

(The Canadians pulled out because their new PM's a !@#$ing liberal pansy-ass, but at least they've got the good damn sense to say nothing.)

And I'm sure the longer this damn proxy war stretches on, the more countries will shovel fresh-faced young super-soldiers into the !@#$, in the hopes of achieving what bombs and trained monkeys apparently can't. Which kind of presents a big damn problem if we don't know why things are going !@#$ing haywire, over here, now doesn't it?

Hence my being here. Hence my big damn secret. 

Hence my quiet, one-person investigation into why New Man is dead. 

* * *

My rack is a small, concrete block room. It's all mine, though, so I can spread the !@#$ out and get some shut-eye. I can listen to that Black Star album that David Bowie made, just in time for me to fall in love with it -- and him -- and then find out he's died. 

(Great !@#$ing timing there, son.)

But I can also close the damn door and use the special communications techno-crud they shoved in my bag to sub-vocal radio back and tell Josie I made it, the weather is here, and I wish she was !@#$ing fine. 

(Not that women are really my damn thing, son, but if they were going to clone anyone, why the !@#$ did they go with the "Butch Brick !@#$house" model? Jesus...)

Anyway, she's got no new intel for me. She wants to know how the flight was, how the three others seem to be, all that !@#$. I got no !@#$ing idea on the latter and no !@#$ing opinion on the former, so I tell her the in damn flight movie sucked and none of the stewards wanted to try for the mile high club. 

She laughs and tells me she'll arrange for a goddamn airborne brothel if I make it back, then she hangs the !@#$ up.

Which would be real funny, if the circumstances weren't so messed up. 

New Man? I knew him, son, and I actually do have memories of him. He got his powers by accident in the Pacific Theater, and got into the Liberty Patrol. He fought alongside me in Korea, and then went on to be in the Freedom Force after that sorry !@#$show of a war put an end to the Patrol. 

He was an alright guy, I guess. He !@#$ed outside his circles a lot, though. and I was having to clean up after him, now and again. Young girls and superpowered !@#$ make for a dangerous but enticing combination, apparently. And as COMPANY Director I was having to make sure accidents got taken care of before they turned into bad headlines.

(Not that I let it stop me from chasing the boys, son. But at least we don't get !@#$ing pregnant.) 

I missed out on a lot of our association, as you !@#$ing well know by now. He was apparently COMPANY Director twice: once to try and catch me, and again while I was !@#$ing dying. He sucked the first time, by all accounts, but did a damn better job the second time. 

But then he gave it all up after his son died under mysterious circumstances, as part of that goddamn weird warbot thing that happened last year. And he went back to just being another Strategic Talent, there on the Freedom Force. Which is how he !@#$ing wound up in Syria, supposedly in charge of the mission, though there's word that he wasn't really liking how it was being accomplished. 

And people there weren't !@#$ing liking how he was handing his dislike. 

So last Wednesday, he's left behind along with a hero from Qatar when everyone else goes off on a damn mission. There's no way in hell that was a !@#$ing oversight. Either he refused to go, or they didn't tell him they had an op and just left him in his damn tent. 

And then a missile gets shot into camp, and boom, everything goes to !@#$. Twenty support staff killed, nine wounded. The guy from the Gulf takes a direct hit and gets blown to Paradise. 

And New Man? Onlookers say he turned into purple light, screamed for a full !@#$ing minute, and then mostly winked out of existence, leaving only a few charred pieces of bone, flesh, and gristle behind to mark his passing. 

He's an energy being, so there's always a damn chance he survived, somehow. But I think he would have come back by now if that was the case, son.  

Who shot the missile? The team claims it was Al-Assad Loyalists. No one got enough parts to make a full report, though. 

And that leads me to wonder if it was them, or our people. Especially now that his death means Yanabah's in charge.

Because I know that girl, according to my files. And something tells me there's something messed up going on, there...

But that's for tomorrow,  son. Tonight, I need to finish this whiskey, practice some one-handed stress relief, and try and get my head on straight for deployment tomorrow night. 

Same old same old. Hurry up and wait. Jump into the fire. Pray for asbestos panties. 

That and, this time, don't !@#$ing get caught...

Wednesday: 1/13/16

"Well, that kind of goes without saying," Jana says over the airport phone to Randolph Scott, watching as a plane takes off for parts unknown: "But I'm pretty sure we can bug his hotel room without being seen."

"Do you have a distraction?" the outlaw reporter asks.

"If necessary, we can get our new friend to run some interference," she replies, looking across the way where Karl and the Candidate's chief intern are talking by an overly-cheerful Starbucks kiosk: "I'd rather not sacrifice him just yet, but..."

"But better him than you," he says, not liking the words he's hearing come from his mouth: "Pensacola's a !@#$ty town to go to jail in."

"Isn't every town?"

"Well, some are better than others. I don't particularly recommend Phnom Penh."

"I remember why," she smiles: "How's things back on your end?"

"Well, we're prepping for an all-out assault on last night's State of the Union. It was pretty !@#$ing craptacular, even for that moron."

"Yeah, we were picking it apart as it happened and feeding ideas to their Twitter team. I got a zinger or two in."

"You go, girl," he chuckles: "But seriously, what did they make of his attacks on the Candidate? That was a pretty big surprise. I figured he wouldn't rock the damn boat, and certainly not tip it like he did."

"They were pretty surprised," she says, looking at her watch: "He's been doing such a bad job that getting an endorsement from him would be poison, but no one was expecting him to take aim like that."

"Yeah. Calling him an embarrassment to American conservatism, and invoking Reagan to do it? He was in rare form. I think he might have even written that himself for a change."

"Makes up for the rest of it. 'We made some progress, but all the problems we couldn't fix are just things we'll have to work harder on.'"

"'Also, we're !@#$ing fighting for freedom, so don't give the enemy a free hit by being critical.'"

"'God bless free America, free land of the free people who are free,'" she quotes Quayle's ending, and they both laugh at that -- loud and long.

"Okay, the flight's going to be leaving soon, and I'm looking suspicious," she says, hearing as much over her synapses from Karl: "I love you, dad. We both do."

"I love you both too," Randolph says: "Very much. Good luck and be careful."

"Of course," she says, and hangs up without saying goodbye.

He stares at the phone for a while, sighs, and then goes back to work eviscerating the unluckiest -- and most powerless -- man to ever sit in the Oval Office.

* * *

"I thought I might find you here," the woman from the improvement committee says, walking down the ramp into Number Two's cavernous, spherical office.

"It's relaxing," Myron lies, putting his feet out of the ridiculous ball chair and swinging them back and forth: "I keep expecting that midget butler to show up and offer me flapjacks, though."

"Haven't found him, yet," she says, walking closer and sitting down in front of the chair. 

"He might be lurking around here, somewhere. Maybe down below."

"Maybe he's the one who keeps stealing our people?"

"Wouldn't that be nice?" Myron sighs: "No danger, no death. They all just got taken down to some big dining hall where there's kippers and flapjacks as far as the eye can see."

"And proper tea," she says, resting her chin on her knuckles: "Not that instant muck we've been drinking."

"Proper coffee."

"Proper everything."

He nods: "We'll get out of here soon. I just need to..."

Myron trails off at that. He just needs to what? Find the elusive, apparently one-way portal to Earth? Get it to work both ways? 

Figure out why they were never able to make it work that way...?

He looks around the room. All the maps they've put up on the wall, and the ways they've shifted from journey to journey. All the ideas they've spitballed.

(The one working screen in the whole place, showing what the Village looked like outside just before it all went to hell.)

And above it all, the number of the people who were randomly chosen to go down, today -- right next to the people who went down and didn't come back up, again.

The lottery was the Chess Master's idea. She came up with it last week, behind Myron's back. Since then she's been more loving, at least on the surface -- and a lot more energetic in the sack.

But there's no way she can completely hide the distaste in her eyes, especially after the other week, when she finally realized he was hiding something from her...

"There's something I'm missing," he says, looking at her and speaking in a low tone: "Something Number Two knows about but won't say."

"So getting the doctor to force him didn't work?"

"Not very well. I think he's gotten worse."

"Does she think she can make it work?"

"Not without running a serious risk of breaking him."

"Are you alright with that?"

He looks at her, and shakes his head: "I thought I was. I really did. But I went to see him yesterday and... he looks like my younger brother."

"The resemblance never bothered you before?"

"Oh, it's not that. My younger brother was mentally retarded. Not badly, he was just a little slow. Most of the time he was okay, he just had to be told not to do things more often, and didn't always get it. I'm sure you know how they can be."

"I think we've all had to work with difficult cases," she cuts to the chase, as she often does.

"Right," he says: "Well, our school district had a special program for other difficult cases. Mostly hyperactives and kids who would be called Asperger's, now. The occasional suicidal. Folks like that. But those old biddies didn't really know what the !@#$ they were doing. They were just crowd control, really.

"So every so often Robert would get frustrated and just shut down. And if it happened in school they'd call me in, because he'd only listen to me. So I'd have to get up from my desk, get a hall pass from my teacher, who was always like 'oh, not this !@#$ again.' And then I'd do the walk of bad shame down the hall, heading to the special kids' classroom.

"On bad days I'd hear the screaming all the way up from the hall. That sound like someone was tearing his fingers, out or !@#$ing him in the ass. And when I came in... the look on his face? That awful frustrated look of 'why can't you see what's wrong?' while these poor teachers were just trying to get him to stop howling and sit up in his desk?

"That's what I'm getting from Number Two. And it hurts me to see it. And it hurts worse to cause it."

He's silent for a time after that.

She eventually nods, and gets up: "I understand. Believe me, I do. We all have our bad memories and old wounds. We wouldn't be human if we didn't.

"But we have to live in the here and now. And here and now? If we lose more people to the search, no one will go, even with the lottery. And then we'll be stuck here, forever.

"So I guess you have to decide which is worse. Hurting Number Two, maybe even breaking him, and remembering your brother? Or all of us staying here forever, or at least until Hook and Crook manage to break down the doors?"

"One versus the many," Myron says after a few moments: "Not much of a choice at all."

"Well then," she smiles, turning to go: "I think you know what you have to do, then?"

He waits until she's gone before sighing, and spinning the chair around in a dizzying circle out of sheer frustration.

Yes. He does know. He's known for some time.

He just doesn't !@#$ing like it, is all.

And as he spins, he is watched on another, actually-working screen in a part of the Green Dome that no one knows about, save one.

The Chess Master sits in her secret office -- where everything works -- and decides what to do next.

Not that there is a decision. She knows what she has to do, too.

She just isn't sure if she's going to like it or not...

Thursday: 1/14/16

Every face on every single one of Director Straffer's Pontianak office screens is unhappy. Some of them gasp, some of them frown. One of them is even shaking his jowls, about to say "now see here..." or some such.

But the head of the Space Service holds up a hand before any of them can say another word: "Ladies, gentlemen. There's no 'no,' here. This is no longer a matter for any of you to decide. Mars is about to become a dead planet, and the Olympians have spoken, and they are willing to take every single citizen of Mars into the White City. And that is the end of the matter-"

"I can't believe you did this without discussing it with us, first," the head of the New European Union says.

"Do you have any idea how much strain that is going to put on the world economy?" the United Nations' Space Initiative's representative asks.

"Can we really trust these Martians, given everything that's happened in Europe, lately?" the Russian Space Minister asks, shaking her head. 

"The refugee situation is bad enough," the jowly American Senator in charge of the Space Subcommittee sighs: "I really don't need to give anyone more ammunition in an election year-"

"With all due respect, Senator, I don't give a good goddamn about the elections," Straffer says: "As for security, we're satisfied this wasn't anything to to with Mars."

"On what grounds-"

"As for the world economy, that's a moot point."

"Now see here-"

"And as for discussion, sir? I didn't need to have it."

"I beg your pardon," the man from the NEU says, carefully enunciating each syllable as though chewing a particularly nasty piece of food.

"There's no pardon to beg, sir," Straffer says, holding up his pad and tapping part of it: "It says very clearly in my remit that, in the event of a humanitarian crisis, I am authorized to act independent of everyone as I see fit.

"Now, I suspect that was there in case we had to evacuate the whole damn planet on an hour's notice and none of you were available to discuss the matter. But the principle holds. One of our strategic partners is in a state of extreme planetary crisis, and we need to act. Now."

"I think that 'humanitarian' only applies if the victims are human, sir," the Senator says, which earns him a quick disconnect from Straffer.

"Anyone else want to be a racist pig on my dime?" he asks, standing up behind his desk and holding his pad like a gun: "I'll shut your ass down faster than you can blink."

"There's still the matter of the world's economy-" the man from the UN says.

"Yes, sir. And if we didn't have facilities, that would be an issue. But as the Olympians are willing to take them all, and their city is self-sufficient, that is, as I said, a moot point."

"I do not think I like the sound of this," Russia's Minister of Space says, shaking her head once more.

"Well, that's your prerogative, madam. But it's done. This is just a a courtesy call, ladies and gentlemen. You didn't even need to know about this. But I wanted you to know why the space elevator is going to be running a lot harder than usual over the last few days-"

"You have overstepped yourself, sir," the man from the NEU says, pointing a finger: "There will be consequences. You will not like them."

"Well, sir, if you don't like the terms of my charter, you can amend it the next time you all get together. But this is an emergency, and I'm doing what needs to be done."

"Not using our space elevator, you won't," the UN man says.

"I beg your pardon," Straffer says: "That is Space Service property-"

"Which is overseen by the United Nations," the man says, somehow managing to frown and smile at the same time: "And subject to revocation at any time."

"Not without a full vote," Straffer says.

"Oh, you'll get it," the man promises: "And soon. Along with your walking papers, if I have anything to say about it."

The screens all go blank on the other end, this time.

"!@#$ goddamn mother!@#$!!!!" Straffer shouts, throwing his pad against the wall. It shatters into pieces.

"Sir?" Charleston asks, poking his head around the corner.

"How long were you listening, Captain?" Straffer asks his second in command.

"Long enough, sir," he asks, coming all the way in: "How badly screwed are we?"

"Either not at all or all the way," the Director says, sighing as he takes a replacement pad out of his desk. That's the third time this week.

"What do we do?"

"Get in touch with Mars," Straffer says, looking out at the Java Sea: "Tell them to get everyone on every transport they can, and now."

"Safety checks? In case of infection?"

"We'll do them on this end," he says, hoping he isn't making a terrible mistake under the circumstances: "I'll need to talk to the Olympians about that. Damn, I hope that means I don't have to stand in line, again."

"I'll get right on it, sir," Charleston says: "And just in case... should I get the Colonel in position? In case we have to fight off the UN?"

Straffer thinks about that: "Appraise him of the situation. Tell him I trust his judgment on this, but try and appeal to his decency if he balks. These people helped us in our hour of need. I'm sure he'll understand."

"I hope so, sir," the Captain says, turning to go. In his absence, Straffer holds a hand up to the window -- admiring the view that he's come to love and loathe in equal measure.

"It would be nice if all this worked out, for once," he says, looking at the Sun who is also a Goddess: "You want your worshipers, lady, they need to get here, first. Now would be a great time to give back, don't you think?"

If Rahmaa has anything to say to that, she doesn't say it to him. Not that he expected anything else.

But it would have been nice to be pleasantly surprised for a chance.

* * *

"Well, that was unexpected," Karl lies to the other interns as they watch their disgraced Chief Intern get frog-marched out of the makeshift campaign headquarters by two gorillas disguised as men. 

Like him, they are clearly bewildered by how quickly this happened. They all keep opening their mouths to say something, like a goldfish in a tank, but nothing's coming out. 

Not that their now-former leader could say anything, really. He got nailed too hard, too quickly, to do more than grab a few important things before he was shown to the door.

And the realization of what has really happened here has been too slow for him to protest on the way out.

It wasn't his fault, really. He was just too trusting, and yet too inquisitive. He wouldn't have been much use from here on out, and Jana was only willing to give him so many nights of her time. 

So, he had to go. And Jana had to be the one to make sure he went.

And the Campaign Manager had to be the one to see her make certain.

"Thank you so much, Bobbi," the horse-faced lady is saying, shaking Jana's hand: "I had no idea the little !@#$ was spying for Kasich. I hate to think that that flat-faced moron would have made of it, but still..."

"Who can say?" Jana says, smiling sadly: "But I'm just sorry it came to that. He seemed like a decent guy."

"This is politics, hon," the lady says, watching out the window as he's tossed out of the security cordon and told what he can do with his complaints: "Everyone's a bastard. The sooner you figure that, the longer a career you'll have."

"I suppose."

"Speaking of which," she says, turning around: "This leaves a vacancy. You want it, it's yours."

"Oh?' Jana replies, doing her best to look as sincerely amazed: "Well... if you think I could do a good job."

"I think you'll do a crap job, at least at first," the woman says: "But you'll get better at it. And I can trust you, mostly. So that's a start..."

They go off into the office to talk more. Karl listens into every word, thanks to his connection to his sister. 

And he synchs his brother and sister into the conversation, so they can tell Randolph that while the other day's attempt to bug the Candidate's hotel room was a complete bust -- thanks to the now-departed useful idiot's poor handling of the situation -- they should have much better luck tonight, after the debate.

Hopefully it gets something concrete, this time. If they're going to discover something actionable about this man, it needs to be soon, or else it'll be even tougher to dislodge him.

The clock is running out.

Friday: 1/15/16

"Well, I did tell you," the doctor says, looking at Number Two's staring, useless eyes: "Too much, too soon..."

"Too damn bad," Myron hisses: "Bring him back."

"I... excuse me?" she asks, blinking at their leader: "What sort of doctor do you think I am?"

"The one who's got access to all kinds of illegal and wrong equipment," he says, pointing to all the strange, retro-60's devices she's been using on the man over the last week or so: "The one who can kill people in their sleep and bring them the !@#$ back the next day. The one who can get anything this piece of !@#$ wanted out of anyone's head, as long as they didn't mind them being damaged!"

"That was before I threw everything at him," she says, trying to be calm in the wake of his rage: "He was damaged before. This just made him worse."

"That's unacceptable-"

"I warned you!" She shouts, balling up her fists: "I told you this might happen! I told you it probably would! But you insisted I continue on! And now... now..."

She waves her hand at the broken man, lying on the gurney and breathing all too regularly for Myron's liking.

"Did he say anything before you lost him?" Myron says after a few tense moments: "Anything at all?"

"No. Not really," she states, not wanting to look at Myron right now: "He was just repeating the same things as before. '42,' 'below,' 'fire,' and 'Morlocks.'"

"That's useless," he scoffs, looking at the photos she took of the !@#$-smear drawings he'd been making on the walls: "All of this is useless."

"That's not my fault."

"I'm not saying it is," he says as he tosses the photos down on the table, trying to stop from wanting to scream at her: "What I am saying is that I have a whole bunch of people who are tired of being randomly drawn to go below and disappear. And they wanted answers. And so did I."

She slowly turns to regard him: "So you could make them feel better, I suppose. Well, now they won't. And you'll have to disappoint them. Which makes we wonder how much longer you'll be in charge."

"Probably not much longer," he says, looking at her.

"Well, I guess you know what I mean by karma-"

"Before you pull out the party hats?" Myron interrupts, holding a hand up into her face: "You also should know that while they might be angry at me, most of them hate you. Maybe just a little less than they hated this guy, here."

"What are you saying?"

"I'm saying that if I go down, you go down with me," Myron says, taking a close step towards her so he can stare her right in the eyes: "So if there's anything -- I mean !@#$ing anything -- you can do to bring him around, or at least get some more intelligible information from him? I'd !@#$ing do it, and quick."

She opens her mouth to shout, and then closes it. Maybe she's thinking, maybe not.

"That's better," he says: "Maybe this thing wasn't exactly like the show, but you've had over forty years to make this !@#$ a reality, and come up with things they couldn't even think of. Surprise me, doctor. Make a goddamn miracle out of all this horror.

"Otherwise, you're gonna find out all about karma, too, lady. And you won't like it any more than I do."

He stomps off, not happy with how he's having to act under these circumstances. But at least she doesn't shout insults after him, this time.

He'll take that as a positive change.

* * *

"Yes, and I think it's a good thing," the Candidate says, standing on the balcony of his hotel room and talking on the phone, late at night: "I mean, now they won't be our problem anymore..."

There's silence from him, and then he nods: "Well, true. It's one less thing for me to talk to people about. But we can still bring up..."

More silence. It goes by very, very slowly.

The Candidate eventually nods, and then looks around the nighttime landscape outside: "Okay. That makes a lot of sense. I agree. I'll do it."

A shorter silence this time: "Do you really think it'll come to that? I mean, he seems to be committed."

Even shorter: "Alright, then. I'll increase the talking points on him. Sooner or later people will start doubting he's eligible, and then he'll have to drop out.

"Alright then. I'll do that, too.

"Thank you," he says, coming back into the room he left: "You know I always feel better for talking with you. You just have a way of putting it all into perspective.

"Okay, goodnight," he says, and then hangs up.

Back in their hotel room, Karl and Jana share the same expression: disappointment.

"I thought those microphones could catch both conversations?" she asks.

"Unless the phone's made to shield against that kind of eavesdropping," he says.

"!@#$. I bet it is."

"Which means we'll have to bug his phone."

"And that will be very difficult," Jana says, but nods: "We can find a way. I know we can-"

Then her own phone rings. It's Randolph's number. He'll want to hear results, and right now they don't really have any.

So they look at each other, do a quick rock-paper-scissors-lizard-spock, and -- once Jana knows she's lost -- she picks up to face the music of a disappointed father. 

Saturday: 1/16/16

"So," Yanabah says, pulling her bloodied fist out of what's left of Zephyr's unconscious face: "Anyone else want to !@#$ing lip off to me?"

"No, ma'am," the six-armed man in heavy, grey armor says, popping off a smart salute.

"I concur with Arachnoid," the dead-eyed man in the bright orange battle suit says, executing a much more mechanically-precise salute with the hand that isn't holding his smoking, ornate fire wheel. 

"Yes, ma'am," SPYGOD says last, saluting in his own good time: "I mean, no. No ma'am. I mean-"

"I think I know what you !@#$ing mean, Shatter," she sneers at him over her glasses -- her eyes going very wolflike for a moment: "You and Free Fire, get this dumb !@#$ picked up and over to the medic tent. Arachnoid, you're with me."

The two of them go off to talk to the others, gathered on the far end of camp. SPYGOD leans down and takes hold of the limp woman, lifting her up in one sure motion.

"I can help with that, Shatter," Free Fire says, walking alongside him.

"Let me?" he says: "I think it'd be better if you go over and join them. I'll be back in a moment or two."

"Very well," the dead-eyed man says, nodding as he turns to go: "I would not dawdle, though. I do not think our new leader appreciates any deviation from peak efficiency."

You got that goddamn right, SPYGOD thinks, heading to the medical tent as ordered.

* * *

It had been a really interesting few days in the sand. And by "interesting," SPYGOD meant "!@#$ed up."

Their hosts at Incirlik let them have most of Tuesday to themselves, mostly to rest up from the trip. There was also some expectation they might get to know one another better, but no one seemed to be in any hurry to break the ice. 

To her credit, Zephyr tried to get a few conversations going when she encountered people outside their rooms. However, no one seemed impressed by her profanity-laced observations -- just tired (Arachnoid), or attentive but silent (Free Fire). 

SPYGOD engaged in some tried and true methods to carefully pump her for info, but soon realized he didn't need to be all that subtle -- she was happy to hold forth on just about everything she knew. Unfortunately, it wasn't much, and he soon got tired of her attempts to be cool and feigned the need for more sleep.

Late Tuesday night they were summoned for a working dinner meeting with Army Intelligence, who were supposedly managing the situation on the ground. After a few interestingly-astute questions from Arachnoid, it became clear that they weren't handling a goddamn thing -- just keeping tally on who was bombing whom on what day, and where the battle lines were being drawn. 

For better or worse, the fire team -- as they'd become known -- was handling themselves. 

The plan was to leave Incirlik at 0300 the next day, on an unmarked transport, to a location three klicks north of the Syrian border. From there, they would enter a narrow, deep tunnel they'd dug to get things, and people, back and forth without being seen. 

The tunnel would lead them to scenic and tiny Bulbul, maybe two klicks inside the border. There they were to be put into a covered truck by friendlies and shipped towards Anadan -- a formerly prosperous city, 12 miles north of Aleppo, which had been shelled so badly in 2012 that it was barely more than a ghost town, now. 

Its deserted nature, as well as its placement atop a hill, made it a near-perfect staging area for the fire team. However, it also made them a target for constant shelling, which was being blamed for the recent casualties.

The trip was only supposed to take half a day, if that, but the truck from Bulbul was ambushed on the way out of town. The cab was utterly shattered by hi-ex ordinance that could have annihilated everyone if it had been fired just a split second later. As it was, the four in back were lucky enough to leap out and return fire.

(SPYGOD took that time to note everyone else's capabilities. Zephyr used her high-tech gauntlets to summon a whirlwind to lift her up high and call down lightning, and then fired long-range mini-missiles from shoulderpad launchers. Free Fire stayed on the ground, launching larger rockets from his armor that burst into fire halfway to the target. And Arachnoid's armor unfolded in the chest to reveal four smaller, fully-articulated arms -- each one capable of holding a MP5, which he used to mercilessly strafe those who got too close.)

That might not have been so much a setback, except that Zephyr actually took off after the enemy -- heading deeper into the northern areas than was prudent. The others followed after to back her up, but once she ran out of missiles and called off the chase, they realized they were quite some distance away from their destination. And, given that they were under a strict code of radio silence, they couldn't call for help.

Zephyr just wanted to run for it, leaving a trail of blown-up belligerents all the way to Anadan. But cooler heads -- meaning "everyone else" -- realized that, after such a show of power, they'd attract every bullet between here and there. So they scrounged for disguises and water, and started a slow, town-to-town crawl through an area literally infested with the enemy. 

Thankfully, close-quarters, quiet combat suited SPYGOD and Arachnoid just fine: the eight-limbed, armored man was content to burrow under the sands and come up in forward knots of foes, leaving SPYGOD to slice and dice any that got through. And any that got past him were quickly dealt with by Free Fire, whose burning fire wheel was astoundingly lethal.

Unfortunately for team cohesion, Arachnoid's power set led Zephyr to improvise some very unfortunate songs to the tune of the old Spider man cartoon, all to his expense. By the end of the first day, both he and SPYGOD were hoping she stepped on a land mine. 

(Free Fire didn't seem to mind, but he kept his opinions to him self, anyway.)

Ragged, dirty, and tired, the four strategic talents finally made it to Anadan that morning. They'd been greeted by the Fire Team's support staff, and whisked away to well-defended tents in a relatively non-blasted part of the town to rehydrate, get some sleep, and resupply their weapons. That had been a good thing.

The bad thing came later, when Yanabah -- who was extremely unamused by their tardiness -- summoned them all to stand before her and explain what had taken them so long, and what the !@#$ they were thinking by pursuing the enemy after they'd fought off the initial attack on their truck. 

Which was when Zephyr decided to show that her inability to turn her mouth off extended not only to her fellow grunts, but also team leader. Which was when Yanabah decided to show her who was boss -- one swift, well-placed fist at a time. 

Zephyr might have been good at using her weather powers and missiles to deal with long-range opponents, but she wasn't nearly as good at hand-to-hand combat. In fact, she had something of a glass jaw (which was ironic, considering how much she worked it) but Yanabah didn't let up until she looked like hamburger. 

SPYGOD decided not to intervene, though, as he was afraid he might give himself away if he did. That and there was something awful and ugly in the woman's eyes as she worked her mouthy subordinate over, and he needed to try and see what it was. 

(And, frankly, the !@#$ had had this beatdown coming for days now.)

So that was that. But, on the plus side, it meant he had time to snoop around the medic tent under the cover of taking care of his teammate. 

And who know how long that might take...?

* * *

"Oh god, not another one," the Chief Medic says as SPYGOD brings Zephyr into the the large tent: "Put her down on the gurney there. Nurse? I need a trauma kit, stat!"

"What do you mean not another one?" he asks as he complies, taking a big step back to let the woman work: "Did you take fire today?"

"No," the nurse says, running past him: "We've been shell-free for days. This is the second person the team leader's assaulted today."

"Shut up, Corporal," the nurse orders: "Fix now, talk later."

"Yes, ma'am," he says, complying. And SPYGOD takes that moment to walk out of their immediate area, and look around the tent -- fixing his eyes on where one might keep autopsy files and death certificates, as well as the human remains pouches...

"You going to help?" the medic asks him, pointedly.

"I just need to know what to tell the team leader," he says: "In case she asks."

"Tell her I'll have her up and running as soon as possible," she says, wiping her brow in the heat and arranging to have Zephyr moved: "And remind her that I have no less than ten complaints waiting for her to hear when she has time to do something other than send me needless work?"

"I think I'll leave the last bit out," he says, saluting on his way to the door: "I don't want to join her."

* * *

"About goddamn time," Yanabah says as SPYGOD comes up to them. She doesn't even turn around to see his salute.

"Sorry, ma'am," he says: "I figured I should get a sit-rep on Zephyr, in case you wanted it."

"I don't give a !@#$," Yanabah sneers, walking along the line of talents: "You missed the introductions, Shatter. You'll have to make up for that in your own time."

"Yes, ma'am," he replies, trying to match the stance of the least impressive person there -- some dark-skinned guy he figures for the guy from Turkey. Demir Ruzgar, he thinks.

"So here's the deal," she says, striding in front of everyone: "This is a mess, boys and girls. A complete and total !@#$ing mess. We're at war with everyone, right now, except for one side out of !@#$ing three. That third side isn't very reliable, ethical, or effective. 

"We can't trust anyone, we can't believe anything, and we aren't even here, as far as anyone knows. This is a secret mission, run on code ultra black, and if any of us get caught or killed, well, you're !@#$ed. Let's just leave it at that.

"So our standing orders are as follows," she goes on, looking each person in the eyes in turn: "The primary mission is to blow the hell out of IS. The secondary is to not let the Loyalists get the better of of the rebels. If we come across a situation where IS and the Loyalists are fighting, we're to let them wear each other down, and then go in and kill the survivors.

"The third is to assist the rebels when we can do so without blowing our cover. And the fourth and final consideration is that we do not blow our !@#$ing cover.  Not for anything. Not for anyone.

"We strike from a distance. We leave no survivors, no witnesses. We assume everyone who is not with us is against us. 

"Is that clear?"

A cacophony of affirmative answers issues forth from all lips: English, French, Russian, and Turkish.

And something about how most of them sound gives SPYGOD the creeps...

"Alright, then," she says: "Arachnoid, Shatter, you're with Chinmoku, Bouclier Blanc, and Russian Steel on guard duty. Free Fire, you're with the other two members of Le Trois Grandes on long-range action. Zephyr will be joining you once she gets over her attitude adjustment. 

"Dismissed!" she shouts, and everyone says "yes, ma'am," salutes, and gets the !@#$ out of her way.

"So you're Shatter," says a man in white, high-tech armor with a very large, powerful-looking shield: "I hear you're quite the swordsman."

"You heard right," SPYGOD says, smiling: "And I hear you're hell on wheels with that shield. Force projection, right?"

"Trade secrets," the Frenchman says, and his gaze seems sinister from behind the crusader's helmet: "All you need to know is that, if we engage a large group? Russian Steel and I will soften them up. You and this araignee will deal with the leftovers. Oui?"

"That sounds fair to me," Arachnoid says, clearly not wanting to get into an argument with the old hands.

"Good," the Frenchman says: "It may seem like a easy job to be left behind, but I tell you we have had to repel several attacks on this position. The ramparts of this sorry Arab town are red with would-be conquerors. So be on your guard, and do not let me catch you napping."

"Wouldn't dream of it," SPYGOD says, smiling behind his glasses: "Looking forward to working with you all."

The Frenchman sneers. The metal Russian laughs, but it's not good-natured.

And as they stomp off to get back to work, or whatever, SPYGOD looks at the armored, six-armed man he's spent the last couple days fighting with, and says "Is it just me, or is everyone here an asshole?"

"Everyone?" Arachnoid asks, and SPYGOD gets the idea he's chuckling under all that armor. 

"Well, present company excluded. Maybe."

They both laugh about that, and go off to see about some chow. 

And all the while SPYGOD is thinking about how to get into the medical tent, and get a look at how the guy from Qatar died.

And maybe some more info about New Man, who he keeps hoping isn't actually dead...

Sunday: 1/17/16

"How on Earth did she do it?" Randolph ask Helmut, incredulous.

"Something about getting close to the Campaign Manager," he says, not wanting to give any more details than that -- especially not in his dad's office: "But she did it. She's bugged his phone. After tonight, we can hear everything he says to that mystery caller."

"That's great," Randolph says, rubbing his hands together: "Tell them to record this. I want to hear every single word this son of a !@#$ is telling him."

You heard? he thinks back to the two of them, nestled in their room in New Hampshire -- resting up from that speech in Portsmouth, the other day, and preparing for his speech in Lynchberg on the 18th.

We did, yes, Jana thinks back, chuckling: Are you sure he wouldn't like details?

I don't, Karl grouses, putting a pillow over his head.

I was kind of curious, Helga thinks, just a few rooms away from Helmut back in San Francisco: But let's talk in person when you get back, dear. Leave the boys out of this?

Thank you! Karl and Helmut both think at the same time, and Randolph wonders why Helmut suddenly seems so exasperated.

* * * 

"But, Mr. Governor," the Mayor of Detroit says, mopping his brow as he talks to the man over the phone: "Look, this guy is making a mockery of the police, yes. I will totally admit that. But on the other hand... well, crime is down, sir. Way down."

"Do I sound like I care about crime in Detroit?" the Governor of Michigan shouts over the phone: "That isn't the issue, here. The issue is that Detroit, like the rest of Michigan, does not allow vigilantes to run riot in its city streets. And you know why."

"I do, yes," the man sighs, looking at the Chief of Police, who's standing in front of his desk and smiling a very disturbing smile.

"So let's be clear about this, Mr. Mayor. I don't have time for this nonsense. I'm tired of picking up both your city papers and having them lecture me about not doing anything in Flint, or else doing the wrong thing, and then having them excoriate me for letting this situation continue. 

"I have enough to worry about right now. Your inability to police your streets shouldn't be one of them."

"I agree, yes," the Mayor says.

"So one of two things happens, and it happens now," the Governor goes on: "Either you nail this Raven to the wall, or I appoint an Emergency Manager to take care of the city, again. And this time, when I appoint him, he's staying appointed. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, you do," the fat man says, nodding.

"Good," the Governor says, and hangs up without saying goodbye.  

"Well, Mr. Mayor?" the elderly chief says, leaning forward: "Do we tell our friend at Arrow Security to do what he has to do? Or do you lose your job?"

The Mayor puts the phone down, and swallows -- hard. 


"Damn you," the man says, looking at the old, walnut-faced Police Chief: "Damn you for leaving me no choice."

"Well all have a choice, sir," the elderly man says, turning to go: "Yours is just being made for you."

* * * 

The Candidate sits in the darkness of his hotel room, phone in hand, and waits.

He could be doing anything else right now, he knows. He could be talking to his wife and children. he could be talking to people, having a drink downstairs.

He could be somewhere else, doing anything else, with anyone he wanted.

Instead, he's here, waiting for a call.

He wants to cry. He wants to throw the phone at the wall.

He wants to run downstairs, right now, and tell every reporter and blogger what's really been going on.

But he can't. And he knows he can't.

He just doesn't know why, is all.

And while he knows life is full of things he can't explain, that doesn't mean he has to like it.

* * *

"What do you mean she just left?" Myron shouts at the nearest person, astounded. 

"I mean she volunteered to go down, sir," the man says, holding his papers close to his chest, as if he's worried about getting hit: "And, well... you know how she is. I don't think any of us could stop her-"

But Myron's already running to the entrance to the lower levels. With each turn and twist of the metal halls he knows he's going to be too late. 

Once he gets there, the guards more or less confirm what he already knows. The Chess Master has gone down to solve this matter herself.  

And all he can say is...

* * *

"What the hell is this?" Karl asks, looking at the bags of potato chips and cans of soda Jana's thrown on the bed.

"Snacks," she says, chuckling.

"Are you expecting a real party?"

"I think after this we will be in the mood to celebrate," Jana says: "And I'm afraid that's the best our meager staff suite has to offer."

"Well, it could be worse," Karl says, putting his headphones on, and making sure the recorder is ready to go: "I hear Cruz makes his staff buy their own water."

"Is it Canadian?"

He laughs at that, but then holds up a hand: "It's him. The phone is ringing."

"Moment of truth, then," she says, popping a diet coke: "You take it now. I'll listen later?"

He doesn't reply, though.

And when she turns to see what's wrong, she almost screams...

* * *

"Now see, I'm not so terrible," the young woman with crazy eyes says, helping Jerry -- aka Dr. Rose -- hold in his guts as he leans against the wall, still in shock at what's happened here: "This isn't so terrible.

"Why, if you really think about it, it's what you always wanted..."

All he can do is gasp as she holds the bloody flaps of his chest up and together -- unable to breathe as much as he needs to scream for fear of everything unwinding onto the silver sidewalk.

He met the girl at the Sing-Love, over by Rosi's pyramid. They got to talking about the high concepts and low urges, as one does. And while he really wanted to induct her into both, right then and there, she convinced him to head over to a more secluded spot, instead.

And when she went down on her knees to take in his teachings -- as he put it -- she produced a long, serrated, and wickedly curved knife from seemingly nowhere, and sliced him from his red chakra all the way up to his green.

"You go on about the little death," she says, kissing him as he panics: "About losing the self within the other, or the many. You talk about the release of energy. All that happy crappy.

"But all those things are just tiny preparations for a much larger thing. The big death. The loss of the self to the infinite. And the final release of energy as your soul just leaves the building..."

She slowly and gently lets go of him, and he gasps, his hands slipping on the warm wet of his own blood and fat. He looks at her pleadingly, perhaps hoping this crazy woman who's sliced him up will actually help him live.

No such luck, though -- and she smiles as she kicks him, right in the crotch.

He gasps once more and loses his grip, and his insides slop out of the doors she's made of his chest. He falls to his knees, losing his grip on consciousness and sanity both as everything he'd had, but never seen, makes itself visible to him in a stinking, wet, and warm heap on the ground.

And then, just to add insult to injury, Loreli positions the blade between her legs, grabs his head, and makes him perform the same maneuver he was assuming she was going to do for him.

"Fuck me, little man," she hisses as his head comes apart between her hands, one sawtoothed thrust at a time: "Fuck me. Fuck death."

* * * 

"Helmut, what's wrong?" Randolph says, holding his son up as he convulses on the floor. He can hear Velma in the other room, shouting, and suspects the same thing has happened to Helga. 

"Someone call an ambulance!" someone shouts, and the outlaw reporter is grateful for that.

"Helmut, please," he says, taking his son's hat from his head and waving air in his face with it: "It's okay, alright? You can relax. We're here. We're safe."

"No..." the large man says, shaking his head -- his eyes wild in their sockets: "Not safe. Not..."

"What's going on? Son? What's happening?"

"Karl..." Helmut says, looking horrified: "Jana. I can't... they're not... no."

"What's wrong!?" Randolph all but shouts: "Helmut! What's happened!?"

"They're not in my mind, anymore," he says, looking up with what can only be described as a large sense of loss: "They're gone, father. They're... they're dead."

And Randolph's heart stops a beat.

And he grits his teeth. He whines. He howls.

And the scream he issues after that could all but wake the dead. 

(SPYGOD is listening to The Party Line (Belle and Sebastian) and having an Al-Chark )

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