|"You Do Such Damage / How Do You Manage / Trying Back for More?"|
(The Mahdi and Al-Hadhih associates)
(Art by Dean Stahl)
* * *
* * *
"Alright, then," SPYGOD says, adjusting his sunglasses, looking around the large room Josie's decided to call this meeting in, and wondering if he's going to have to shoot anyone in the damn eyeballs, today.
There's people here he knows, besides Josie, and a lot of people he doesn't. He remembers the old, bearded man they're calling Rakim back from when he was Brainman, but they say he's gone straight, now. And the cute woman nursing the weird-looking, almost-cartoony baby is clearly Gold Standard's kid, all grown up to become her father.
And there's Free Fire, who's both ally and exhibit A, here -- shining in his new, orange armor and no longer pretending he isn't a goddamn android.
Everyone else? AGENTs he's seen, here and there. Support staff. Desk staffers. Maybe the odd hero or two.
(And there's too much !@#$ing glass in this room for his liking. He can see too much of DC, down below. Anyone could be watching, he thinks -- anyone at all.)
"SPYGOD?" Josie asks after he seems like he's going to start talking, and then stops, about half a dozen times.
"Here's the !@#$ing deal, folks," he says, tapping the table and looking each person there in the eye: "A long time ago, we made a big damn mistake. And I'm not talking Ronald Reagan Iran-Contra 'mistakes were made' horse!@#$, here. I'm talking !@#$ing Truman Korea plus Kennedy Bay of Pigs times Nixon Cambodia, with little Watergate sprinkles on the damn top horse!@#$.
"Now, when I say 'we,' I mean the American government, acting through the goddamn CIA. But the COMPANY had a hand in it too, given the nature of the mistake. And when I'm done explaining, I think you'll all understand.
"As for why I have to !@#$ing explain, well, it's because, officially? This !@#$ really never happened at all, as far as anyone was concerned. The files, the witnesses, the whole damn paper trail? They all got !@#$ing burned between then and now. Tossed in the damn shredder, consigned to the !@#$ing BBQ pit, assigned to suicide runs and then shot down on the goddamn way back.
"So, in the end, I'm the only one alive who knows the whole story, anymore. And it aint !@#$ing pretty."
With that, he uncaps the flask he's been avoiding drinking until now, snorts some down, and -- before Josie can scold him -- starts to explain just how unpretty this !@#$ actually is.
* * *
"Well, is it possible that Thomas Samuels healed up and left on his own?" Mr. USA asks the portly and surprisingly-young Medical Examiner, who's looking very uncomfortable right about now, here in his uber-geeky basement office.
"Sir, please believe me when I say that I respect you very highly," the man says, trying to smile.
"I think the action figures clued me in, son," the older hero says, smiling at the mint condition, still-in-the-box replicas of the Liberty Patrol, up on a prized shelf.
"Well, good, because the last thing I want to do is sound condescending, sir," he says, patting his desk: "But please understand me. I performed the autopsy on Thomas Samuels. I removed exactly 159 .50 caliber bullets from every inch of his body from his knees to his sternum. I collected them all as evidence.
"I opened his skull up, and removed a brain that had more complex folds and contusions than I've ever seen. I weighed it, examined it, and put it back into the skull.
"I opened his chest cavity, and observed and weighed his organs. I saw things that looked too healthy to be real, bullet trauma notwithstanding. I saw things that I've never seen before, too, and had no idea how to catalog. Especially since there was so much gross tissue damage.
"And when I was done, I put them all into a bag, put it into the body cavity, zipped it up, and then sewed him back together."
He swallows, and then has a nervous sip of his coffee: "At no time did he ever regain consciousness. At no time did he show the slightest sign of being alive. And I'd love to show you the notes, the video, the voice tapes... but they're all gone."
"Yes," Mr. USA says, nodding: "They all went missing around the same time the body did, along with your nighttime assistant."
The Examiner nods, sadly: "I don't think he'd have done it, though. He's a very special person. Very conscientious and meek. I doubt he'd so much as sneeze on a fly, much less swat one."
"Well, I can think of a few people I'd like to swat," the older hero says, thinking of Martha's mental collapse, and the ugly scene that followed when the Governor just !@#$ing refused to shut up...
* * *
.... now, if Mr. USA was here instead of chasing dead teen heroes, he could roll his !@#$ing eyes and remind me he was there, in the 1950's, too. But since he isn't, I'm the only expert in the room-"
"I was there, too," Rakim weakly interjects.
"True, but you only saw one !@#$ing side of the show. We're the ones who got the whole damn china set. And that's what you need to understand why what happened after actually !@#$ing made sense, at the time.
"Now, we'd won the War, but we'd entered into another one with the !@#$ing commies," he says, using a remote to play a hologram of old Soviet-era super-propaganda in the middle of the long table: "It's just that we didn't dare start !@#$ing shooting at one another. Not with two mighty armies, a ton of allies, supers out the damn wazoo, and later nukes.
"So It was all done with moves and countermoves. Unseen alliances, quiet kills in the dark, and spies every goddamn place you looked.
"And races. Jesus Christ in a spaghetti sauce jar were there races. There was a Supers arms race and a nuclear arms race. Space didn't !@#$ing come into it until a decade later, but you could tell it was coming.
"And then there were !@#$ing proxy wars. Korea was ongoing for a !@#$ing lot of that decade, and that was a big old mess. And Vietnam... well, I don't really !@#$ing remember Vietnam-"
"SPYGOD," Josie says, tapping her watch: "Time is action."
"Who the !@#$ said that?"
"You did, sir," the AGENT in charge of the Middle East desk says: "Repeatedly."
"Well... I don't remember that either. But the important thing is that there was one proxy battle that was really damned important, folks. And that was for resources. Namely, oil."
With that, he activates the remote control again, and a map of the middle east -- circa 1950 -- floats in space where the the middle of the table.
"For oil rights, we and the British dug in our damn heels and did everything possible to keep the Soviets from making too many friends in the region. And they pretty much did the same, in case you were !@#$ing wondering why so many Ruskies like hanging out in Egypt-"
"Well, Sharm el-Sheikh is pretty damn awesome," the Middle East desk AGENT pipes up, but then falls silent when SPYGOD gives him a look that could blow a rat-trap vacation resort off the damn map.
* * *
"... yes, my friend," the leader of El-Hadhih says over the phone, speaking in Somali-inflected Arabic: "You have heard me correctly. You will take the bomb aboard the plane, and activate it. But Allah wants you to fail.
"You will not destroy the plane," the Mahdi goes on: "You will instead merely damage it. Not enough to destroy it, but enough to kill yourself. You know how this can be accomplished, and I want you to do it.
"Yes," he continues, after a puzzled but firmly affirmative answer comes back: "We wish to lure them into a false sense of security. We want them to think we have become lax and ineffectual.
"And when the time is right, that complacency will help us destroy them in the name of Allah, most beneficent, most merciful.
"Now go, in the name of the one, true God, and do as he has commanded," the Mahdi says, hanging up.
Then he hands the phone over to the nearest guard, here in this strangely large and shadowy tent, and bids him to crush it with heavy rocks, and put it on the pile of other such phones and communication devices, over in the corner...
* * *
"... was saying before damned travel bureau chipped in its two !@#$ing cents," SPYGOD says, still glaring at the AGENT who interrupted him: "Oil was needed on all fronts. We needed a constant, growing supply of the !@#$. And we didn't have time for the Soviets to be pulling any horse!@#$ in the region.
"Now, we had all kinds of !@#$ on our side. Spycraft, bribes, threats, pressure, you name it. But so did they. We needed a !@#$ing edge to make sure the Commies didn't beat us to the black gold.
"And, well, let's just say that the other Company kind of went off the !@#$ing rails a little. Let me show you..."
He clicks the remote again, and movies of Iran in 1953 start playing: "Operation Ajax. Otherwise known as the !@#$ing Iranian Coup. We and the Brits paid through the damn nose to kick the damn prime minister out of power and let the Shah rule so we got what we wanted.
"After some crazy !@#$, we got it, good and hard. And it stayed that way until the !@#$ing 70's when the Ayatollah showed up. But keep that in mind for later.
"Important thing here? We will do anything to anyone, at any time, anywhere, with any damn ally we need to, just to !@#$ing keep the oil flowing. Revolutions, counter revolutions, assassinations, you name it."
"Now," he clicks again, and this time it's the Cuban revolution: "Here's Fidel !@#$beard Castro. He comes along about 1953, and succeeds in taking the damn island six years later. Then JFK decides he doesn't like commies in his backyard and, as soon as he's in he !@#$ing Oval Office, puts a plan that Eisenhower signed off on into action.
"That was the goddamn Bay of Pigs, by the way. You all know how that !@#$ went down.
"Important thing here? The CIA and the Department of Defense go halfsies on Project Mongoose, not long thereafter. They had 33 !@#$ing flavors of !@#$ to hurl at Castro, some of which might have actually worked if I hadn't been making sure they didn't go anywhere but straight to hell."
There's a gasp or two at that, and he looks at Josie: "I had my reasons. Let's just leave it at that."
* * *
"I appreciate your work for us," the Indonesian Minister of Space says, raising a glass of tea to Director Straffer, who returns the gesture: "This is a marvel, regardless of its origins. And you have truly revealed its potential to us."
"A potential I hope you'll get more of a chance to exploit once the current crisis is over," Straffer replies, looking past his office door as the structure shakes once again -- another car going up as the counter-weight car goes down.
"It may be months until then," the man says, sadly: "But you have trained our people well. I have every confidence they will achieve wonders, both now and in the times to come."
"I wish I could be here to see it," Straffer says, smiling.
The Minister stiffens for a moment, but then relaxes, nodding sadly: "I suspect what I came here to tell you is not a surprise."
"No," the cyborg says: "I've been aware that the Space Service wants me out. I'm also aware that the UN is pressuring ASEAN to make this happen as soon as possible. Trade issues, mostly."
"Then you understand that my hands are tied."
"I do, yes," Straffer says, sipping his tea.
"Did they tell you that we are... required to hand you over to them?" the man asks, very sheepishly: "It seems they are afraid you will escape if we merely let you walk out the front door."
"That I didn't know," the blonde man says, tapping his teacup against his saucer as he considers this: "That's troubling."
"It's horrible is what it is. I've heard what they plan to do. It's monstrous. Cruel!"
"It's the UN," the cyborg shrugs: "I knew what might happen when I told them to stuff it. I've been prepared to take my medicine since. So..."
He stands up and looks out the window, wondering if he's putting on too brave of a face, here.
(Wondering if appearing too blase to his horrible, awaiting fate will ruin his scheme...)
* * *
... so one of the plans that Mongoose came up with, and I !@#$ you not, was that they were going to use !@#$ing Jesus Christ to kick Castro out of power."
There's a couple chuckles and snorts, and an actual laugh or two. SPYGOD nods, looking around, and then clicks over to a picture of a smiling General with a bad mustache and disturbing eyes.
"Meet Major General Edward Lansdale. Cunning mother!@#$er, anti-communist, and nuttier than a can of !@#$ing Planters. His idea was to spread the world on Cuba that Jesus was !@#$ing coming back, and then, at the anointed hour, raise a sub, and blow some star shells to make lights, smoke, and bangs. And then use a movie projector to show Jesus on the clouds.
"And yes," SPYGOD goes on: "That does sound crazy. But you gotta figure, Cuba's a very Catholic country, full of people who were never too damn bright. Some religious mania and a desire to get free might have gone a long way, if only I hadn't convinced a bunch of heroin junkie cyborg dolphins to hump the !@#$ out of that sub.
"Again, long story," he says, shrugging and having another snort from his flask: "And this is turning out to be a long story, too. But it's essential that you !@#$ing understand that this is the !@#$ the CIA had its hands in, all the way up to the damn elbow on the dance floor.
"Because that's the only way the crazy thing they did next makes any damn kind of sense."
* * *
There's yelling outside Myron's room, in the hallway. Bad yelling, this time. The kind that indicates that something terrible is about to happen, most likely to someone.
Several someones, in fact.
He doesn't care. He can't care, anymore.
He lies on the ground, in a curled up ball, trying to get up and face the fear that's been building in his heart, soul, and guts since he learned the awful truth about this place.
The real face of Number One.
And yet, oddly enough, a small, small piece of his mind is actually glad about this. Mostly because he was terrified it might be right for so damned long, and now it gets to say "Aha! See? You were right. We were right!"
It's just that this isn't a good thing. Not at all.
He'll get up and face this situation. He knows he will. He has no bottle to crawl into, no warm, willing woman to lose himself within. There's nowhere to hide, and no way to stall.
Not for long, anyway.
But for now, as the absence of the leader has turned the Green Dome from a barely-restrained riot into the first, trembling steps towards angry, overdue chaos, he's alright with just lying there.
Just lying there and pretending, for the moment, and they he doesn't have to go down into the bowels of the complex and see that thing again...
* * *
"Now," he says, putting another picture up for all to see: "See this !@#$ing lizard-faced human monster? Anyone know who he is?"
"Yeah," one of the AGENTS says: "That's the old guy we got in that locked room under constant overlapping guard in Bethesda. The john doe in the induced coma from hell."
"Yes," SPYGOD says, snapping his finger and nodding: "Gold star for you, AGENT. Now, forget you even remembered that !@#$, because that john doe is the one and only Gilbert Biggs, otherwise known as the Big Man. The head of the Left-Handed Legion."
There's some gasps, then -- mostly shock, mixed with surprise.
"I understand I !@#$ing put his ass there, a couple years back. The fact that no one knows who he actually is means I must have been damned careful about it, too. So that's good to hear. No one needs to mess with that human monster. We lost too damn much putting his ass in that bed, and if he wouldn't just reappear somewhere else if we blew his damn head off, well, he'd have been dead a long time ago.
"Anyway," he goes on: "Gil here's got a couple other powers, other than not being able to die, which is why he's in that damn coma. Like disappearing the moment you don't look at him.
"But the most important one of all is that he can !@#$ing make you do anything he wants you to. All he has to do is spend some damn time talking to him, and if you're any kind of a decent person, he'll !@#$ing have you eating !@#$, shooting cops, and dancing with the Devil in the pale moonlight.
"Well, courtesy of our need to have a bunch more folks in costume during the War, the CIA's been in bed with the damn Legion since before there was a CIA. Not that anyone outside the Agency knows about it, though. That doesn't happen until a lot later. Like after I can't remember later.
"But in the meantime, the CIA gets the idea that it sure would be nice to have someone like Biggs in their corner. After all, they've got their mindreaders, and suggesters, and hypnotizers, and all these other !@#$ers. But Biggs? Well, he's got them beat. It's like comparing a firecracker to a stick of !@#$ing TNT.
"And then, one day in the early 60's, Lansdale's sitting in his office, which I can only imagine looks like some crazy lady's apartment, only instead of hoarded magazines and cat barf it's full of tacked up photos and ideas on how to kill the people in the photos. Maybe he's drunk, maybe he's sober. Who can !@#$ing tell.
"And he's spitballing more damn ideas on what to do with Castro, as this is, you guessed it, another damn proxy war with Russia.
"And he's also entertaining the issues we're having in the Middle East with oil, which is a proxy war with some real !@#$ing high stakes.
"And he's thinking about how nice it would have been to have someone with some mental powers on their side when dealing with !@#$ing Cuba.
"And then, he gets this crazy idea in his head..." SPYGOD says, turning to look at Josie, who was just about to scold him to get back to the point: "See, Lansdale had made a study of Islam during his time in the Philippines, fighting commies. He knew something about what made them tick, and got them good and !@#$ing ticked off.
"And he knew that, if you really wanted to get the John and Jane Q Publics of the Middle East to do something, or not do something, it helped to mix some religion in there, somewhere."
"Because Muslims are all clearly ignorant savages?" Rakim says, raising an eyebrow.
"No, sir. Because even the most logical, reasonable, and intelligent person will go !@#$ing crazy and do the unthinkable if their goddamn immortal soul is on the line."
* * *
"Please, don't be afraid," the priest/ess of Rosi tells the confused woman s/he's encountered: "Come inside the Singlove. Dance with us. Accept Hir love-"
"No!" the Red Queen moans, stumbling past the tent's entrance, holding her hands to her ears like cups in the hopes of hearing more.
It's too much, this silence. This lack of total sensation.
This disconnection from who she was just a few days ago.
When she looks up the central spire, she sees her new body up there -- red and writhing, watching everything and everyone. And she wants to scream because she should be up there, in it.
And because her failure to use it properly has led her to be cast out from the grace of her God, Satanoth, who has ordered her to find this killer as a human, rather than an arm of an Olympian.
It's just so hard to live like this. To see nothing. To hear nothing. To feel less than nothing.
To be human all over again...
* * *
"Wait, so what the hell is a Mahdi, anyway?" one of the AGENTS asks, looking at SPYGOD: "It sounds familiar."
"Rakim?" Josie asks the old, rehabilitated supervillain with a long, thin beard.
"Well, I'm Sunni, and not Shia," the former Brainman says, nodding to her: "But as it's one of our points of doctrinal difference, I can explain. Basically, to the larger group of Shia, the Mahdi is the Hidden Imam, and God's hand on Earth. He will appear after Jesus returns, and act to redeem Islam before the day of judgment."
The AGENT in charge of the Middle East desk nods in agreement: "It's said he will have a number of fantastic, god-given powers. But he'll have been here for a long time before anyone knows he's even here, ruling in secret. It's taken quite seriously among them, sometimes reaching the same kind of messianic, end-times nonsense we get over here."
"Sounds like the sort of thing someone might try to take advantage of," Antonia says.
"It is, yes," Rakim agrees: "And some have claimed to be him. But in the end it's all just some nut in a cave, preaching to Twelver Shia and maiming the words of the Prophet in the process, Peace be unto Him."
"Well, guess what," SPYGOD says, clicking and showing a picture of the Big Man again: "Turns out that Gilbert was able to give Lansdale his Mahdi, courtesy of Gilbert's tendency to spread his love around town."
"Wait," another AGENT says, shaking her head: "I understood that Gilbert only ever had one child. Xerxes. The one you shot down a few years back, right?"
"Well, as far as we knew at the time, yes," SPYGOD says, coughing into his fist: "Most of us, anyway. And, yes, that includes me. But that's because, even though he had a bunch of kids, Gilbert only ever opened up his world to one of them.
"And that was Xerxes, who was one hell of a piece of work," he says, showing a picture of the leering, evil-looking young man -- somewhere between a young Malcolm McDowell and older Jeffrey Dahmer: "Apparently he thought it would be bad news to just let the little !@#$er live in the world without his guidance, and so he swooped in on the kid's 16th birthday, introduced himself, and let Xerxes amuse himself by having his real dad tell all the party guests what to do.
"Worst murder scene in years, and that's !@#$ing saying something."
* * *
"How long can you two keep going, I wonder?" Helvete asks, watching as his two newest personnel acquisitions continue to fight one another with long, sharp knives: "To the death, really? Or will one of you pull back at the last moment?"
Karl and Jana are too tired and weary to respond to their new master. They are naked, covered in sweat and blood -- bleeding from dozens of shallow, quick cuts.
He's had them knife-fighting for hours, just as a test of loyalty. And it really should have been over by now, except for one thing he isn't aware of yet.
Their mental connection, strong as steel.
Neither one is truly willing to kill the other, no matter how much he might force them to. And though their conscious minds are trying as hard as they can to seal the deal, their subconscious is not letting it happen.
They could go on like this for days, if necessary. Maybe they will have to.
Maybe they'll both die from exhaustion and blood loss before then.
Helvete crosses and uncrosses his legs. He's clearly turned on by this. The almost sexual dance between them. The sweat, the pain.
Karl and Jana sneer and go at one another again, wondering if this will be the time one or the other makes some stupid mistake not even their minds can account for, and it all ends at last...
* * *
SPYGOD lets that gruesome thought sink in for a moment, takes another hit of his hooch, and goes on.
"Now, all the other kids? Well, he kept tabs on them. If they turned out to be normal, he left them alone. If they had any kind of powers? He had them killed. Xerxes was the only one who was !@#$ing crazy, so he's the only one who got taken in.
"But this one time? Gilbert was in some kind of damn hurry and left the kill job to amateurs. So this one kid went over the cliff in his parents' car, but managed to crawl away and live. He wandered across the state line, fell in with some !@#$ing weird folks in a UFO cult who just snatched his partially-burned, half-in-shock ass up, and hustled him off somewhere else."
He clicks the remote again, and another photo comes up. It's a young man who looks a little like Gilbert, and a lot like Xerxes, only with some substantial burn scars on the left side of his face: "His birth name was Holder Kane, but his new people called him Canis Star-Son."
There's some snorts and guffaws as that, and he just shrugs: "UFO people. Go !@#$ing figure.
"Anyway, the kid's not a terrible person, by anyone's measure. Got a puckish sense of humor, and a real serious side. Also got some nasty burns he'll carry the rest of his damn life.
"But then he also grew up with a refinement of Gilbert's voice control powers. He can tell anyone to do anything, no matter whether they're good, bad, or indifferent, so long as it's couched within a basis of faith. So if he says 'pick up the gun and shoot yourself,' you'll just laugh. But if he says 'God wants you to pick up the gun and shoot yourself?' Well, don't start reading any long novels.
"And he can do it over electronic mediums, too. So phones, televisions? Any way he can reach you, he can command you."
"That's damned scary," Antonia says: "That means he could potentially broadcast commands to people over the television, or the internet."
"Exactly," SPYGOD says, nodding to her: "And that's why I wanted this to be a small and private meeting, Josie. We don't know who all this guy's got under his thumb. And when he has you, well... you're stuck for life. It does not wear off. Ever."
There's some well-considered, unnerving silence after that revelation.
"Well, the CIA found him when the UFO cult got a little too influential too quickly in the small, Idaho town they holed up in. Thankfully, they had someone they knew who was immune to mind control on board, and that person was able to go in, have a serious talk with the kid, and talk him into giving up the outer space horse!@#$ for God, Country, and !@#$ing apple pie..."
Josie blinks again, and then sighs: "Let me guess. You?"
"Got it in one, again," SPYGOD smiles: "They briefed me, armed me, and sent me into the middle of this hippie love cult full of bored and brainsmashed suburban types, all sitting around smoking bad weed and waiting for the !@#$ing flying saucers to take them the hell away."
* * *
And then, with the closing of a hatch, and the rushing of engines powerful enough to nudge a small transport into orbit, the last refugee ship leaves Mars -- rocketing out of the last safe center within the planet seconds before its gates fall down.
On board is their leader: Speaks with Kindness and Authority of Years. He has refused to leave until now -- until the very last civilian transport ship was gone, and only he and his essential followers were left to go.
He leaves against his will, in many ways. He has no desire to abandon his world. Nor has he any desire to abandon those they had to leave behind -- the sick and the stricken, laid low by the dark poison that falls from the skies.
He thinks he should stay there with them, and render aid and comfort until the very end.
But he cannot. His people need him, now more than ever. His wisdom, his gentleness, his force -- all these things will be needed as his people adapt to their new home.
Especially as so many of the planet's inhabitants do not want them there.
Especially as the God they must bow to, now, seems dangerous to him...
The ship's engines surge again. They have broken through the atmosphere, now. He allows himself one last, sad look back.
What he sees terrifies him.
The red world has now turned mostly black. Seas of red sand and rock are covered in writhing, dark goop that throws forth twisted, viscous forms.
He cries in despair, his tears floating up and back behind him, as he says a prayer for his beautiful world -- killed one time to many by the Decreator.
* * *
"So, what the hell did the CIA tell you, then?" Josie asks, shaking her head: "How did they know he was Gilbert Biggs' son? How did you know he became the Mahdi?"
"I didn't know any of that !@#$," SPYGOD says, shaking his head: "Well, at least about Biggs. I didn't know anything about him until 1966, when the whole house of !@#$ing cards rolled down around them, only because the Legion got !@#$ing stupid and sloppy. All I knew was that the kid was powerful, and they wanted to groom him for some work, somewhere.
"Now, once they told me what they had in mind, I was a little skeptical. Especially since the CIA and I have had something of an interesting relationship, to say the least. But I didn't realize what they were actually capable of until 1966, when they !@#$ing used me to..."
"Yes?" Josie asks when he trails off into space.
SPYGOD shakes his head: "Another damn story for another day when I'm really good and drunk-"
"Bingo!' one of the AGENTs shouts, holding up a pad with a grid on it. Everyone just sort of looks at him, and he coughs, puts the pad away, and says "sorry."
"Smartass," SPYGOD snorts: "Anyway, what's relevant now is that they took this kid, trained the living !@#$ out of him, and sent him over to the Middle East to be their johnny on the spot. His job was to do anything needed to keep the oil flowing, which meant either keeping the religious types in check, or else using them make something happen.
"They had him on retainer for decades. He orchestrated !@#$ you would not believe. Made things happen, made them not happen, all based on this notion that he was some kind of religious leader, living in seclusion. One meeting in his tent, one phone call, or a tape in your deck? BOOM, you're a believer and doing what he wants.
"So..." SPYGOD says, looking around the room: "Who can guess where this !@#$ goes right down the damn toilet?"
"The Iranian Revolution?" an AGENT asks, somewhat nervously -- perhaps remembering their former Director's penchant for shooting people who answered incorrectly.
"Very good," SPYGOD says, cracking a wide smile: "If I had a beer I'd sling it your way, son. At some point, the little !@#$er went rogue, or at least native. Hard to be sure which. But he either could have stopped that revolution, or started it, and since it happened against our wishes? Well, clearly he !@#$ed up."
"So what happened?" Rakim asks, genuinely curious.
"Well, that's a damn good question. I can't imagine the CIA would tolerate this kind of !@#$ hanging off the end of their operational asshole, but then it's not like they can go and have a talk with him, either.
"So what I imagine happened is that the CIA gave him a chance to come clean and come home, and he did neither. So they figured out where he was and blew the !@#$ out of it. Cruise missile, suicide charges, who knows?
"But then, what do we know about his father...?"
SPYGOD looks around the room, and another AGENT pipes up: "He can't die."
"And if you don't see him, he's gone," SPYGOD nods: "Consider a zen beer slid your way, AGENT. If you still want to drink it."
And there's silence in the room for a time.
* * *
"(Don't feel like talking, huh?)" Randolph Scott says, hauling the black-leather thug up and slamming him against the bathroom wall of the underground bar, deep in the bowels of Frankfurt: "(What's the matter? Don't you speak German? Can't you speak this country's language?)"
"Bitte..." the thug starts crying, his sudden meekness in total contrast to his badass, racist tattoos.
"(One more time, !@#$face,)" the outlaw reporter hisses: "(Two American kids. Twins. Black hair, glasses. You picked them up from a private plane at the airport. You drove them somewhere. And you're going to tell me where.)"
"(No,)" the guy insists, shaking his head: "(I cannot... I must not... he will kill me. Worse than kill me.)"
"(And you think I won't?)" Randolph all but shouts, pulling out a very small handgun with a very wide barrel, and shoving it into the guy's mouth: "(Or maybe I'll just miss, just by half an inch. Blow the front of your face off, instead. You can be one of those poor !@#$ers they write sad stories about in the paper.
"(Blind and faceless and silent, except for the crying...)"
The thug's pissing himself, now. He's whimpering.
But at long last Randolph thinks he's got what he's come here for.
The Goddamn Truth.
* * *
"So the CIA thought they'd killed him, but really didn't," Josie picks up: "And now he's back, you say. But how do we know this for sure?"
"A couple things," SPYGOD says: "For one thing, the organization he created around him was codenamed Hadhih."
"Are you sure about that?" Rakim asks: "That doesn't make much sense. Hadhih just means 'this.' That would be like calling a group 'in' or 'there.'"
"Exactly," SPYGOD says: "Zen beer... well, no. Zen something else slid your way."
"Well thank you," the former supervillain says, chuckling: "Cream, two sugars while you're at it."
"My pleasure. You want a goddamn donut with that?"
"SPYGOD," Josie sighs.
"All good, Josie. But what's not good? What radical Islamic groups are we having problems with right now, all around the damn world?"
"Other than Al-Qaeda and its various splinter groups?" the AGENT from the Middle East desk asks, sighing.
"Bingo," SPYGOD says: "Islamic State of this, that, or the other damn thing. Also just called IS."
He holds up his hand, and no one gets it: "What? IS? 'This is'"
"That is a stretch," Josie says.
"Yes, but the kid's got a puckish sense of humor. That seems about right."
"That doesn't explain why he sits on his hands from 1977 until now," Antonia says, shifting her baby: "You'd think he'd want revenge, and quick."
"Also a good question, but let's go with the star of the show, here," he says, waving a hand to Free Fire: "How about we ask the only person lucky enough to have heard his voice and not got turned into a goddamn jihadi what happened?"
* * *
"... no surprise the Candidate took the top in Iowa, but what is a surprise is how close Rubio came to second, along with Rand Paul in third. They're almost a half a delegate away from one another."
"Yes, that's very shocking, Megyn. Almost as shocking as Cruz falling down below Ben Carson after his poor showing at the debate."
"Well, that's what happens when you talk tough about an enemy and they show up to call you on it, Ken. I was pretty scared myself, I don't mind saying."
"All the same, our current front runner's got some mixed news, tonight. He made it seem like he was going to sweep the polls, tonight. Instead, he's going to New Hampshire having to fend off Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, either of which might ultimately unseat him."
"Yeah, I think he's got some explaining to do..."
* * *
The android nods, and looks around the table: "Everyone else at the fire base in Anadan was compromised by the Mahdi when we got there. They took us out, one at a time, on what they called Night Patrol, and took us to a place where there was a hidden satellite phone.
"I was told that I needed to receive new, personal orders from the COMPANY. When it rang, I was told to answer it. I did."
The android stops talking for a moment, as if weighing the value of its words: "The voice on the other end told me, first, that in the name of Allah, most beneficent, most merciful, I must listen. Then it told me that a righteous struggle was coming, the Jihad, and that I was to be a soldier of God within that battle. God commanded me to obey my fellows in this struggle, and to keep quiet about it with any who had not been given the word. He also commanded me to kill any that the group decided was too dangerous to bring in.
"Of course, this had no effect on me. But I have been programmed to mimic human behavior in many different states of mental agitation, so I pretended to be as enraptured as they were. And when they told me that Shatter was actually SPYGOD, and that we had to kill him, as they killed New Man before, I volunteered to do it."
"He then came to me, under the guise of killing me, and we fought off the others together," SPYGOD explains: "I suspect they might have suspected he was a little off-"
"I was not," Free Fire insists: "My deception was perfect, up until they heard us talking."
"And then we had to throw down, and kill the others, or be killed," SPYGOD sighs, shaking his head: "Not a pretty sight. Lost a lot of good soldiers that day. Good people."
Rakim and Antonia both nod, sadly -- thinking of Chinmoku and Yanabah (who may be worse than dead, right now)
"So that's where are right now, folks," SPYGOD says, clicking back to the photo of the Mahdi, the last time anyone saw him, and slowly aging him forward to what he might look like now: "The CIA tossed all their info about this !@#$er down the memory hole. You go rooting through their !@#$, you won't find jack. Robert Kennedy, who signed off on this, is dead. So's Jack Kennedy, and Nixon, and any other President who had a hand in it.
"No one alive knows about this !@#$ but me. And all I have to go on after a certain point is bull!@#$ code triple black notes I scrawled down when I was too damn drunk to be !@#$ing legible, which isn't a whole lot of goddamn help.
"But this !@#$er is real," the superspy insists, pointing at the hologram: "He's making moves on a global chessboard. Setting people up to fight and fall. Only thing is, did he go native, and he's believing this !@#$? Or is he following someone else's orders? Or does he have his own plan?"
"If so, what is it?" Josie asks, looking at Antonia: "Gold Standard's got an excellent point. He could have appeared over the airwaves at any time and we'd be powerless to resist him. What's the holdup?"
"Maybe it only works on one person at a time?" an AGENT asks: "Maybe he can do these things over any medium, but it has to be a personalized message?"
People start nodding. SPYGOD nods, and smiles: "I think you got it, son. That might just be it. Clearly he can have multiple people running at once, but he's got to put the whammy on them one on one."
"If so, that gives us some leeway, but not much," Josie says, standing up -- at which point everyone else does the same: "This meeting is code triple black. Fight Club rules, folks. We were never here, we did not talk about this, we will not talk about this.
"Middle East desk? I want to know where this hidden guy is hiding, and I want to know yesterday. Antonia? I want electronic countermeasures, I also want them yesterday. Rakim? I want his next few moves mapped out for me. Also yesterday."
"I'll go warm up the Time Tunnel, then?" Rakim says, smiling, and then frowning when no one else seems to get the reference.
"Should have said 'TARDIS,' Rakim," Josie says: "Dismissed, except for SPYGOD and Free Fire."
"Yes?" Free Fire asks as she walks over to them.
"SPYGOD?" Josie says, just as the last other person leaves the room: "You and Free Fire are going to deal with this bastard once we've smoked him out. Assemble a team-"
"My pleasure," SPYGOD grins, patting the android on the back.
"You won't be leading it, though," she insists: "You'll be taking orders from Peg."
"Peg?" SPYGOD barks: "Who the hell is that?"
"That would be me," a woman with the same voice and general build as Josie says, coming into the room before the doors close on the last straggler. She's a clone, alright -- she just has a lime green faux-hawk as opposed to Josie's pink buzzcut, and no tattoos.
"I see," SPYGOD says, looking between the two of them: "And may I ask why?"
"Because I'm the Director of the COMPANY, and it's my decision to make," Josie says:"But on a more practical note? You're still recovering, (REDACTED). You're just professional enough to avoid being called sloppy, and just careful enough to not be called careless. But your fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants tactics almost caused you to not come back, last time.
"And as for Yanabah-"
"I'll accept everything you want to dish out at me but that, ma'am," he says, snapping to attention: "It was an accident during a fight to the death against several superpowered combatants. If I'd had more time to plan-"
"You used to tell people to have ten plans ready to go, every minute of every day," Josie says: "Now you're lucky to throw one together on the fly? One that almost gets you and Free Fire killed? One that led to the loss of a really good talent, and a current member of the Freedom Force? One that's got a damn werewolf running around Aleppo?"
SPYGOD could say something to that, but chooses not to.
"You gather the troops," Josie insists, putting a very large hand on his shoulder and looking him in the eyes: "Because you know the enemy, and you know who will be the best suited. And you'll fight with them, too, because there's no one I'd rather see skewer this person.
"But it'll be as equals, not their leader. Let Peg shoulder that for you, for now, and you just worry about making this happen.
"We clear, AGENT (REDACTED)?"
"As crystal, ma'am," SPYGOD says, snapping off a salute so smart it could have a damn doctorate at 18.
"Good," she says, looking to the three stragglers: "You're all dismissed, then. Peg, you're to defer to him on team choice unless it's someone you really don't think you can work with."
"Of course," her clone says, saluting as she turns to go: "Consider it done."
"Alright then," SPYGOD says, as soon as the three of them are out of the room: "Free Fire, you're on the team. No question there."
"I didn't think there would be one," the android smirks.
"Who else?" Peg asks.
"Well, that's... now, what should I call you?" SPYGOD asks: "AGENT? Peg?"
"For now, Peg. When we're in the field? Ma'am will be fine."
"I'd prefer 'sir,'" she says, smiling: "It's got a nice ring to it."
"Alright then," SPYGOD says: "Free Fire, Peg, let's go put the !@#$ing band back together."
"Wait," the young, bald, and skinny man in the Deftones t-shirt says, shaking his head in disbelief: "You're gonna have to run that by me one more damn time. I am seriously confused."
"There's no confusion, son," SPYGOD says, looking down at the former hero -- who made a point of not getting up when he entered his apartment -- "We need a team to deal with a serious threat. I want you on it. And I think, if you're totally !@#$ing honest with yourself, you want to be on it."
"Really?" he says, getting up from the couch so he can look SPYGOD in the eyes: "So what is this? You admitting you were wrong when you !@#$ing dressed me down in front of the Director?"
"I wasn't wrong," SPYGOD insists: "Every single word I said in there about being a hero? About war being a crime, and making hard choices? Those words were !@#$ing gold, son. I hope you stored them for a rainy day."
"So why are you here, then? I made it damn clear I was done being a hero if that's what it meant."
"Because you were right, too," the superspy says, taking a step closer: "There was something wrong at the fire base. The people you were working with were compromised. Another couple of days they might have compromised you, too. Or killed you, like New Man."
The young man blinks at that: "New Man... he's...?"
"Well, we're not sure. Energy beings don't tend to get killed by bombs, even if they are !@#$ing French. The bombs, that is. Not New Man-"
"Shut up," his audience says, shaking his head and holding up a hand: "Just shut up."
He takes a deep breath. Closes his eyes, then screws them shut. When he opens them again they're red, and wet with tears.
"Sorry you had to find out about it like this, son," SPYGOD says: "He was a good man."
"He was, yeah," the former hero says: "He wasn't perfect, and god could he be a bad team leader at times. But he meant well."
"That don't always mean !@#$-"
"No!" the bald man says, shoving a finger in SPYGOD's face: "You do not disrespect him. Not now, not ever. Not in front of me, anyway."
"Alright," SPYGOD says, nodding: "Bottom line? You knew something was wrong, even if you couldn't !@#$ing put your finger on it. That something wrong got your CO killed. And I had to mop up the rest, and it wasn't !@#$ing pretty."
The former hero blinks, and considers what that means: "Yanabah? Chinmoku?"
"Dead, son. Compromised. They tried to kill me. They didn't."
"Oh god," he says, shaking his head and sitting back down: "Oh god."
"Now, way I see it? You got a couple reasons to say 'yes' and come back with me. Call it revenge. Call it proving yourself. Call it doing the !@#$ing right thing-"
"Why," the hero sighs: "Man, I've got a girlfriend, now. I've got... well, I work from home. But I got friends. A new life. We play Settlers and Dominion every Sunday night. How the hell am I going to explain all this?"
SPYGOD laughs: "!@#$, son. I thought you were supposed to be smart. Didn't you figure it out?"
"Figure out what?"
"This apartment building? It's all talents who either washed out or quit," the super spy grins: "Your girlfriend used to wear a cape and tights."
"Well, no one's supposed to talk about it, so glad to hear no one !@#$ing does," SPYGOD says, extending a hand: "But we need you, son. Now more than ever."
"If I do this, then no more war zones," the bald man insists, getting back up again but not taking the hand just yet: "I'll defend this country, but I won't be bombing civilians. Not again. Never ever. Do we have a deal?"
"Yes," SPYGOD says, extending the hand a little further out: "You got my !@#$ing word on it. I'll make sure it sticks all the way up."
"Alright, then," the no-longer-former hero says, shaking the hand: "I'll need my fire controls back."
"Brought it with," SPYGOD says, producing it with the other hand. The kid takes it, and, smiling, allows the armor band around his chest to accept it.
"Anything I need to know?" Shining Guardsman says, almost giddy to extend his suit once more.
"Yeah," SPYGOD says, looking the hero in the eyes: "Say goodbye to the good life and hello to hell, kid. This one's a doozy."
"It's broken," Martha Clutch says as she looks out the car window, watching a seemingly-deserted Detroit go by: "Can't you feel it?"
"I think so, yes," Mr. USA says, sitting on the other side of the back seat. He's out of uniform, for the first time in ages, and he feels positively naked without it.
"It's just something in the air," the Owl goes on, patting her very pregnant stomach as she does: "Like ozone after a lightning strike."
"Or the riot, before all hell breaks loose," her husband, Mark, says, driving very carefully. There's a car on fire, just before an intersection. It's been burning a while, now, but no one has come to put it out.
"Maybe they know he's gone, somehow," she says, trying not to cry: "Maybe all the things he kept at bay are coming back."
"Maybe," Mr. USA says, not liking the look of the people he does see: overly-armored security guards putting up more cameras.
It feels like a police state, only without the usually-corresponding drop in crime.
* * *
Neither the Mayor nor the Chief of Police were happy to have the heroes in town for this long. And the Governor was furious -- especially after the scene the other day, in the police morgue.
But the Feds were playing hardball, here: so long as the body of Thomas Samuels could not be accounted for, they were to allow them to conduct reasonable searches and investigation throughout the state.
And that state of affairs would last until either the Federal emergency in Flint was over -- which it wouldn't be for quite some time -- or until the body was found.
The Chief assured Mr. USA, personally, that everything they could do was being done. The older hero wanted to take the octogenarian at his word, but something about how the man shook his hand, yet refused to look him in the eyes, led him to believe there was something else going on here.
The old man was afraid of something, or someone. The kind of fear that makes a good man do bad things.
And Mr. USA knew that kind of fear far all too well.
So here they were, out of uniform, combing Detroit looking for clues with no backup from law enforcement. They couldn't use obvious powers, or do anything that would draw the attention of the press.
All they could do was track down the very slim leads they had, and hope one of them panned out.
* * *
"This is it, then," Mark said, pulling up to a small, run-down house on a tightly-packed block: "Last known residence of one Orenthal Caster. The night guy at the morgue."
"So they think what was on the sheet was his handwriting?" Martha asks, leaning forward to look at the place: "That 'he is risen' thing?"
"That's what the Examiner said. He also said he was the dictionary definition of 'meek.'"
"Hopefully so," Mark says, getting ready to get out of the car: "I don't want to have to be a jerk about this."
"No," Martha says, getting out before her husband does: "You stay here. (REDACTED), you come with me."
"Martha-" Mark tries to protest.
"I'll be fine," she says, trying to smile: "It's just twenty feet to the door. I can walk that."
And she can -- however unsteadily. Mr. USA walks right beside her, ready to catch her if she falls. But she doesn't.
The porch has seen better days. So has the inside of the house, from what they can see through the grimy windows. Both of them just know that something is wrong, in there.
"Mr. Caster?" Martha asks, knocking at the door and hoping he's able to talk: "If you're in there, I'd like to talk to you."
No answer. Mr. USA cocks his ears and listens, and then shakes his head at her.
She sighs, nods, and then -- with a swiftness that a seriously-pregnant woman maybe shouldn't have -- kicks the door right at the knob. It splinters into matchsticks, and she's into the house before her husband can call out to protest.
Mr. USA looks back at the poor man and shrugs, smiling weakly.
But then he hears Martha gasp, and he hustles inside, afraid of what they'll find.
Rightly so, as it turns out.
"You gotta be !@#$ing kidding me," the raggedy old man stammers, flopped over a filthy mattress with a sweaty sheet just barely covering up the essentials, and doing nothing at all for the three Thai boys he's been with all night.
(Outside, Bangkok goes on -- noisy and aromatic.)
"No, I'm not, Steven," SPYGOD says, looking around the run-down hovel and not liking what he sees. Junk, half-rotting street food, and signs of illegal drug use.
"You gotta be... wouldn't come if you knew..."
"Oh, I know. I know you !@#$ed up. I even think I know why."
"Because I need your help. This is a bad one. Maybe the worst yet."
"You always say.... say that !@#$ to me," he says, too weak to get up: "Hey, Swiftfoot. Put your suit on and save me. Save the country. Save the day."
"Was I ever lying?"
"No, but you..." the speedster starts to say, and then nods off.
SPYGOD sighs, pulls out one of his smaller handguns, and shoots it into the mattress, not too far from the old, disgraced hero's head.
"AhJesusWhatThe!@#$DidYouDoThatFor?" the old man shouts as he leaps out of bed almost too fast to see. The three boys he wore out all but !@$ themselves and clear out, heading for the other room as naked as jaybirds.
"So you'd stop sputtering and start remembering," the super spy growls, putting the gun away: "You're a hero, you dumb !@#$. This is what you live for. You're never better than when you're in uniform, following orders."
"I'm right and you know it, you dumbass. It's just your stupid pride !@#$ing with you again. And that's what gets you into trouble every time. You think you can coast. You think you're better.
"And then, when you think you know enough to give orders instead of take them? You slide, you !@#$ up, and then you go feel !@#$ing sorry for yourself for a couple months."
The speedster doesn't have anything to say to that. He stands there, looking stupid and confused -- each twitchy movement a weird, supersonic blur.
"Well, it's been four months, pal," SPYGOD goes on: "Time to get back on the damn wagon. So clean yourself up, put on your suit, and-"
There's a whoosh and a blur of motion, and then Swiftfoot is clean shaven, less stinky, has his long hair back in a braided ponytail, and dressed in what be the only clean clothes in the place.
"I kind of lost my suit," he admits, scratching at his pits.
"!@#$ it. The observation team's had one on standby on months."
The speedster blinks: "What?"
SPYGOD grins: "It's a pattern, Steven. You go off the rails, you zip over to Bangkok. We just follow the weird stories to your den of shame, and then we keep an eye on you until you either !@#$ing shake it off, or we need you."
"Oh," Swiftfoot shakes his head, heading out into the humid morning: "Okay then. Am I really that predictable?"
"It's like you don't remember you're the one who got me into Ladyboys in the first place," the super spy chuckles, leaving a large wad of Baht for the occupants to find: "Now what's say we clean you up proper, get you something to eat that won't cause the screaming !@#$s, and then bring your ass up to speed. We got work to do.
"And I'm going to need your help finding the next volunteer..."
"Look, man," the last person standing in the church basement says, holding up his hands: "We don't know nothing, okay? We just squatting here-"
"Is that what you're calling this?" Mr. USA asks, raising an eyebrow and waving a hand to the crates of firearms, over in the corner: "Because the way I see it, this is a whole lot more than just staying warm and dry."
"I've got ten knuckles, and you've still got most of your teeth," Martha hisses, dropping the unconscious body of the last person who refused to tell her what she wanted: "You want to avoid losing one to the other, you tell us what we want to know!"
"I can't tell you what I don't know!" the scruffy-dressed man insists, backing into a corner as the rage-eyed, crazy pregnant lady stalks towards him: "I ain't seen no Orenthal, alright? I don't even know who the !@#$ he is!"
"He goes to this church," Mr. USA says.
"Man, this place ain't been open in years. Why you think we here?"
"I didn't say he attended it," the older hero says, wondering at what point he should step in to keep Martha from stopping this man from talking, too: "I mean he comes here a couple times a week. Cleans up the sanctuary? Does minor repairs? Keeps it from falling down?"
"He's a sick man, we have to find him," Martha insists, all but growling: "And we come here and find you, instead, holding onto clearly stolen AK-47s, still in the damn crates. Tell me I shouldn't think the worst."
"Okay, yeah," the man admits: "I know who you talking about, now. We just call him the priest. He comes in, works upstairs. Sings, mostly. Sometimes he leaves us some food. I think he thinks we homeless."
"Are you?" Mr. USA says.
"No, man. We entrepreneurs. We get paid to look after !@#$. Don't touch it, don't play with it. Just store it for people, you know?"
"What kind of people?" Martha asks, raising her fists again.
"Kind of people you don't want to say 'no' to, lady," the man admits, holding up his hands in a weak defensive move: "Game is changing around here. Crazy bad is here, now. You gots to get with it or get jacked up. Simple as that."
"We're wasting our time," Mr. USA says: "He doesn't know anything."
"Then I can beat on him for not saying 'no' to crime and drugs?" Martha asks, grinning like something just broke inside her brain.
"Well, unless he knows where we can find the preacher-"
"Look! Wait!" the man shouts, putting his hands together to beg: "Maybe I do know something. Okay? Sometimes he talks about a mission, over on Woodward. He tells us we ought to go there and get some help. Or volunteer to help or some !@#$."
"Well, why didn't you just say so?" Mr. USA asks: "Martha, maybe we should let this helpful gentleman look after his friends while we go check the mission out."
"Yeah," she says, looking around: "But..."
"Oh! Right," he says, looking at the crates of guns. He coughs, makes a fist, and then slams his hand down into the crates -- breaking both wood and gun like they were cheap plastic toys.
"Oh man," the entrepreneur gasps: "You didn't."
"We did," the older hero says, smiling: "Might want to find a new line of work, young man. I don't think Detroit's going to tolerate crazy bad much longer."
And then they both leave the church, hoping this last lead helps them find the man who -- as they are now extremely certain -- saw a lot more that night in the morgue than was healthy for anyone.
"Okay then," SPYGOD says, raising an eyebrow: "I have officially !@#$ing seen everything."
"Oh blow it our your ass," Gosheven sighs, weakly trying to change his form but unable to do so.
"NiceToSeeYouAgain," Swiftfoot chuckles, dropping the zapped shapeshifter onto the ground of his tent.
"You blow it out your ass, too!" Gosheven shouts: "All of you just... blow it. Out your asses!"
"It's like poetry," Peg says, crossing her arms. She looks rather intimidating in her heavy coat and fur hat.
"John Leaping Deer," SPYGOD says, sitting down and calling up the man's file on a pad: "Former villain, then rehabilitated through the COMPANY. Member in good standing with the Freedom Force, then put on special, Triple-Black infiltration duties."
"And then you went rogue with Randolph Scott, last year," Peg grumbles: "And boy did we have some fun with that."
"So it appears we sicced Swiftfoot on you both," SPYGOD goes on, "And then tossed your goofy ass into Mister Freedom's safekeeping after that, until we could figure out what to do with you."
"Only now we learn you've been masquerading as an elephant for a two-bit Russian circus, here in Yakutsk," Peg says.
"When you're not hitting the bars and cruising for a different kind of trunk," Swiftfoot chuckles.
"If I wasn't..." the shapeshifter growls.
"Well, you are," SPYGOD says, pointing to the shock collar around his neck: "You even try to shift forms, that thing'll light up your brains like a damn Hanukkah bush. So don't even try."
"What do you want," Gosheven says, after a moment or two: "I was looking for Red Queen, damn it. I was trying to save her ass! Or don't you care about that?"
"What I care about is people following orders," SPYGOD says: "Something you're apparently not very !@#$ing good at."
"I thought we were square," the shapeshifter says, looking at SPYGOD: "After everything that happened in Florida, and Cuba-"
"Oh, we're square," SPYGOD says, holding up a hand: "Problem is, I'm not in charge of the show, anymore. I'm just a regular dogface in a suit, now. Just like you."
"He's just assembling the team," Peg explains: "And we want you on it."
"Or else we toss your ass back to Mister Freedom," SPYGOD smiles: "Who might be wondering where the hell you've been all this time."
The shapeshifer just smirks at that: "Worst prison ever, by the way. For someone who claims to be the best escape artist in the world he's crap at making an escape-proof prison."
"What do you mean?" Peg asks.
"I mean all the jailers take bribes," Gosheven says, and then laughs himself hoarse.
* * *
"Well," Peg says as the COMPANY transport takes off: "So far the roster is filling up nicely, if you like a challenge."
"Doesn't everyone?" SPYGOD chuckles, looking back at Gosheven, who is clearly not happy at this turn of events.
"A shapeshifter we can't count on, a speedster we can't trust, a tech hero with something to prove, a smart-mouthed android-"
"And me," SPYGOD says, grinning: "Who, incidentally, knows how to handle all of them."
"One might almost suspect you're making the team impossible to lead without your direct input."
"One might," the super spy says, no longer smiling: "But since I'll be telling you everything you need to know about the team, before we get into the field? I'd hope you won't feel that way for long."
Peg looks at him, nods, and takes her fur hat off: "So who's next?"
"That would be telling," SPYGOD says, looking at his pad: "But damn it, I wish we knew where this Myron is. He sounds like he'd be perfect for this kind of work."
"We've got Antonia doing tech solutions. She's good."
"Yeah, she's good. Hell, she's amazing. But this guy?" he taps the pad and holds it up: "This guy, from everything I've read, is !@#$ing phenomenal. A one man miracle worker. And we had to go and lose him."
"They're still searching."
"Do us all a favor, Peg?" SPYGOD says, looking back at the pad: "Tell them to search harder. Talent like this doesn't grow on trees."
He comes out of his room only when the screaming has stopped, and he's reasonably sure he won't get killed on sight.
Myron looks down the hallway. There's blood in both directions. Signs of a number of nasty fights.
Broken teeth on the floor, like loose change.
He walks down the hall towards his office. On the way he sees no less than three dead bodies, beaten to a pulp. He thinks he knows who they are.
He's not entirely sure he has the luxury of caring, right now.
* * *
"Yeah, you just choke on that," Randolph says, letting the guard try to breathe through what's left of his throat.
One good punch to the neck and the man went down, quiet as a stone, except for the sludgy, wet noises. He's probably going to choke on his broken larynx before long if he doesn't stop panicking.
A bad way to go, but it's his fault for having been the odd man out. The one who went off to smoke alone.
The one whose urban camouflage suit is almost exactly Randolph's size.
After securing one last precaution he slips it off the man, and onto himself, hoping he's got enough time to get into Odal's hidden headquarters, south of Frankfurt.
And enough time to get what he's looking for -- and who.
* * *
"Of course we know Orenthal," the large, matronly woman behind the desk in the Motor City Mission's business office says: "He's one of the most tireless and giving volunteers we have."
"Have you seen him lately?" Martha asks, trying not to plead too hard: "It's very important we find him and talk to him."
"Well, he hasn't been here for a while," the woman says, tapping her desk: "I think he had some trouble-"
"Ma'am, no offense, but you're lying," Mr. USA says, leaning forward: "And before you ask, it's because I can hear your heartbeat. And because you don't find it easy to lie. In fact, I guess the only reason you're lying is because you're trying to protect him.
"We're here to help him," the older hero goes on, putting a hand on Martha's shoulder: "And believe me, if we're right? He needs the kind of help you can't give him."
* * *
The office has been untouched, oddly enough. He thought they'd hole up in here, or at least vandalize it.
Maybe they felt it was sacred space, somehow -- it might as well be.
He looks at the ball chair, hating it. Hating how small it makes him feel. How weak.
A good, swift kick is all it takes. It falls over, and rolls somewhat lazily across the circular chamber.
Underneath it is a large, heavy box with a handle. He takes it in his arms and leaves the room.
* * *
Too easy, Randolph thinks as he all but walks into the complex: Much too easy.
There's guards, milling about the main area behind the front doors. They just nod and wave him through.
(Good thing, too. He's in no way suited for conversation, right now.)
There's stairs, leading down. He goes down them, using the man's key card to let himself in.
No retinal scanners. No guards beyond the door when it opens.
Too easy, he tells himself as he walks down the long, dark hall. He keeps walking, anyway.
* * *
"You have to understand," the woman says, leading the two heroes to the man's room: "He's been a rock, but he's also been very steadfast in his belief in God's hand at work in the world. He would tell us of signs and portents he saw on his way to work, or here."
"God's always sending signs," Martha says, holding her belly. The baby kicked, just now.
"Well, yes, but not like the ones he talked about," she says, as they turn a corner and see a room at the far end: "He said he saw angels, sometimes. Beautiful beings, bathed in light. He saw demons, too. Sometimes at the same time."
"He's not wrong there," Mr. USA says, thinking about the city he's seen so far.
"So when he came here, this Monday, telling us he'd seen something? Well, we wanted to take it in stride. But he wouldn't stop talking, or stop drawing what he'd seen.A goddamn, bloody mess -- that's the only way to describe his trip to the sick bay.
"And now..." she opens the door, and lets them see what has become of the room they've let him have.
"And now..." she opens the door, and lets them see what has become of the room they've let him have.
* * *
The halls from the office to there are littered with the raw, savage leftovers of murder, torture, and rape -- some with their deceased victims, some not. The spoor of the incidents he heard, but never really wanted to see.
The signs of what happens when a society decides its done being civilized and falls apart, one scream at a time.
He can smell what's happened in the sick bay before he even sets foot in it. The horsey, grey-haired doctor is dead, and it looks like her assassins took their time with her. There isn't a scalpel or blunt medical instrument in there that doesn't have her blood on it.
"Sorry," he says to her head, which is quite some distance from her body. They carved Xs on her eyes, either before or after her death, and that and the Glasgow smile makes her look somewhat comical.
Undaunted, he keeps going -- looking for who he came here to see.
* * *
"You look like a man with a story to tell," Scott says, shoving his gun into the rotten mouth of the wormy, pale man he found inside the door of this overly-opulent room: "But I don't want to hear it."
He backs the man up against the wall, glaring at him the whole time. He tries to whimper around the barrel of the gun, losing teeth with each word, but Scott isn't wanting to hear it.
He points to a far door, and gives the man a questioning look.
The man looks at it, then at him. He nods, slowly.
Scott nods back, retracts the gun. Then he flips it around and then clocks the man in the temple with its butt.
And then he's onto the room in question, not entirely certain he'll welcome what he sees.
* * *
"Orenthal?" the woman says to the large, wide-eyed man on the cot to the right side of the door. He's wearing a nice sweater -- the kind a parent might have knit with love over the course of a year or so -- and old shoes.
"Oh my god," Mr. USA says, looking around the room, and seeing what's been done with the walls.
It's just like they found back at his house, only more pronounced. A multi-media diorama of divinity, using paint, tearings from newspapers and magazines, and anything else.
"Angels," Martha says, running her hands along one tableau in the corner where divine figures are taking a sick man up to what might be Heaven.
"He is risen," the large man says, his eyes lost to ecstasy: "She took him up. I saw. I saw!"
And he holds out one last, torn piece of a photo to them, to show who 'she' was...
* * *
The mortuary is bedlam. Someone went razy with the bodies in there, especially the woman from the improvement committee. He doesn't even want to think about what happened to her, or how.
But Number Two is still there, and still mostly intact.
"Right or left?" Myron tries to remember. He settles on right, eventually, and carefully forces the dead man's hand open. It still reeks of his own !@#$.
Then he closes the hand around the handle on the case. There's a hissing noise, then a sliding.
Then, the box is open. Inside is a weird, black mechanism.
On the top is a red button.
"Alright, you !@#$ing !@#$," Myron says, looking around: "I know you can hear me. I know you know what this is.
"You got ten minutes to come out and play, and then I blow it all down.
"Game. !@#$ing. Over!"
* * *
"I was wondering when you might pay us a visit, Herr Scott," Helvete says, leaning over Randolph, who's not in any position to argue.
Karl has him in a choke hold. Jana has a gun to his face.
Both of them look terrible -- pale and weak in their new, black uniforms. They also seem to have fresh cuts on their faces and hands.
But they are both quite ready to kill him. Of this he is certain.
"So, it seems you wanted to come to our operation?" the pale man says, turning to return to his desk, perhaps to pour himself a glass of schnapps from the bottle on the corner: "Perhaps rescue your missing children? Blow this story open for once and for all?
"Well, I have a further surprise for you," the man says, reaching for a remote control and turning on a viewscreen "One I think you will find most exquisitely painful..."
* * *
"Martha, wait," Mr. USA says, chasing after his fellow hero as she books it down the hall and to the stairs: "We have to think about this-"
"Think? About what?" the woman shrieks, holding the torn picture Orenthal gave her up like it was the answer to everything: "They have my son! They took his body! God only knows what they're doing-"
"And that's why we have to be careful," he says, giving up the pretense and swooshing down the hall, just ahead of her: "You know what they're like, hon. You've gone toe to toe with them before. With her."
"Well, I'm up for a damn rematch," she hisses: "Right now. There's a temple in town. I say we go pay her a visit."
He looks at her, gripping the picture like death. He sees she won't be dissuaded.
And he can't !@#$ing blame her -- not one bit.
"Let me call for some help, first," he says, getting on his Freedom Force communicator: "I think we're going to need it."
* * *
"There's no need to shout, Myron," the Chess Master says, stepping from seemingly nowhere -- gun in hand: "I've known you were going to do this all along."
"And I know you knew," he says, his finger on the button: "So is that check or mate?"
"The first thing I did when I went missing was disable the destruct switches. That button is useless. So.. checkmate."
"But then you wouldn't have come here in the first place," he says, smirking: "You'd just let me stand here thinking I was going mad. So... checkmate."
"Do you think I need you mad?" she asks, pointing the gun: "What I needed was time. That and as few witnesses as possible. I took the one, and you've unwittingly handed me the other.
"And now I just need you to do what you were brought here to do all along."
"Eventually? Yes," she says: "But for now, I need you to fix what's broken.
"I need you to get me home..."
* * *
...Velma. It's Velma.
She's walking from work to her favorite coffee place. She's wearing a nice coat and a cute knit hat. It's cold in San Francisco, this time of night.
The crosshairs don't diminish her beauty.
"So," Helvete says, indicating the live screen feed from his sniper: "Thanks to my new friends? I know how to hurt you.
"And while I could simply command you to kill her? Well, I need you humbled, but not broken. So I think this is best..."
And he goes to give the order...
* * *
... and the picture from the business magazine falls to the floor of the Motor City Mission.
It's of Syphon, bragging about how her temple will change the city's future...
* * *
... and Myron spits in the woman's face.
And presses the button...