|"You Take On Everything / In a Peculiar Manner"|
Arachnoid, Shatter (*ahem* SPYGOD), Zephyr, Free Fire
(Art by Dean Stahl)
* * *
First there is the dark, lurking above the desert -- silence broken only by the wind.
Then there the light of explosion after explosion -- white hot balls all in a line.
Then there is sound, striking a quick moment later -- the slow rhythm of a helicopter.
Then there is cheering, as the Fire Base revels in the kill -- loud and obscene, like at a game.
Then there is battle, sudden and brutal -- ground fighters, trying to take Anadan yet again.
And then there is slaughter, total and complete -- talents lying in wait for what the fire brought...
* * *
"Min fadlik," the ragged remnant of a man whimpers to the six-armed man standing above him, looking for all the world like some metal, pagan demon: "Bismillah..."
"No," Arachnoid says, stomping a heavy, steel foot down on the man's chest. Something cracks and something else squishes, and then it's all over.
"That is all for these ones, then," Russian Steel announces, shaking pieces of his former adversaries from his hands: "Are there being any more?"
"Not from this corner," Bouclier Blanc says, his shield glowing as he comes from the darkness, and smoking as the blood that coats it crackles off like a bug on a zapper: "I have dealt with them all."
"We took care of ours," Shatter -- AKA SPYGOD -- says, whipping his long, blonde hair about and twirling the swords he made for the occasion as he exits the dark with Chinmoku at his side.
"I can hear them screaming, still," Chinmoku says, looking past the very ragged pile of bodies they have just left on the approach to Anadan: "Unsure of their destination. Wondering why they have been abandoned by their God."
"Must be disturbing," Arachnoid ventures, wiping the last combatant's gooey bits off his boot.
"No," Chinmoku says, the fire reflected in his sunglasses. His smile is terrifying.
"There is being no god," the tall, metal Russian says, spitting something akin to solder into the blood-soaked sands: "Not here, this night."
"Got that right," SPYGOD says, looking at Demir Ruzgar as he sits right where they left him -- wrapped in a human ball and staring out into the darkness.
"You," Bouclier Blanc tells the hero from Turkey: "Take the bodies away. Toss them into the dumpster. Burn them."
The broken man nods, and slowly unwinds himself to obey. He's wet himself at least a couple times today, and the smell is awful.
"So what the hell happened to him?" SPYGOD asks Russian Steel: "He break when the dude from Qatar bought it?"
"What happened to Al Mubaraz is none of your concern," the French hero quickly interjects.
"I was more worried about that guy," he replies, pointing back to Demir as he slowly takes each dead ground fighter and hurls them towards a blacked, metal dumpster, not far away.
"He saw something his mind could not understand," Chinmoku explains, watching as a dead enemy slams up against the dumpster and slides down: "Sometimes revelation is not kind."
"Should he be out in the field, then?"
"Should you?" Arachnoid sniffs, turning to go help the Turkish hero dispose of the night's haul.
"Sometimes the only way out is through, Shatter," Bouclier Blanc says, turning to look SPYGOD in the face: "You will understand, in time."
SPYGOD doesn't say anything to that. He just stands there and watches as the bodies of the men they just ripped through like corn through a thresher are tossed into the rusting, steel dumpster, and then set afire with a white phosphorus grenade.
As he watches, he becomes very aware that Chinmoku is watching him.
And something about his gaze makes him feel very uneasy, as though he was a mere second away from deciding to end his masquerade with a swift fist to -- and then through -- his chest...
"... yes, that's right," Randolph Scott shouts down the burner phone, holding his gun up as though it might somehow help the matter: "I've paid you very well to get me some !@#$ing information. And I had better !@#$ing get that information, or I'm going to walk all the goddamn way to Portsmouth, and do a four-bagger on you.
"Oh, you don't know what that is? It's where I expose someone so !@#$ing badly that no one will !@#$ you unless you're wearing a bag, they're wearing a bag, there's a bag on the light so they can't !@#$ing see, and a bag on the damn dog so it doesn't !@#$ing throw up!
"No, that doesn't make any goddamn sense!" the outlaw reporter shrieks, his voice bouncing around the otherwise-empty main office of THIS IS BULL!@#$: "And neither does your !@#$ing talking to me while you're supposed to be finding out what I need! Now move it!"
And then he slams the phone down. Picks it up. Stares at it. Slams it down again. Wonders why it isn't broken yet.
Alllllmost shoots it... but then remembers the guy needs to call him back. Eventually.
"I think someone needs to take the gun away from your father," Velma finally says to Helga as they stand outside the door, very afraid to go into the room right now.
"I'm not going in there," Helga wisely says, looking at the bullet holes he's already left in the walls, cabinets, and land lines.
"I will," Helmut says, adjusting his leather hat and looking at the two of them, and then all the other staffers cowering outside the door: "If I don't come back? Jello can have my hat."
"He doesn't want it, brother," Helga says.
"I know," the clone says, winking. And then he heads in, half-expecting Randolph to shoot him.
"Hey," the outlaw reporter says, somewhat weakly. He clearly needs either more or less of the whiskey he's almost blown through since he woke up this morning.
"Hey," Helmut says, grabbing a rolling chair, turning it around so he can lean his arms onto the back of it, and plopping down in it, maybe a foot or two from Randolph: "How are you doing?"
"How am I doing?" Randolph asks, incredulous: "Jesus, son. How are you doing?"
"Pretty !@#$ty, really," the clone says, pushing his hat up so he can look his father in the eyes: "I know we didn't talk about it much with you when Gunther died. But when you're linked up with someone as we are? Death... well, it feels like a piece of our soul's been ripped out. Two pieces, this time."
"I'm sorry," Randolph says, his red eyes becoming very wet: "And I'm not handling this very well, I know."
"No, you're not," Helmut says, reaching out to take the gun from his father's very loose grip: "You're scaring everyone. You're drunk. And you're acting like a cartoon."
"Hey!" Velma says through the door.
"No offense, Velma," the clone says, sighing: "But seriously, dad. This is no good. I understand rage. I understand grief. And I understand feeling helpless, especially since there's been no official word on either of them."
"Exactly!" Randolph shouts, banging his fist on the table: "You say they're dead? I believe you. But two interns can't just die on that bastard's time without the press going crazy about it. So where the !@#$ are the headlines? Where the !@#$ are the bodies?"
He holds a hand up to his eyes, then. It becomes very wet very quickly.
"But you're doing all you can, father," Helmut says: "You've paid one cop to find out why there's nothing in the paper about a couple of dead interns in a Holiday Inn. You paid the night front desk guy to ask around and find out who took their stuff from their room. And now you've got the best hacker in Concord trying to bust into their security camera logs to see what actually happened.
"But you know these leads take time to resolve," Helmut goes on: "And you know that shouting at people doesn't make things happen faster. Right?"
"Yes," Randolph lies, knowing full well that sometimes shouting at people and shoving a gun up their nose makes things happen very !@#$ing fast, but knowing where his adopted son is trying to go with this.
"So, hard as it is? Be patient," Helmut says, putting a hand on his father's shoulder: "Take the day."
"I can't. And you know why, son. You know why."
"Then go do some work on something else," his son says, holding up his cell phone and showing off one of the top news stories: "You've got an in with the head of the Space Service, right? Director Straffer?"
"Yes," Randolph says, remembering all the time they spent talking at SPYGOD's room, at Mt. Sinai, waiting for him to wake up.
"Well, he's in danger of becoming the ex-Director, all because he approved letting all of Mars come to Earth. Apparently he could make that kind of decision, unilaterally, but the UN isn't happy..."
"And the UN runs the Space Service," Randolph says, taking his son's cell phone and looking at it: "So they're going to fire him for doing his damn job?"
"Apparently. There's going to be a vote later in the week, but it doesn't look good."
"Well, !@#$," Randolph says, nodding and getting out of the chair: "Looks like someone better !@#$ing say something."
"Let me and Helga deal with this," Helmut says, steadying his father as he stumbles towards the door: "You go and raise hell about a good man about to lose his job for doing his job. We'll find out what happened to our brother and sister."
"Thank you," Randoph says, suddenly turning to hug his son with all the power he has. Helmut returns the hug.
No one's sure who starts crying first. In the long run, it doesn't really matter.
In the long run, it just is.
* * *
"This is intolerable," Satanoth grumbles, looking at the red mess that used to be a man, lying on a slab in the White City's one and only morgue.
"Got that damn right," the Red Queen -- or a part of her, at least -- says, looking down at the body.
"And you saw nothing?" the skull-faced God says, looking at her with something approaching menace: "Not with all the eyes I have given you? The many senses you now have? Somehow, a murder has happened in paradise, and you have seen... nothing?"
"That's correct," the Red Queen answers, not liking how her patron bristles at that: "But there's more to it than that."
"Please, enlighten me," Satanoth says, stroking the horrid, sawtooth slices in what used to be the man's skull.
"Well, for starters, you can't talk to his spirit," she says, stating the obvious: "Otherwise, you'd know who did it."
Satanoth says nothing, but his silence is all the confirmation she needs.
"I've talked with others. He followed Rosi, who maintains a contact with all Hir followers. S/he felt nothing when he died, either. It was like he just vanished. That's how she put it."
"Senchro rewound time, but saw nothing. Just this guy, walking along like he was with someone He couldn't see. Then he just erupted in wounds like a damn pinata. And then he died."
"And Shift?' Satanoth asked: "Did you speak with our brother? Walker of time and space?"
"He won't talk to me," she admitted: "And trying to ask Kanaan is... well, I'm sure you know."
"I do," the death god says, patting the dead man's destroyed skull: "I have no time for riddles and portents. Death is certain. Death is absolute."
There's silence for a time, and then he looks at his dread servant: "I do not like that this crime has happened in a way that we cannot see. That should not be possible. And that means some dark, powerful magic has been unleashed within this city."
"And I don't know jack and !@#$ about magic," she admits: "But I have been noticing something."
"What?" Satanoth asks, raising an eyebrow.
"It's just a feeling. But it's like I knew something was wrong."
"Please explain," he says, staring down at her.
"It's like when... well, when I'd be out on maneuvers? We were trained to listen to not only what was there, but what wasn't there. When things got too quiet, that's when you knew you were being hunted."
"And you have been feeling that way?" he asks, almost an accusation.
"I have, and for some time now. It's been growing-"
"Then why did you remain silent?" he asks her in a much more accusing tone: "Why have you said nothing?"
"You're busy, lord," the Red Queen says, holding up her armored hands: "And besides, what would I say? I feel something weird's going on? With all respect, that's every day, here-"
"I will not tolerate excuses!" He shrieks, raising his hand as if to smack her: "This city is to be perfect! No crime! No strife! No murder!"
"I'm sorry, but it's how I've always operated!" she almost begs him, just before he can strike her across the face: "I mean, if I'd come to my C.O. with nothing more than a feeling? He'd tell me to go back to my post and bother him when I had something !@#$ing definite.
"So I was looking for something more to show you that my feelings. And I'm sorry, I am. But I didn't think you wanted me for hunches."
He lowers his arm, slowly. He regards her, and perhaps mulls over the wisdom of what she says.
Then he takes her head in his hands -- gently, yet with steel -- and says: "I want you for you, my Red Queen. Your steel. Your fire. Your intuition. Your yen for the kill. All of it.
"And I will not have you hold anything back from me," he hisses, leaning in so close she can see the eyes in the skulls of his eyes: "Do you understand, my servant?"
"I do, yes," she stammers -- truly afraid.
"Then go back to looking," Satanoth commands, taking his hands from her face and turning his back to her: "And this time? Look for that absence of things. The silence that heralds the attack. And when you feel something, anything, you call for me. And together we will deal with this matter as it should be dealt with.
"Is this understood?"
"Yes," she replies.
"Then go, my servant," he commands, pointing to the door: "This city is sick. You are its cure. Go and find the germ that has infected it, and together we will make it rue the day it entered."
"Yes, lord," she says, leaving to obey.
"Impress me, or feel my wrath," Satanoth hisses as she leaves.
The Red Queen shudders as he says that, feeling every molecule in her body slacken its grip on its fellow travelers just for a second. It is, perhaps, her patron's way of letting her know that he controls her life and death.
And she knows that Tombo was right after all -- this was a very, very bad deal.
Okay... is this !@#$ing thing on? I sure hope so. I'm going to feel damn stupid sending back a recording of blank noise.
Josie? This is SPYGOD, reporting in live from lovely Anadan. Well, a couple klicks outside of it, anyway. I didn't want to !@#$ing risk anyone hearing, even if this is a goddamn subvocal.
You can never tell who's got good ears.
I'm sending this on Wednesday the 20th. I've been here since the 16th. We had an interesting adventure getting here, and by interesting I mean FUBAR. But it gave me time to get a better lay of the land, and see for myself some of the !@#$ that goes on here. It also gave me a chance to gauge how things are at camp.
And the answer is not !@#$ing good. Not at all.
You were right to be !@#$ing suspicious, Josie. This place is compromised. There's no other way to !@#$ing say it, either.
The long and short of it is that I'm about 105% convinced that New Man was fragged. I don't know if he or Al Mubaraz were the primary target, yet. But it was one of our missiles that did it, and there's no damn way it veered that far off course and hit camp rather than the target of the day.
But let me back up a bit, 'cause that's just the !@#$ing tip of the !@#$berg we got melting in the desert, here.
So I get here, a couple days late, and the first thing our acting CO, Yanabah, does? She beats the holy !@#$ out of one of the talents I came here with, Zephyr. Now, I'll admit that little mouthy !@#$ deserved a damn good clocking after the mess she got us into, not to mention her inability to shut her !@#$ing mouth.
But the beating she took was well past the point of legitimate. !@#$, even I wouldn't have gone that far. And that's !@#$ing saying something.
Anyway, that's exhibit number !@#$ing one. Yanabah beats her !@#$less in front of us. Then proceeds to give a roaring General Patton to the troops about how we can't trust anyone, which is true.
But she's also very keen about the 'we're not !@#$ing here' situation, and tells us it's okay to !@#$ing off witnesses.
All witnesses, Josie. Not just the enemy. Even our allies in the rebels.
Now, I'm told I used to !@#$ing command this girl. I read that she's a badass. But I never in a million years expected to hear that kind of !@#$ tumbling out of anyone's mouth, even in wartime.
So, that's exhibit two. Exhibit three is that all the other talents were !@#$ing nodding along like this !@#$ was normal. All the ones who'd been there a while anyway.
And Chinmoku? Well, I'm told I !@#$ing commanded him, too, mostly as a private contractor. And he was apparently a lot of things, but he was not down with the senseless murder of civilians.
So call that Exhibit 3.5 or something. She shouldn't have been like this at all. The others shouldn't have been down with that program. And he, most of all, should have been saying no. But instead we got yes ma'ams all the way across the !@#$ing board.
And that's !@#$ing scary enough.
Since then, we've been on four sorties and dealt with three ground attacks. I've been handling the goddamn ground attacks along with Chinmoku, Arachnoid, the big Russian guy, and the white part of Les Trois Grands, who's this !@#$er in white armor with a shield that tears people apart when he runs through them.
Nasty !@#$ing piece of work, right?
Anyway, the good news about ground attacks is that, if you play your cards right, you can get into the medical tent right after the !@#$'s hit the damn fan. And you can do some !@#$ing snooping around while the medics are all busy stitching people back together.
That's how I got a good look at the poor guy from Qatar. They didn't bother to !@#$ing clean him up at all, but at least they collected all his parts for a proper burial back home. No idea when they'll be !@#$ing releasing him, though. I guess they need to cook up a damn good story as to how he got blown to shreds while on humanitarian duty in the Gulf.
(That's what they say he said, anyway.)
Since they didn't clean him up, I was able to test for explosive residue and shrapnel. It didn't take long to figure out it was from a small, short-range, air-to-ground missile. It's a custom job, and the exact same kind that blue tornado mother!@#$er from France carries along with him when he goes on a sortie, and hurls at the enemy with very scary accuracy.
So either IS or the loyalists got their damn hands on a shipment, and got one !@#$ of a lucky shot, or someone who knew how to hurl it just right sent it in just the right direction at just the right time.
And I bet you can guess what I !@#$ing think.
As for New Man, I got bupkiss. A small little HRP with a couple pieces of what they said were human remains, but might actually be bits of poor Al Mubaraz. I'd need genetic testing strips to tell, of course. And wouldn't you know we ran out a couple !@#$ing weeks ago?
So here's me, hoping the witness accounts were damn right on the money, and he just !@#$ing turned into purple light and vanished. That might mean he can come back. I sure hope so, anyway. I'm damn tired of losing people I know...
Anyway, here's the real big thing. I said this place was compromised? Well, I'm not sure how the !@#$ it's happening, but everyone here has had the damn whammy put on them.
Case in point? Arachnoid. I got to know him fairly well, both before we got here and after. He's a decent guy under all that steel. No wussy, and that's for !@#$ing sure, but not a sadist, either. Not disloyal and grumbling, but not all !@#$ing jingo stupid, either.
Just a talent who decided to become Strategic and serve his country with all six of his hands, right?
Well, one night he goes on !@#$ing special patrol with some of the others. And when he comes back? He's an asshole.
Special patrol is supposed to be a short-range run out into the surrounding desert at night. We do it to see if the enemy's making long-range preparations to storm us from a new direction, or some !@#$. Sometimes we stop a ground attack before it happens, sometimes we just !@#$ our pants over nothing.
He goes out with Yanabah and Chinmoku. Now, beforehand? He and I are joking about initiations and the like. But when he comes back? Suddenly he's more chummy with the other two. And he doesn't want to make small talk with me, anymore.
It's like someone flipped a damn switch in his head.
Two nights later, Zephyr goes out. She leaves, and she's still not happy with Yanabah for the beating she took. But she comes back and it's the same goddamn thing. She's all chummy with them, even though one of them knocked out her !@#$ing teeth over a smartass remark. And she's not wanting anything to do with me.
But now, even after they've had some issues? She's all pally with Arachnoid.
You see where I'm !@#$ing going with this, right, Josie? Something happens out on special patrol. Something that changes people. Makes them part of some !@#$ing It Crowd.
Gets them with the damn program.
Not that it's a fool-proof thing. It looks like the guy from Turkey went out on Night Patrol and didn't come back in one piece, upstairs. He wanders around the camp like a damn ghost and pisses himself like a toddler, so they have him doing demeaning !@#$.
Free Fire's up next. Then I guess I do it, and then I guess I'll find out what's so special about special patrol.
That's why I'm risking sending this to you now. You will get it tonight. I will send you another one every day to let you know I'm alright.
But if you hear anything from me after I go on special patrol that sounds in any way off? Like I'm holding back info, or don't have a good explanation for what happened to the others? You get a team down here and stop this !@#$, Josie, because something is rotten in Anadan.
Something really damn bad at that.
And yes, I know it sounds like I'm giving orders to my superior officer. Some habits die hard, Josie. And right now my habit is screaming at me to blow the !@#$ out of this travesty and smack heads until I get answers.
And if I can't ask the questions, anymore? Then they'll know that you know, and that'll be the end of our chance to find out what's really going on here.
24 hours after I tell you I'm on patrol, Josie. No more. One second past and you drop the damn boom.
"So," the head of Arrow Security says to the dozen individuals gathered in his virtual boardroom, all of whom are identified by interesting avatars instead of their real faces: "Are we all clear on what has to happen?"
"I think so," Deathdealer says -- IDed as a shady, cartoon pimp with leopard-skin hat and coat: "But why are there so many of us here?"
"I was wondering that, myself," Pell-Mell chuckles, and all the angry, roiling heads that make up his data cloud do the same: "More than ten of us, all to bring down one nuisance? We'll be tripping over each other."
"That's the idea, isn't it?" The General asks, his uniform bursting with colorful medals that mean nothing: "We lure him and fight one another, and once he's done, only the strong with survive for a part in Detroit?"
"Exactly," their hosts says, his avatar grinning from ear to ear like some kind of corporate Cheshire cat: "The rules are simple. Do what you do, but don't interfere with each other. Then bring him down for me. Those who survive that part can squabble among yourselves for primacy afterwards, but not before. Is that clear?"
There's nodding and assenting noises at that.
"Is there a bonus for being the one who takes him down?" Tommi Gun asks, her avatar looking like a 30's gangster with a bullet for a head.
"I wasn't planning on it... but you know what? I appreciate initiative. A hundred grand to the one who brings me his head. How's that for cool?"
There's even more nodding and assenting at that.
"Alright then," he says: "If we're all agreed? Then, in the words of one of my favorite villains, go do that voodoo that you do so well."
With that he disconnects, and removes his VR goggles to take in his office.
"You quoted Blazing Saddles at them, sir?" his secretary, Gary, asks -- somewhat incredulously.
"I doubt most of them will even get the reference," he says, smiling and getting up to fix himself a drink: "What's important is that, since our attempts to manufacture a villain for this Raven to face has failed, I've decided to try capitalism. It usually works."
"And the crime rate, the collateral damage... they're worth getting rid of one man?"
"Gary, you're not getting squeamish on me, are you?" Mr. Stone asks, raising an eyebrow as he sips his scotch on the rocks.
"Not at all, sir. What's a security organization if there's nothing to secure against?"
"Quite right," the CEO of Arrow Security says, sitting back down behind his desk.
"I'm just thinking about the mess. That and the chance it might get back to us. I mean, the other people we dealt with were small time, and most of them weren't very savvy. Some of these people, however..."
"If they get caught, they'll be dealt with," Mr Stone says, smiling confidently: "If they do well, they'll be rewarded. And if they get too greedy after the fact, we'll have them dealt with. It's win-win-win across the board, Gary."
"Sounds good to me, then, sir," his secretary says with a smile.
Not a very convincing one, though.
* * *
"Oh, come the cod," the large, Irish man shouting down Myron's neck in Number Two's massive, spherical office says: "Yeh can't !@#$ing expect us to believe that, now can yeh?"
"It happens to be the truth," the Woman from the Improvement Committee says, addressing the large group of very angry former numbers, all here to discuss their dissatisfaction with the lottery.
"But you can't prove it, can you?" someone from the crowd asks, and receives a mighty cheer for her question.
"Not as such, but if you'd just calm down for a few moments-"
"Shut your ladyfriend's piehole," someone else says, pointing at her: "Or we'll shut her for you."
That's all it takes.
Myron's up in a second, and his fists are moving faster than he is. The man who insulted her is laid out on the ground not long thereafter, holding his nose before it falls off his face.
"You will all be quiet, now," he says, holding his bloodied fist up as though it were a symbol of dominion: "And you will listen."
"Yeh planning on hitting us all, then?" the large man says, but takes a step back, just in case.
"Do I have to?" Myron asks, looking around the room: "Because I will if I have to. Don't think I'm not desperate enough, either, because this !@#$ we're swimming in has me pretty damned desperate."
There's no answer to that, and he hitches a breath: "Alright then, folks. This is how it is.
"Some of you might know the truth about this, but the rest of you probably got lied to, or just not told. You all were part of a system where the truth was not spoken, lies were currency, and everyone just followed orders out of fear.
"Well, the days of lying are !@#$ing over. From now on we share all information. Otherwise, we're dead."
He looks from person to person, and gets both approval and anger. He doesn't give a !@#$, anymore.
"We're not on Earth, anymore," he says, and there's a gasp or two at that: "Not exactly, anyway. We're on Earth as it might have been if there hadn't been a number of mass extinctions, and homo sapiens had never developed. And this alternate reality has been artificially created and maintained through a really dangerous process..."
Someone makes a rude noise as he falters, but someone else slaps that someone upside the head: "Please go on, sir. This is intensely interesting."
"Thank you. As I was about to say, I've seen two of these constructs before. We called them B.A.S.E.C.A.M.P. 3 and 4. Both of them were compromised under very different circumstances, and we never got around to reclaiming either.
"So, this must be... hell, I don't know. We got the blueprint for the first one from some crazy-ass evil genius. Maybe BOWLER got the same plans. I don't know which number B.A.S.E.C.A.M.P. this is. I don't !@#$ing care.
"Bottom line, they developed the technology. And they sent the man you know as Number 42 over here to build this place.
"Yes, that's right, folks. He wasn't the anti-hero everyone made him out to be. He was the first Number Two. And when he couldn't hack it, anymore? He handed it all over to the guy you've been calling Number Two since. And you saw what kind of a job he did.
"But there's one problem," Myron goes on: "People come here but they don't leave. And that's not just because there's the hospital, the graveyard, and rover. It's because while BOWLER figured out how to get inside this thing they made, they didn't know how to get people back."
There's some more gasps at that. Myron nods.
"So that's what the real problem is here, folks. We can't go home. Not until we find the means by which we were all brought here, which is somewhere down there. And then we have to fix it.
"Now, I can fix it. I've done it once before, and while some crazy !@#$ was going on, too. So as long as I'm not being attacked by a bunch of hungry weather balloons we should be fine.
"But I can't fix it if it's not in front of me. I can't be in front of it if we haven't found it.
"And unless we're all willing to take turns going down there, we're not going to find it."
"So when's your !@#$ing turn?" the large Irishman asks.
"Didn't you hear him?" the woman says, shaking her head: "He's our ticket home. If we lose him, we've lost everything."
"It's a crazy story," someone says: "How come this is the first we're hearing of it?"
"Did any of you make the trip here willingly?" Myron asks, looking around: "Do any of you actually remember coming here?"
No one does, clearly.
"You all just woke up in your bungalow, didn't you?" Myron said: "Some nice little place that looked just like your bedroom. Or maybe you went straight to the new arrival's hostel so you could fight for your lives with a couple complete strangers?"
No answers, but the shocked look in their eyes is enough for him.
"The process could have been entirely automated," he goes on: "Things appear and vanish all the damn time. Some of it was shills. Some of it was some of you. But no one remembers coming here. You just woke up-"
"I remember coming here," someone says from the back of the room. It's the horse-faced, grey-haired doctor. And everyone steps aside for her so she can come in.
"You do," Myron says, raising an eyebrow.
"Yes," she admits, her hands in her pockets of her white lab coat: "I was blindfolded, of course. They took me down an elevator in BOWLER's main building. Put me in a car. Drove me around and around London until I was dizzy. Or maybe we never went anywhere at all.
"And then they took me out, marched me through a doorway, down a hall, into another, different elevator... at least it sounded and smelled quite different. Then I was told to take a deep breath and hold it, and walk forward until I felt my ears pop. Then I should start breathing again, but not take off my blindfold until I was told to."
"And then what happened?"
"I did as I was told, every step of the way. There was a strange sensation, a smell of burning. And then my feet were moved beneath me, as though I were on a people mover. I was in darkness, and then I was in the light.
"And then Number Two was taking my blindfold off, and welcoming me to the Village."
"Alright then," the Woman from the Improvement Committee says, gesturing to the Doctor: "You see? A totally automated process. We were all knocked out on the other side, fed through a door, or whatever. And then moved from the basement to the top floor. Some of us were just awake for the ride is all."
That deflates the arguing, and the grumbling. Little by little people funnel out of the room, into the rest of the Green Dome.
"Well thank you," Myron says: "I wasn't expecting you to help."
"Well, it's like you said," the woman says, frowning: "If you go, they go after me, next. But don't think this makes us friends. Not by a long damned mile."
"I'd settle for allies, right now," Myron says, extending a hand for her to shake.
She regards it for a moment, rather coolly. And then she spits in his face, turns, and walks away.
"Well, that went rather well," the woman sighs, crossing her arms. All Myron can do is wipe her vote of no confidence off his cheek and nose, and hope he doesn't have to rely on her support for much longer.
"Well, I'm disappointed," Director Straffer says, looking at the Colonel's holographic image as it stands at attention in his office -- beamed down direct from the Sudarshana Chakram, high in orbit above the space elevator.
"Frankly, sir, I'm disappointed you'd even ask," the older man says, his eyes as flinty as they ever were: "I take my duty seriously. But while you are my commanding officer, the United Nations is our commanding body. If they decide to remove you from your position, I'm not going to go to war with them to keep you behind that desk."
"But what if they're wrong?" the blonde man asks, coming out from around his desk to stand in front of the man: "You know what's happening to Mars, right now! Those people are facing a global catastrophe! I had to act-"
"I'm not disagreeing, sir," the man says, shaking his head: "I'm in full agreement. Those people are our allies. It's our job to help anyone in need, but when our allies ask for help, we need to be there."
"Because there is a chain of command, and I have to follow it."
"But if you do, those people who are coming will be forced to turn around. Or they'll languish in orbit while the pencil-pushers in NYC figure out what to do with them!
"We've got a destination for them. We just have to get them from here to the White City. After that, it's taken care of-"
"I appreciate that, sir. But it doesn't change the fact that you bucked the system-"
"I followed the remit of my position-"
"I'm not in the habit of fighting my own superiors!" the Colonel shouts, and something about how his voice filters through the hologram almost kills any chance of backtalk. Almost.
"You used to do it all the time, as I recall," Straffer says, frowning.
"That's right, sir. I did. When the cause was just and my orders were wrong I broke the rules all the damn time. And when I did they sent our own boys out to get me and bring me back.
"And when I hurt them... it broke my heart."
"I'm sorry," Straffer says, sitting down on the edge of his desk: "I never knew it came to that."
"No one really does, sir," the Colonel continues: "But it did. And it got ugly. I used to see their faces in my head, every night. That's why I drank myself blind, sir. Not from weakness, but to keep myself strong. Able to do what needed to be done with no regrets, no second-guessing."
"Which is what I'm asking you to do here," the Director says, almost pleading with him.
"I know, sir. And I do appreciate that. But ask yourself this -- if you stand against them, how many of your own people do you really think will follow you? And even if it's everyone in the Space Service, how many people do you think the UN will send?
"Do you really want to be responsible for all that blood?"
"No," Straffer says: "I don't. But I can't turn my back on my duty, or those people. I have to try. I have to take a stand.
"Because if I don't? If I just say 'oh well, better luck next global catastrophe?' There will be blood on my hands, then, too.
"And I'd rather they get bloody from doing the right thing than doing nothing at all, Colonel. How about you?"
"Permission to terminate transmission, sir," the old man says after a moment's silence: "I think we're done, here."
"I think we are, yes," Straffer says, saluting the man, who salutes back. Then he's gone.
"Sir?" Captain Charleston says, coming around the corner: "Um, sorry to interrupt-"
"Go ahead," his CO says, sighing as he heads behind his desk: "Can't be worse than that."
"I took the liberty of conducting a straw poll with all the officers here, in the elevator," he says: "They're all with you, and we're all with you."
"Well, that's good to hear."
"The pilots on the other hand... they seem to be a mixed bag," he admits: "Most are with us, some are against us. And some are saying if they get contradictory orders they'll just disembark and sit it out."
"Well, I can't blame them," Straffer sighs, wondering if he should drink something caffeinated, alcoholic, or both.
"I'm with you all the way, sir," Charleston says, stepping up to the desk: "Even if you weren't right, which you are? You saved my ass. I'm not forgetting that."
"Well, this may wind up with both of us losing ours," Straffer says, deciding to split the difference and have a Lemmy, and make another for his subordinate: "If you wanted to get out, I would understand."
"If you wanted to say it was all my idea, I'd totally take the fall, sir," the Captain says, clinking his glass to Straffer's and having a sip, and then a gulp: "I'd rather go to the stockade for doing the right thing than get promoted for the wrong one."
"Amen to that," Straffer says, wondering if his fiance would break him out of jail.
* * *
"So, I went for a real Hail Mary, here," the hacker (who looks like the Jollibee mascot) is telling Randolph Scott via telepresence, showing him a number of screens: "Lucky for us, when they say they wipe the tapes every 24 hours? They really don't. One of the people who works there sometimes sells the footage to one of those sites where they post embarrassing tae that people do when they're drunk in hotel rooms."
"Is that how you got these?" Randoph asks, his voice echoey through his inbuilt VR rig.
"Well, let's not get into that. Let's just say I earned my fee this time."
"Alright," the outlaw reporter says, nodding: "So what do you have."
"Okay, we have the two persons of interest going into their hotel room on the second floor. A while later... maybe fifteen minutes, she leaves, and goes to the concierge suite to grab some food that's been laid out for the staffers."
"Looks about right," he says, smirking at their choice of foodstuffs: "I used to get bags of that in my lunch box."
"Didn't we all, brother? Well, here's where it gets interesting. She goes back to the room. And... let's see, maybe five minutes later... they come out."
Randolph gasps, looking at the two of them. They've clearly been in a fight, but they're walking side by side as if this was completely normal for them.
"So they go up the elevator, and here they are. Looks like she pasted him a good one in the nose. And those seem to be choke marks around her neck."
"Oh my god," Randolph says, amazed: "What did they do? Why would they do it?"
"Not my department. I'm just sorry none of these rooms have cameras. Man, the blackmail material..."
Randolph doesn't say anything to that, and lets the man go on.
"So they get out on the third floor, and here they are leaving. And they walk down to this lady's door. She seems to be one of their mahalagas, you ask me."
"Yes," Randolph says, remembering his Tagalog: "That's the Campaign Manager. I wonder why she's staying in the Holiday Inn instead of the hotel her client was at?"
"Dunno. Maybe you can ask her," the hacker goes on: "Okay, she opens the door. There's a conversation, and she seems pretty surprised. They go into the room, and then... zip ahead maybe fifteen minutes..."
The screens change focus to the front, where a long, black limousine pulls up. Two of the Candidate's security people get out and walk into the building, and then the screens flip between angles as they march through the lobby, up to the elevator, ride it up to the third floor. They appear to be talking into headsets the whole time.
Then they get out, and march down to the Campaign manager's room. One knocks as the other guards. The door opens, the manager comes out for a second, and then hands over Jana and Karl, who gladly let themselves be taken away by the security.
Then it's back down the hall, into the elevator, out the lobby, and into the back of he car. The two kids are smiling all the while -- almost beatifically.
And then the car goes away, and the screens go blank.
"Now, the bad news? I wasn't able to get anything from the guy's hotel. It is actually complying with the tape wiping. But the next day, early morning? I get this."
More shots from the second floor, as a couple security guards come down the hallway with folded boxes under their arms. They enter Karl and Jana's room, and -- about an hour later -- come out with their things, both in boxes and loosely.
"They put them into a limo, just not the same one. And then they drive off."
"That goes along with what the night clerk told me," Randolph said: "Apparently he didn't see them come and take them. But he did hear that, the next day, the people in that room didn't check out, but all their stuff was gone."
"Well, there you go," the hacker says, and his avatar smiles: "So, did I earn my fee? I know that's not a lot to go on-"
"It's enough," he says: "And I'll double your fee if you can find out where they went next. Because I doubt they're still in Portsmouth."
"Consider it done," the hacker says: "Be seeing you."
And then they're out, and Randolph's eyes go back to normal.
"Well?" Velma asks, with Helga and Helmut standing nearby.
"They're still alive," he says, intensely relieved: "Apparently, when you thought they were dead? Something happened to them. They fought each other, and then... well, when they came out? There was something wrong with them. It was like they weren't themselves anymore."
"So what we thought was them dying was... what?" Helga thinks: "Them shutting themselves off from us?"
"Now that I think about it, I felt like he died and then she did," Helmut says, confused.
"That makes sense," Randolph says: "It looks like he attacked her. Maybe he was trying to get her to..."
He thinks for a moment: "We were bugging his phone. They heard the phone call. They heard the voice on the other end."
"So... the voice on the other end is... what?" Velma asks: "Someone who can have an evil effect on people over the damn phone?"
"A controlling one, to be sure," Randolph says: "And if that's the case, then suddenly this makes a lot more sense."
"What does?" Helga says.
"Why a smart man who hangs out with Democrats suddenly becomes a raging, hateful, ultra-conservative asshole the moment he runs for President," the outlaw reporter says, getting to his feet: "He's always been an egomaniac, and yeah, he's a bully. But this kind of !@#$? Throwing Muslims, Mexicans, and Martians under the bus to make Joe Bob Pig!@#$er happy?"
"Well, it's working," Helga shudders: "You have seen the polling data."
"Yeah, but that's not him. Not really."
"You could have fooled me," Velma says.
"I think we've all been fooled," Randolph says, grabbing a fresh bottle of whiskey and opening it up: "Someone is pulling his strings, and it isn't just a backer. It's a puppetmaster. Someone's !@#$ing mind controlling the man.
"And if he wins the election..."
There's nothing more to be said, but they all take a good, long pull off the bottle when he starts handing it around.
"So what do we think of the other two?" Yanabah says, passing a cold bottle of local beer around to her war council as they sit in a trashed building some distance from the center of camp.
(Demir is holding a cooler full of them, drooling by her side.)
"Free Fire is, how you say? Douchebag?" Russian Steel snorts: "Not friendly."
"Yeah, he's an asshole," Zephyr says, taking the beer and handing it over to the big Russian -- who she's clearly enamored with: "Wouldn't laugh at any of my jokes."
"No one is laughing at your jokes," Epee Rouge sniffs, and everyone laughs at that.
"But should we bring him in?" Yanabah asks.
"Not certain yet," Arachnoid says: "There's just something about him that sets me off. I don't know what."
"Alright, maybe we take him out on night patrol tonight, then?" Yanabah says, taking the beer back and finishing it off: "Watch how he acts before? Then see how he is when it happens? Waste him if we don't like it?"
People more or less nod at that.
"Alright," she goes on, opening a new bottle and taking a swig: "How about Shatter? I like him."
"I mostly like him," Bouclier Blanc says: "He is a good fighter. Very agile. Not afraid to get his hands dirty."
"Yeah!" Zephyr says, taking the bottle: "Bad ass mother!@#$er. I love what he does with those swords."
"Da!" Russian Steel thumps his chest: "An excellent addition to our team."
"One swordsmith to another, I find him... adequate," Epee Rouge says, smirking a little and passing the bottle to the Russian.
"You say that about everyone," Arachnoid scoffs, and there's some laughter at that: "And he is good, but there's something off about him."
"That is true," Bouclier Blanc agrees: "I am not certain why. Perhaps he asks too many questions-"
"He is SPYGOD," Chinmoku says, out of nowhere.
All heads turn to look at him, and he smiles and looks down over his sunglasses: "Please tell me I am not the only one who realized this?"
"How do you know?" Yanabah demands: "And none of your zen cookie horse!@#$, here, pal. Straight answers for a change."
"To know someone, you must fight them," he answers: "Or at least watch them fight. It is a window into the soul, more accurate than any words. The poetry of motion."
"Zen cookies," Russian Steel says: "Again with these zen cookies."
"I have fought with him, and alongside him," the martial artist insists: "In close quarters, with bladed weapons. It is his style of fighting. It is him."
"That cannot be true," Tonnerre Bleu shrugs: "He is a blind man, undergoing treatment. Everyone knows this."
"That is what we have been told, my friend," the metal Russian says: "And by the government. In Russia, this always means there is a lie."
"And that would explain that Frankie Goes to Hollywood t-shirt he's been wearing," Zephyr offers.
"Who?" Arachnoid asks.
"Well then," Yanabah says, looking at everyone: "If this is true, and our friend here isn't smoking the ramen again, then we've got a serious !@#$ing problem, don't we?"
"If he's here, and in disguise, they must know something," Epee Rouge says.
"Then they must suspect what happened," Bouclier Blanc adds: "What we had to do."
"So if we kill him, how long have we got?" Arachnoid says.
"About a day, I bet," Yanabah says: "We have to assume he can make contact with them."
"Can we wrap things up in a day, here?" Arachnoid asks: "I don't know the full extent of operations. You haven't told me everything, yet."
And Yanabah smiles, wolflike, and proceeds to tell him everything.
At the end of which, he's down with the program.
* * *
"Oh come on," the large man -- dressed like a Revolutionary War soldier, complete with a tri-corner hat -- shouts at the television in the corner of the old, small, but well-maintained jewelry store they're robbing: "I don't need to hear any more about the one world government! Didn't we fight against this kind of tyranny?"
"Dude, I love Tyanids," one of his domino-masked henchmen says as he smashes another gorgeous, wood and glass case of diamond rings: "As soon as I get my cut I'm buying a 5000 point army."
"If your sights are set so low, George, then by all means, waste your money," the man says, turning around just as the FOX announcer talks about the upcoming vote on the Space Service Director: "But you'd do better to buy gold, or at least bullets."
"I'm down with that," the skinny, black man by the door says, holding a gun to the owner and the one customer who'd been unlucky enough to be there when they came.
"This country is sick," he goes on, smoothing the lapels of his blue coat as he addresses all six of his fellows, all of whom are busy smashing and shoving: "Diseased. We've gotten too far from our original values-"
"I don't think they wrote the Constitution so you could rob honest businessmen," the owner hisses, glaring at the man who's trashing his life's work.
"Honest?" the robber looks at the man and sneers: "That hook nose betrays you for a Jew, my friend. I've never met an honest Jew-"
"I'm Pakistani you racist !@#$," the owner shouts back: "Just like my father, who built this shop! He came here to build a better life. And people like you think we're some kind of sickness?"
"America is for white, christian men," the leader glowers -- quickly adding "No offense, Jay," to the skinny man with the gun.
"All the same to me, man," his lackey grins, putting the gun closer to the owner's head: "You want I should cure your disease?"
"Maybe later," the capped villain says, with just a hint of menace: "Maybe not. Maybe if do enough damage to ruin his life's work, he'll go back where his father came from and start over there?"
He laughs at that, but then he turns around and stops laughing.
His men are all unconscious -- knocked about the floor like tenpins.
Standing in the center of it all is a man in black, with short, black feathers tumbling in the air around him. His face is painted black with white lines across his eyes and mouth.
And he's looking right at the robber and the man with the gun with a very unhappy look.
("This just in," the announcer says: "The UN has voted to remove the Director of the Space Service immediately. They are giving him 24 hours to leave the Space Elevator in Pontianak...")
"I have a better idea," The Raven says, hands ready to do his work once more: "Why don't you put the gun down and give yourself up? It will be less painful for you, now and later."
"Oh man," the kid with the gun says -- dropping his weapon, kneeling, and putting his hands behind his head in one quick, panicked motion: "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. I wasn't going to hurt this guy, really. I was just talking tough-"
"Well, that's what comes with giving a !@#$ a gun," the robber sighs: "I guess you can't get good help these days. Not in Detroit, anyway..."
"Who are you?" The Raven asks, stepping forward and indicating that the owner and customer should get out while they can.
"I might ask you the same question," the robber says, putting his hands on his hips, clearly disgusted: "Isn't it a little early for Halloween?"
"I might ask you the same question," the hero says, taking another, careful step closer once the two civilians are well clear: "I've never heard of you before."
"I am the Patriotist," the villain says: "I steal from parasites like this to give back to the cause of the Third American Revolution."
Thomas rolls his eyes at that, and then glowers: "I'd be the last person to think our Founding Fathers were perfect, but I have a hard time believing they'd approve."
"That's only because you never read the Constitution," the Patriotist grins: "Or the Bible, I'd bet."
The Raven sighs -- somehow he knew this was going to be somewhere south of ridiculous when he heard the crashing and came to investigate.
(And why aren't the cops here by now...?)
"I am getting tired of costumed crooks turning my city into their playground," the hero sighs: "And even more tired of hearing these distorted and sick justifications for crime. And now you've actually offended me, too-"
"Free speech, sir!"
"Yes, you have a lot of freedoms. But If I were you, I would stop talking and do what your partner in crime is doing. Otherwise, I might not be as understanding as I normally am with people like you."
"That's what you think, fool!" the man says, taking a step back: "My partner's going to deal with you, now."
"What partner?" The Raven asks.
And then he notices the car, parked out across the street. It's an old, black model -- maybe something from the 1930's.
And its driver is dressed like an old-time gangster, complete with a hat and cigar.
(How did he not see it before now?)
"Tommi, come on in," the Patriotist grins into a communicator on his coat: "I've got him all warmed up for you."
"Sorry, sugar," a mocking, woman's voice says: "Change of plans."
"What?" he asks, turning around.
And then the car unfolds -- its sides popping up and out to reveal a bank of very scary-looking gatling guns.
"Thanks for helping out, Bert," Tommi Gun says, grinning as her window rolls up with armor plate.
"What?" he asks again.
"No!" The Raven shouts, trying to push the villain and his accomplice out of the way.
... on an American aircraft carrier, not far from Pontianak, a large number of warplanes are prepared for battle.
Freshly-briefed pilots hustle across the steel beach, climbing up into their cockpits and getting ready for the order to go, go, go.
They've got their remit. They hope they won't be needed.
They hope that everyone will just do as they're !@#$ing told, over at the massively-tall thing they can see, just past the horizon.
They somehow know it won't be that damn easy...
* * *
... to kill me," SPYGOD mutters as he sees the lone figure stomping towards his tent, off on the far side of the strangely-deserted camp.
It's Free Fire. He's alone. He's got his fire wheel booted up -- smoking and sparking with every step -- and seems ready to commit.
It looks like he went on Night Patrol, alright. His eyes seem a little more dead than usual.
And there's no one around that he can see to witness what comes next.
So SPYGOD sighs, deep inside -- he kind of liked that guy, even if he was a little weird -- and gets ready to...
* * *
... exit the black car that took them from the Frankfurt Airport to this abandoned building, south of town.
"It's not very impressive," Karl says in German, looking around as the skull-shaven, leather boys who picked he and his sister up get out behind them.
"Appearances are deceiving, my young friend," their leader says: "I think you will have to become used to many such surprises within Odal."
"I am ready for them," Jana says, smiling as they all go forward.
"I wonder if they're ready for us?" Karl chuckles as...
* * *
... every aerospace fighter the Space Service has rains down from near orbit to take up a protective cordon around the space elevator.
Somehow, he did it. Their Director managed to talk every last pilot into holding the course.
(Maybe one or two aren't entirely convinced, but he's got them for now, at least.)
He's worried about a ground assault. He's worried about a sustained campaign. And he's really worried about what the Colonel will do.
But for now, he's got this, provided all his plans actually work out...
* * *
... except that the tent is empty, and there's no sign of SPYGOD anywhere.
Wait -- right behind him. A swordpoint, right where his skull meets his neck.
"Alright, !@#$er," SPYGOD says, astonished at how easy it was to sneak up on the guy: "We can dance and you can lose body parts, or you can just !@#$ing tell me what I want to know."
"I would be very happy to," the orange-armored man says, not moving around: "But do us both a favor and act like you're a second away from killing me. Otherwise they will attack us both."
"What the hell are you talking about...?" SPYGOD asks, but then realizes...
* * *
... who the pale man before them is.
"... or at least you were," Jana says: "Up until everything went wrong, that is."
"Leave us," the leader of Odal says, waving his hand to the leather boys, who smile, nod, and do as commanded without a word of complaint.
And then, when they're alone, the red-eyed man smiles, takes Jana and Karl by the hands, and leads them...
* * *
... straight into a box trap, surrounded by the Space Service's fighters and the automatic defenses they apparently didn't know the Space Elevator had.
The Service's pilots do their best to be nice about it -- really. They aim for the warplanes' guidance systems, doing their best to avoid hitting the cockpit.
But mistakes happen, and some things just can't be helped.
People start dying on either side, and Straffer watches from his office, almost seeing the blood form on his hands.
"Please let this end quickly," he prays to no one in particular, and hoping...
* * *
... they haven't heard us," Free Fire says as they trade blows -- twinned blades to fire wheel, back and forth, as close as they can: "If they have, the deception is over."
"Well, that's a !@#$ing disturbing story," SPYGOD says, parrying a very swift strike and replying with a solid kick to the midsection: "You'll have to tell me how is isn't you're not !@#$ed in the head too."
"Isn't it obvious?" the orange-armored man says, not really phased by the kick: "I'm a-"
But then an explosion rips the tent apart, behind them. They scatter before the blast.
And they realize that...
* * *
"We've seen how those who went before us were treated," Karl says, raising an eyebrow: "I don't know how wondrous it was."
"Interesting," the pale man says, putting a hand on both their waists, which neither seem eager to want to remove: "You obey, and you desire to do my will. And yet you retain your flippancy?"
"It may because of our powers," Jana offers: "We may be blocking you on some level."
"Or maybe we're waiting to be impressed," Karl says, smiling: "So, let's get started..."
* * *
"... wrapping this up," Straffer orders Charleston, who's moving around in his office, outside: "Call the UN. Tell them this ends now. Tell them to back off."
"I'll do that," the Captain says, taking note of how many splashed planes are sitting in the bay.
"Tell them don't make me embarrass them in front of the world by getting the media involved."
"I'll do that. Which network should I call first?"
"Well..." Straffer says, but then sees something reflected in the window, and realizes...
* * *
... how utterly !@#$ed the two of them are.
"So," Yanabah's voice comes -- mocking them from speakers in Epee Rouge's armor: "I guess this is where you both !@#$ing die, huh?"
"Get smart, Flower," SPYGOD says, looking at all the friends and allies arrayed before them: "You wouldn't be the only hero said they were going to kill me. Especially when I came to kill them."
"And he has me on his side," Free Fire says, holding his fire wheel up: "You don't know what you've done, threatening us. Please stand down."
Bouclier Blanc laughs -- long, dark, and ugly -- and then...
* * *
"... I didn't know that was possible," Jana says, astounded as Helvete shows the jar of pills.
"No one does," the pale man agrees, putting them away: "But it is the truth, my little children. I am now Wilhelm Keitel, and will continue to be so long as I take them. And in this body, I not only retain my old powers, but also its own as well."
He makes fire come from both of his hands, as if to prove it. And, at long last, they kneel before him.
"Now, you must tell me how much this Randolph Scott knows," he tells them: "Or at least what he suspects. I think I shall have to deal with him.
"And you two will be my best weapons against the truth..."
* * *
"... is, the longer you've been away from your desk, and I've been standing in?" Captain Charleston says, aiming the very large, anti-cyborg gun at his boss' head: "The more I've come to realize how much I like it. And the more I've come to realize what a bad job you've been doing."
"Don't be stupid," Straffer says, holding his hands out instead of up: "They'll throw you under the bus, too. All the things you've done on my behalf-"
"Will be erased," his subordinate says, looking as the Chakram comes down from the sky behind them, and begins to hold their aerofighters in place with its mysterious Z-beams: "They're going to fix it. They're going to fix everything."
"You think so?" Straffer asks, raising an eyebrow: "I think you're wrong. There's some things you just can't fix.
And this is one of them."
* * *
...in Detroit, The Raven's body lies in a police morgue -- riddled with so many bullets that it isn't even recognizable...
... in the White City, Loreli looks over the latest, blood-red work of art she has made and calls it good...
... in the Green Dome, the Woman from the Improvement Committee looks at the number in her hand, and realizes she has been chosen to go below...
* * *
... and in the skies above Pontianak, as the Sudarshana Chakram spins and glows like a second sun, a strange, strong light shines down that not even it can eclipse.
And, at long last, the new age of the Olympians unquestionably begins.