|"Now you're dancing in the shadows / And they're calling out your name"|
Randolph Scott, Outlaw Reporter
(Art by Dean Stahl)
* * *
* * *
"Forgive me for interrupting, my leader," the short, wormy fellow says, gently knocking at Helvete's private office.
"Not at all," the tall, white-skinned man with burning, red eyes says, quickly closing the wooden cabinet he was in front of, just then: "What is it, Clovis?"
"You wanted to be informed when the other Spaniards called back," the Odal man says, wiggling one of his black, rotten teeth.
"What did they say?"
"They say they'll agree to a meeting," Clovis replies, doing his best to not notice all the things inside the office he's not supposed to enter. Old things, from the looks of them: moldering books in an old, black shelf with glass doors; dusty furniture emblazoned with German eagles and iron crosses; a table heaped with scientific equipment that looks like something from a 1940's monster movie...
"Did they say anything else?" Helvete asks, his black lips pulled back to reveal some scary-looking teeth.
"No, my leader. Just that they'll expect a reply, soon."
"I think I will give it to them," the pyrokinetic says, looking at his assistant: "You will call them back. You will tell them I will consider their proposal. You will not say when I will contact them."
"Yes, my leader," Clovis replies, his eyes going somewhat dead at the commands.
"And then you will arrange transportation to Madrid in three days' time. Have my quiet team prepare the other jet. And say nothing to anyone else about this matter. If anyone asks where I am going, say the Alps, for a quick visit to an old friend."
"Yes, my leader," his assistant goes on, barely feeling the tooth he's been worrying as it finally falls from its pus-sodden hole and rattles around in his mouth.
"Oh, and forget everything you saw in here," Helvete adds, almost as an afterthought: "And what I was doing when you came in."
"Yes, my leader," Clovis replies, his speech somewhat garbled by the loose tooth.
"You may go, and close the door behind you."
"Yes, my leader," he says, and does so, glad to at last be able to spit the offending piece of his mouth into his hand.
The door closed, Helvete waits exactly ten seconds -- in case the fool comes back -- and then opens the cabinet doors again. Inside is a monument to someone else's life. Medals won, displayed proudly under glass. An officer's cap. A ceremonial sword. Pictures of family and friends, long since gone to their reward.
One very large photograph dominates the cabinet: an older man with a crisp, distinguished mustache, wearing the uniform of a Generalfeldmarschall of the Third Reich.
"Guten tag, mein alter freund," Helvete says to Wilhelm Keitel.
Then he reaches into a secret compartment, under the officer's cap. And he pulls out a large, stoppered glass bottle filled with thousands of small, white capsules.
He opens it reverently, takes one pill, and places it under his tongue.
As he closes the bottle, the capsule begins to dissolve. By the time he's secreted it away, and closed the cabinet, the medicine begins to take effect.
And he grips the sides of a nearby chair to anchor himself, gritting his teeth to avoid screaming in pleasure and pain as the drug does its work...
"So, you will be leaving us, soon," Seranu says to Director Straffer, who's been enjoying a leisurely breakfast on the balcony of his room. The table is piled high with fruit and pastries, and a rainbow assortment of juices.
"I am, yes," he says, looking over at the Supergod who just floated over -- perched upon a golden disc, and bearing the kingly scepter he wielded the other day in the conference room: "Most likely tomorrow-"
"Today, I think," the King of the Olympians says, looking down at his guest.
"Am I being kicked out?"
"No," the bearded god smiles: "That is not a command, but prophecy."
"Indeed. I have it on good authority, twice over, that something will draw your attention and force you to leave."
"Well, that's an interesting thing," Straffer says, taking another sip of the outrageously zippy, red fruit juice he's been guzzling since he discovered it, the other day: "I had no real reason to want to go, today. But now that you've said I will go, I'm wanting to talk to folks outside to find out what's happening that would force me to leave.
"And since I can't talk to them inside, well... I sort of have to go, don't I?"
"Perhaps nothing. I have responsibilities out there, Seranu. I have the Space Service to run. I have my fiance's health to consider. If something is needing my attention, I have to see to it."
"As any leader of men should."
"But would I have felt the need to check if you hadn't said anything?" Straffer asks: "So, by saying something, did you report a prophecy, or create it?"
"A wise question," Seranu says, smiling: "And that creates yet another question. Are we still slaves to causality, here? Or can we break free of the chains that fate has bound us within?"
"That is a damn good question," Straffer says, gesturing to the empty chair at the table he's sitting at, indicating Seranu should join him: "Maybe you should ask Kanaan?"
"Thank you," the god says, stepping from the disc and sitting down across from his visitor: "And I have, but... well, you know how complex she is."
"I'll take your word for it," Straffer says, offering the God juice and fruit: "We're not very well acquainted."
"Have you never had a lover who befuddled you at every turn?" Seranu asks, perhaps rhetorically: "Someone who was never constant, never certain? One who loved you, but never in the same way two days in a row?"
"Yes," Straffer replies, thinking of old flames long gone, and his current issues with SPYGOD.
"Then you know all you need to know of fate," the king of the Olympians smiles.
"Was she the one who told you I was going to leave?"
"Her and Shift," he answers, taking a piece of strange fruit from the plate before them, and considering its contours: "One after the other, and not in conjunction."
"Well then," Straffer says, raising an eyebrow: "No offense to your wife, Seranu, but I know how Shift is. Sounds like I better get packing, then."
"A shame to have you leave, truly," Seranu says, smiling: "I appreciated your candor the other day."
"Is that what we're calling it?"
"It is how I choose to look upon it," the king of the Olympians says, looking up at the impossibly tall, mountain-sized cone at the center of their vast city: "The others have other names for it. But they will defer to me in this matter."
"That's a relief," Straffer says, thinking of the nasty looks Noyx was shooting him towards the end of his tirade: "And thank you."
"You are most welcome. I find it a good thing when mortals can be passionate enough to rage at their gods, yet intelligent enough to make them reconsider."
"And I did?"
"You did, yes," Seranu says, stroking his beard: "You were quite persuasive in your advocacy for those people. And I think the others will come around, eventually. It just may take them some time."
"Yes," Straffer says, tapping the rim of his juice glass: "You know, I have to say I'm shocked at the attitudes I've seen from them."
"Oh?" The God-King says -- his expression suddenly darkened.
"Yes. I mean, I know some were more pleasant than others, back in the day. But since you've all returned you've been... well, aloof, frankly. And some of you have been flat-out uncaring. Even hostile, if I'm being honest."
"Yes," Seranu admits: "Some of them aren't quite settled in their roles, yet, you understand. For many of them the years when we were lost were hard, and unsettling. They have yet to understand that it was a humbling experience."
"Says the man who wound up the head of a Fortune 500 company," Straffer says, raising an eyebrow: "I hear Senchro was homeless, and Satanoth wound up in a super-slam in Africa. I don't think champagne lunches and rubbing elbows with the most powerful people in America really counts as humbling, in comparison."
"You might think that," the God King nods: "But the whole time I was there? I knew something was wrong. I felt a dark void within my breast. Some strange sense of loss and horror, somehow knowing that people who depended on me -- my subjects -- were in jeopardy.
"And yet having no idea where they were, or even who they were, how I could possibly help them?
"You're a leader, too. You know the special pain that comes from wearing the crown. The weight of concern. The crushing sense of responsibility. Now imagine that you have no idea who your people are, only that they are out there, somewhere, suffering. And try as hard as you might, you have no way to find them, and no way to save them,"
The God King smiles ruefully and leans back, picking up another piece of fruit to inspect: "I could only ever call that Hell. And it was a Hell I bore alone for many years, until the day that Hoosk and Shift called us all to wakefulness, once more.
"And it is a Hell I will never go back to, ever again."
The God King squishes the fruit at that thought, and something about the look on his face makes Straffer realize exactly what is sitting across from him.
"When you put it like that, I suppose you're right," Straffer says, doing his best to smile: "I hadn't thought about it that way. I apologize if I offended."
"No apologies are necessary," the Olympian says, wiping the fruit from his hand: "As I said before, I appreciate your candor. We are soon approaching a time when things will... change, for want of a better word. It will be a good thing for us to know where people stand in the face of that change."
Straffer nods, deciding not to ask about that.
"You know, back when you were all here before, you used to have those Gatherings," Straffer says, finding an appetizing piece of pastry, cutting it in half, and offering the other half to Seranu: "All those important people and thinkers under the same roof for a night. I always wondered what you were trying to do with them."
"We held them to improve international and intercultural dialogue," Seranu explains, politely refusing the pastry half: "To facilitate communication with different levels of society. Try to make friends of enemies, and bring the world closer together.
"In some ways I believe we succeeded. But in others... well, you lead a horse to water, as you say."
"True. But was that all?"
"There was also the hope that we might learn as much from you as you learned from one another," Seranu admits, nodding: "That we might truly learn something about what it meant to be human. We had forgotten so much in our time away, and were having problems readjusting."
"Did it work?"
"No," the king of the Olympians says, sadly: "In all the years, we only learned that you had so little to offer, and so far to go. I think we may have stopped holding the Gatherings, if we had continued on without interruption."
"That's sad," Straffer says, tapping his half of the pastry: "For a long time I didn't remember those days too well. I got caught up in the change of the world just like everyone else. But I often thought that if I got to a certain level of responsibility, there might be some kind of exclusive gathering where I could meet all those important and influential people on common ground. And in some ways that's what pushed me on to excel."
"Really?" Seranu asks, seemingly astounded.
"Well, it's not unusual. Tombo once told me she wanted to be famous so she could be on the Muppet Show."
The God King's face goes blank for a moment, then. He looks one way, and then the other. And then, finally, he nods, and gets to his feet.
"Tell the Martians to come soon," he says: "Preferably all at once, if they can. It will make things easier for them."
"I will, thanks," Straffer says, getting up to bid the man a proper goodbye: "I just wish you'd change your mind about SPYGOD-"
"No," Seranu says, smiling enigmatically: "You won't. You'll see."
But then he's on his disc, and flying away from the balcony before Straffer can work up the courage to ask a God what the !@#$ he meant. That and why his whole body language changed when he mentioned that strange walker of the deadlands.
"Is he afraid of her...?" he wonders aloud, looking up at the tower he was at the very top of, just the other day, and wondering if the Olympians' hold on this world is as strong as they like to think.
And if maybe they're still capable of being surprised.
So, it's been a while since I've been able to shut up a whole !@#$ing room of doctors, son. And I have to tell you I loved every damn minute of it.
That's one of the worst things about being in the hospital. The doctors. They come into your !@#$ing room in onesies, twosies, or whole !@#$ing gaggles, coming in to ask you the same damn questions the last ones asked, and telling you something entirely !@#$ing different than the last one did.
So by the end of the day? You don't !@#$ing know if you're living or dying, got cancer or an infection, or what the !@#$ ever.
That and all the damn nurses, coming around every !@#$ing half an hour to check your damn heartbeat, shove a thermometer up your ass, and make sure you're fine.
"You need anything, dear?" "Sure, !@#$! How about a couple hours peace and !@#$ing quiet!?!?"
Seriously, son. They wonder why your blood pressure is so damn high? It's because you can't !@#$ing relax.
(That and the food !@#$ing sucks, but you could say that of any institution, really. Especially the damn COMPANY.)
Anyway, any time I can actually cut through the !@#$ and get some silence in the room? That's a victory, son. That's gold and silver in the damn bedpan instead of !@#$.
And that's what I got, this afternoon, when they all looked at the tests and couldn't think of a !@#$ing thing to say.
Of course, nothing's really !@#$ing changed. I'm still blind. The parts of my brain that should be letting me !@#$ing see are, in doctor speak, "inert." Which is a fancy !@#$ing term for "useless jelly" when it comes to your noggin.
But as near as they can tell, after a few days of tests, is that something about my ability to make bladed weapons out of !@#$ing nowhere is stimulating that part of the brain. Which is another fancy way of saying "jumpstarting the damn thing."
Not that it's a permanent fix, mind. If you want to extend the jumpstarting metaphor, it's like the battery is !@#$ing dead, and the alternator ain't worth a bucket of warm !@#$. So you jump the car, it runs, but then as soon as it's turned off it ain't cranking back up again unless you call Triple-A.
Now, for me? I just have to pop a damn blade, and then I can !@#$ing see. And that makes things a lot easier, but also a little more complicated.
But at least it's a damn start, son. And that's a hell of a lot better than I had when I !@#$ing woke up like this.
It means I'm not going to have to learn to "adapt." It means I'm not going to have to !@#$ing learn to read braille. It means I get to take that !@#$ing cane they gave me and shove it up someone's ass on my way out.
It means I !@#$ing get to experience this internet they keep !@#$ing going on about. It means I get to watch the shows I've only been able to hear from the asshole I've been next to, and watch all the movies I apparently !@#$ing lost my memories of. It means I can match voices to faces, and check out their butts. It means I can read the paper, drive a goddamn car, and shoot a !@#$ing gun or ten.
It means I can walk out of this !@#$ing hospital with my head held high, like a man, and not some !@#$ing cripple. It means I can go be a !@#$ing hero, and work for the COMPANY.
It means I get my damn life back, son. All of it.
It'll be a challenge, of course. I've got over 40 years of my life !@#$ing gone. I've got enemies I don't remember, friends I can't !@#$ing recall, and situations that changed six ways to Sunday that I still think are what they were when I put that damn eye in my head.
But at least I can face it, now. And I don't have to rely on anyone to !@#$ing hold my hand.
Well, to be honest, son? I might be grateful for some help. The way I hear it, I tipped over one mother!@#$er of an apple cart, the last few years. God knows how many worms I've got !@#$ing waiting for me, on the ground.
And the Devil could probably tell me how many messes I made since then...
"So, are you going to watch him all night?" Velma asks Randolph Scott, who's been watching FOX News for far too long, as evidenced by the number of times he's fired a gun around the television set in the darkened lounge.
"As long as he's on," Randolph says, patting the latest six-shooter he's taken out: "It's been a while since I got some target practice."
"You're scaring the interns."
"Let them fear, so long as they love," he says, raising an eyebrow: "Or words to that effect."
"You're scaring me," the Toon says, leaning in and kissing him on the forehead: "And I don't think Karl and Jana not being here is entirely unrelated to your current hobby."
"They understand why this is important," he says, keeping a poker face.
"And you understand why this is important," he says. It's not a question.
"I do, yes," she says: "But you missed Christmas for that !@#$er.. You're missing a lot of things for him. And that wall's only so bullet proof."
He sighs, grits his teeth. He looks askance, and then at the television set.
Then he gets up, shaking the cables around the back of his head as he rises, and turns to look at her.
"You're right," he says: "I'm really acting like a !@#$, right now. And I am sorry-"
"Shhhhhh!" she says, putting two fingers over his lips before he can say anything else.
"What?" he asks, a little perplexed.
"I heard a 'but' on its way," she replies, her eyes wide behind her square glasses.
"Shhhhhh!" she repeats, pressing the fingers in: "I heard another one!"
He sighs: "Okay. You got me. I was about to make an excuse."
"Yes, you were," she says: "And I already know what it is. Because I've already heard it about a dozen times since Christmas. And I don't want to hear it again."
"Even if it's legitimate?" he asks, trying not to get angry: "Even if I'm right? I mean, this guy... he's in the lead! He's going to be the GOP frontrunner unless I can !@#$ing expose him! And even then he might run third party..."
He sputters out at that, realizing that he's just said the words she didn't want to hear again.
"You remember what you told me, when we met?" Velma asks, putting her hands around his face: "When I asked you why you did what you did, and why you went to such extreme lengths to do it?"
"I said that I did it to make the world a better place," he says, putting his hands on hers: "I did it so people would know the truth, whatever the cost. So that the innocent would be freed and the guilty would be punished. So that people who thought they could hide behind money and power and armies would be proven wrong, and shown for the bullies they are.
"And those bullies need to be reminded that we are not docile sheep," he goes on: "That we can bite back, too. Every time they assault our freedom. Every time they insult our damn intelligence. Every time they pass some !@#$ing law that takes our rights away, or tacks on an extra damn hoop to jump through just to be able to live.
"We have the right to make them be afraid, for once. We have the obligation to give a !@#$ about this world and take it to the mat, time and time again, until we have the truth and can speak it out loud, without fear. And if that means I have to chase this !@#$er to Hell and back... any !@#$er, anywhere!
"Then I'll do it, and be glad I did."
"And that's when I knew this was for me," she said: "And that's also when I knew I loved you, right then. Because you were dedicated enough to mean every word of it, and just crazy enough to throw yourself on the line to prove it."
"And that hasn't changed," he says, closing his eyes: "And that also means I can't rest until I've done it, you know? This !@#$ isn't going flush itself down the toilet. I have to do something."
"Exactly. But all that doesn't mean that you have to cut yourself off from the world you're saving," she says, gesturing into the room beyond: "You can have friends and a family. You can be social and fun. And you can enjoy the life you want everyone else to have, with all the freedoms that come with it."
He looks at her, sighs. and nods: "You're right."
"No," he says, smiling: "Well, maybe yours."
"Damn right," she says, grabbing his: "Now please, please stop acting like you're that crazy guy from that comic book you like so much and come into the break room to spend time with your kids... well, the ones who haven't run off, yet."
"Yeah," he says, chuckling inside.
"And your interns, and your reporters, and your guests, and all the people who love you."
"And save me from Jello. He's on one of his epic rants, again."
"Alright," Randolph says, and, as if for added effect, he takes the six-gun and shoots the television, just as The Candidate finally comes on.
"Did you need to do that?" Velma asks as he puts the gun away and grins.
"No," he said: "But damn it, televisions are cheap, the interview's being recorded, and it made me feel better than I've felt in weeks."
With that admission, she smiles, takes his arm in hers, and parades her lover out and into the party that's been going on around him most of the evening.
And as the hours go by, and the old year gives way to the old, there's a sense that maybe this one will be a good one after all -- however hiccups might lie along the way.
(Especially if some of his long-range secret plans work out...)
"So, when were you planning on telling me he was almost killed on your watch?" Director Straffer fumes at the Doctor as they march down the hallway to SPYGOD's room.
"You were away, sir," the befuddled man says, straightening his tie as they go.
"Yes, I was dealing with my refugee situation."
"We left a few messages-"
"Who would have thought that getting people a new home would be so goddamn complicated?"
"I wouldn't know, sir-"
"And did you tell me that he can see, now?"
"Well, it's not as straightforward as that, sir," the doctor goes on: "He's figured a way to work around his handicap, and boy does he hate that word..."
"I don't blame him," Straffer says, holding up a hand: "You know what? Let me go in ahead by myself."
"That's fine by me," the doctor says, slowing his pace: "Every time I go in there he yells at me about not being released yet..."
Straffer isn't hearing him, though. His feet are moving faster, the organ he calls a heart is racing, and he's hoping beyond hope that he's going to find some semblance of the man he fell in love with in there, waiting for him.
"It's you," SPYGOD says the moment he enters, sitting on the edge of the bed he's clearly been refusing to sleep in: "Please, please tell me you are !@#$ing here to get me the !@#$ out of here."
"I'd like to," Straffer says, seeing that the man's still got white eyes, and is holding a short knife at a weird angle: "I think between the two of us we can make it happen."
"They keep going on about a treatment waiver and all this other !@#$ I didn't sign," SPYGOD says, moving the knife as Straffer walks around him, over to the bed, and sits down next to him: "Probably on account of my being !@#$ing comatose when I came in."
"And I'm your fiancee, and I signed it," the cyborg says, wondering how close he should sit: "So they have to listen to me."
"!@#$ing doctors," SPYGOD snorts: "Useless !@#$s. I tell them I'm fine. I !@#$ing show them I can see. But they're all like 'oh, let's do some more tests,' and 'let's be sure,' and 'gee, your blood pressure's kind of high today...'"
"Not like they let you relax enough to calm down," Straffer commiserates.
"Exactly!" SPYGOD says, turning to look at the man with his sightless eyes: "You see? You understand this !@#$."
"I've spent a lot of time in this hospital," his fiancee says, deciding to put a hand on the man's leg: "And you were the one who came to get me out, in the end."
"I did, huh?" the superspy says, not seeming to mind the hand.
"You were also the one who threatened half the staff with a gunshot to the crotch if they messed up."
"I hear they still !@#$ing talk about that," SPYGOD chuckles: "Made for some interesting and awkward !@#$ conversations while I was unable to see."
He doesn't say any more after that. Straffer tries to think of something to say, but can't. So he reaches over and takes the man's hand in his.
"I wasn't able to find a cure for what happened," he confesses: "I was coming back here to tell you I was sorry, and that I failed."
"I would have been !@#$ing furious," SPYGOD says, after a few moments: "I can't lie. I would have said some !@#$ing nasty things to you. Told you I never wanted to see you again."
"Would you have meant it?"
"I don't know," the superspy admits, maybe a little too quickly: "Yes. No. Maybe. I really don't know."
"Well," Straffer says, trying not to cry.
"I mean, it's a moot point, now-"
"No," Straffer insists, squeezing the man's hand: "It's not. It's the honest truth, (REDACTED). You don't love me. You don't even know me. I'm just another guy to you. Some poor schmuck you can order around and yell at. Hell, if you had a gun you'd be shooting at me, right now, just like you do with your people at the COMPANY."
"I love them," SPYGOD says, after a moment, turning to face his fiancee: "All of them. Even the ones I'm shooting at. Because they're my !@#$ing people, and they fought like hell to get there. Even the worst screwup in the bunch is worth my love, because they've given me their loyalty, day in and day out."
"And I haven't?" Straffer asks, letting the tears come: "I sat here, waiting for you to come around. I moved heaven and earth to find a way to fix you. I made... mistakes. Horrible, terrible mistakes. I made a deal with a damaged kid and it... well, it brought you back to me. But not you. And not all of you."
"I know," SPYGOD says.
"And then I... Jesus, I spent days in that damn city in Mexicali. I faced down all the Olympians for you. I got humiliated by all of them! And then I turned around and humiliated them, which means I'm probably !@#$ed.
"And in the end, it wasn't anything I did that brought you around," he says, taking the hand away and putting it on his own leg: "It was all you. You fixed yourself. And I failed."
"Yeah, you did," SPYGOD says: "And no, I don't love you. And I don't really know you, either."
"Well, then," Straffer says: "Maybe I'd better-"
"But I have to tell you something," his fiancee says, putting his own hand on Straffer's leg before he can get up from the bed: "When I wasn't threatening the damn nurses and orderlies, and getting !@#$ing cussed out for having done those things for you that I can't !@#$ing remember? They told me about everything you did for me.
"The nights you spent here, by my side. The days you called everyone, and did everything, trying to get me back. And all the !@#$ you did and pulled, just to make it happen. You know what they call you?"
"The blonde bomber," SPYGOD chuckles: "Like you're some kind of angry housewife looking out for her rich hubby or something."
"Well," Straffer says: "You are worth a few million, you know."
"Yeah, well, don't give up your day job just yet," SPYGOD says, gripping his thigh tightly: "But they told me those things. And while it didn't make me feel any !@#$ing better about the situation, and all your boo hoo hooing about us, and you and me, and the fact that I couldn't !@#$ing remember any of it? Well, it made it easy for me to believe that this was all some kind of con.
"And then, let's be !@#$ing honest," the superspy admits: "I was scared as !@#$. All these doctors telling me I'm blind, the parts of my brain that handle seeing are gone, and I'd be using those !@#$ing bumpy books and a cane for the rest of my damn life? That scared me. Badly.
"So I !@#$ing took it out on you, because you were there. Because you were damn convenient. Because it was easier for me to !@#$ing reject you, and think you were running a damn game on me, than it was for me to accept that I was blind, and this was my goddamn life from now on.
"That was not !@#$ing fair," he says, leaning in closer: "That was not right. I was wrong to do that. And I am very, very sorry."
"Who are you and what have you done with my fiancee?" Straffer asks, more than a little perplexed.
"Well, that's the thing," SPYGOD says: "Like I said, I don't !@#$ing remember you. I don't know you. And I've !@#$ed a lot a men in my time, some of whom I actually did care about.
"But love, well... that's a thing. It's hard for me to use that word, you know?"
"Yeah," Straffer says, nodding: "That big Catholic Italian family thing you carry around like a stone around your neck."
"Exactly. We didn't show good emotions. Men were stone. Women got to weep and flail around, but we had to be unbending, unless we got angry. And then we got to get our feelings out, and not always for the better.
"And as much as I've shucked a lot of that !@#$ over the years, well, some things you don't !@#$ing get rid of. And that's one of them, sadly.
"So when I say I love my AGENTS? You know that !@#$ing means something. Because they have proven themselves to me.
"And you..." SPYGOD says, taking the man's hand in his: "You have proven yourself to me. You have gone to the goddamn mat for me. You have rolled the hard six. You put up with my horse!@#$ a lot longer than anyone should have to.
"And you're saying you went down and got in a !@#$ing argument with the Supergods, just for me?" he says, astonished: "On their own goddamn turf?"
"Well, the argument was about the Martians," Straffer admits: "But I got good and riled up by how rude they were about your problems."
"Yeah, now, you see? That makes me want to know you," SPYGOD goes on: "I want to work with you. I want to at least repay your loyalty by being loyal in return. I want to be a team, if you'll have me.
"And hell, you want to go out, I am not going to !@#$ing say no. And if it becomes love? Then it becomes love. I'm not so !@#$ing stupid that I'll turn my damn back on it.
"Just... give me some time, here," SPYGOD says, after a beat: "I just realized I can !@#$ing see through my blades, which is going to take some getting used to. And I know I got a lot of catching up to do. I need to get my damn feet back on the ground before I go getting married to a man in New York City."
"You know, I think I can agree to that," Straffer says, smiling through the tears.
"Then do you think you can use your magic gay fiancee powers and get me the !@#$ out of here?"
"Yes," Straffer says, taking his hand and gesturing to his stuff around the room: "We will do that. Right now."
"First stop somewhere that does decent burgers," SPYGOD says as he quickly crams all he can into a paper bag with one hand, holding up a knife with the other: "Is there anywhere !@#$ing open on New Year's Day?"
"You would be surprised, hon."
"Do they still have Burger Chef?"
"No, but we can do a lot better."
"Better than Burger Chef?"
Straffer just laughs, wondering if maybe this is the moment when things finally turn around.
And then his cell phone rings, and ruins every damn thing.
"... went on the record saying that it's a good thing the Martians have been granted asylum in the so-called White City, in Mexicali. Because now, at least according to him, when he puts up the wall along America's southern border, he can keep two problems out.
"Outrage from human rights organizations was immediate and total. However, as his campaign has said, he's not running for human rights, but American ones.
"This is coming on the fresh controversy of his being featured in a recruitment video by the Al-Shabaab terrorist organization, who used his statements about stopping Muslims from immigrating to America as proof that the country is at war with Islam, itself. The candidate at first doubted its veracity, but then said that, and I quote, 'they use other people, too.'"
The campaign aide winces at that, and pauses the video: "Did he really say that? Really?"
"I'm afraid he did, ma'am," her chief intern says, handing the horsey-looking lady her coffee: "He's doubling down and trying to deflect it with some of Sanders' crazier past statements, but it's not getting much traction."
"Great," she hisses, and takes a sip of her coffee. It's too hot. She doesn't care.
When she came on this campaign, a couple months ago, she had one condition -- just one. And that was that when the Candidate actually got put into an impossible situation, he confer with the Campaign Manager and his aides before trying to dig himself out of a hole.
He was great with ad-libs, and great with speaking plainly -- as well as forcibly. But when it came to verbal self-defense in the face of a no-win situation, he was more likely to shoot himself in the foot while it was still in his mouth.
"Well then," she says, looking at her chief intern: "I want to talk to Corey about this-"
"He says he's busy."
"You tell him he needs to be unbusy," she hisses: "And we need to get out in front of this thing with the Martians heading to Mexico."
"Yes, ma'am," he says, turning to go back into the room with the rest of her interns.
"Damn !@#$," he mutters under his breath as he sits down at the table with the others: "How am I supposed to talk to the Campaign Manager about a meeting? Even his interns blow me off."
"You don't," one of the two new kids at the table says, adjusting his glasses and smiling: "You find out his schedule, arrange to have her in the same place at the same time, and let nature take its course."
The chief intern blinks, and then nods: "That's not a bad idea. I'll get on that."
"You know, I think I have that right here," the other new one says, smiling as she hands it over: "One of their interns accidentally handed it over. I think they thought we were all on the same team."
"Well hey," he says, looking at the two black-haired, bespectacled kids: "Looks like you already earned a seat at the table. Thanks Frank, thanks Bobbi."
"You're welcome," Karl says, smiling.
"Don't mention it," Jana replies, winking.
And the chief intern heads back into the room, too elated by this turn of events to notice how alike the two of them are...
* * *
"So," Myron says, running a hand down the Chess Master's back as they cool off in their bed: "I've been thinking."
"Yes, you have," the older woman says, putting her close-cropped, grey head onto his breast.
"Was that what that was?"
"You weren't quite yourself," she says, not unpleasantly: "You haven't been for about a week, now."
"Been a bit distracted," he says, not wanting her to know that he knows that Number 42 was the first Number 2, and that she never told him this important information before now.
(At best it might ruin the trust between them, at worst it will force her to reveal something dire about herself that he's not ready to deal with, yet.)
"I'll say so," she replies, and he gets the sense she's smiling -- and knowingly at that.
"I think we're going about the search all wrong," he says, deciding to go back to his original plan of what to say: "We keep losing people down below this floor, and we don't seem to be getting any further in our understanding of the layout."
"That's true," the Chess Master says, looking up at him: "And we can't afford to lose too many more people."
"So I think it's time we turn up the heat under Number Two's ass," he says, running a hand through her short hair.
"How so?" she asks, and for a moment he thinks she was genuinely surprised
"There's techniques the doctors used at the hospital to get us to talk," he says: "Some of the less damaging ones might be able to break through and help bring him back to us."
"That's taking a large risk," the old woman says: "Even the least damaging of those methods aren't ideal. If you push too hard in his current state you will damage him, no matter what they might say."
"Do you care?" Myron asks, looking at her: "You worked for him for a long time. You never had much respect for him. If we turn his brains to pate finding out what we need to know are you really going to get upset?"
"No..." she admits, getting up from the bed: "And it is the right move, under the circumstances. I'm just concerned that if we do damage his mind, he won't be of any further use to us."
"If we damage his mind getting what we want, then it'll be a moot point," Myron explains, sitting up in bed as she turns to look at him: "Because we'll have the information we need. We'll have control over the Green Dome. We'll have a way home, maybe. And isn't that what we all want, now, anyway?"
"Yes," she says, smiling: "Well, if that's what we have to do, then I say do it."
"Alright then," he smiles back: "I'll talk to the doctor tomorrow."
"You know, I've never seen this ruthless side of you, before," she says as she heads to the bathroom: "I like it. It's quite you."
He smiles at that, even though he feels like she stabbed him. Getting a complement from her is a rare thing indeed, even if it's awkwardly left-handed.
But as she turns on the light and closes the door, he catches the quickest glimpse of her face in the mirror, and sees a truly ugly expression on it.
And suddenly, he realizes he hasn't got as much time as he thought...
"I know, sir," Josie tells the President as she strides across the Flier's bridge, AGENTS swarming this way and that: "And yes, I agree this is a problem. It doesn't really do to have a bunch of armed yahoos take over a damn Federal building."
"Is the Freedom Force available?" he asks, looking like he's at his wits end.
"Well, not really," she says: "And, to be frank? The last time Mr. USA got involved with a gaggle of anti-government morons it didn't go too well."
"That was over three years go."
"These people have long memories, sir. They still chant 'Remember Eben' around the campfire, the way I hear it."
"All the better to have some of our talents take care of this quickly and quietly, before I have to send out someone to do something we'll all regret."
"Sir, with all due respect, there's no cause for us to be going in," she sighs: "There's no proof that any powers are involved in this. It's just idiots with guns who think the Government is out to ruin their way of life, or their freedom, or whatever they think is going on. If we send in someone to deal with it, this is going to hearken back to the days we were a client state of the Terre Unifee. And no one wants that."
"Are you going to tell me how to run things, now?"
"I'm going to suggest that this is a mundane problem, and should be handled by mundane forces," she explains, trying to keep an even tone with the man: "Besides, you've already got them handling PR duty to try and cut down on hate crimes, in addition to their usual duties. I don't think diverting them for this is a good use of their time."
"Really," the Interim President says, narrowing his eyes: "Alright then. But you just remember that I gave you an option, lady. You just remember that."
At which point he disconnects, leaving Josie to wonder just where the hell that came from.
And if that was some kind of threat or not.
And if she should be worried.
(SPYGOD is listening to Pray For Rain (Pure Bathing Culture) and having a Shadow Assassin )