Monday, April 18, 2016

Valhallopolis: 4/11/16 - 4/17/16

"Black Water By My Side / I Will Go Out Tonight"

(Dr. Uncertainty, Red Wrecker, Mr. USA, Hanami, Blastman, Dragonfly, American Steel)

(Art by Dean Stahl)

* * *
* * *

Monday: 4/11/16

O-Dark-Hundred, they call it: the weird, transitional point between the end of the night and the start of the morning.

It's felt more than seen. The Sun's moments from beginning to tell, and the stars and moon are still shining brightly.

And yet you just know that, any second now, that strangely-colored glow is going to leech up into the eastern horizon, and night's dominion will soon be done.

For some, it's the best time of all, mostly because of the wild, slow creep of color that heralds the morning. For some -- especially those who leave their overnight jobs right at that point -- it's the worst.

And for some reason known only to God and the American Military, it's the best time to roll out the troops.

Especially when no one wants to own up to the mission.

* * *
"Sir, with all due respect, the President should be in the loop, here," Josie says, furrowing her brow as mightily as possible.

"I'm aware of that, Director," the whey-faced Secretary of Defense says, over his screen in the video conference: "I'm fully empowered to assess the situation and speak on his behalf in this."

"Yeah," the buzz-cut Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff mutters: "Let's just see what you super-powered people have to say for yourselves at this time of night."

"Alright, then," Josie says, and gets ready to do just that: "As you all know, we've been flying surveillance drones into Miami since just after this emergency began. At first we were hoping to find knots of trapped survivors and assess the damage, but as time's gone on we've realized everyone in the quarantine zone is compromised, dead, or worse than dead."

"Worse than dead?" the Admiral asks: "Would you care to clarify that, Director?"

"Oh, I can show you, sir," she says, and does so, using the most recent remote telemetry Gold Standard's drones have to offer.

And then takes some perverse pleasure in watching the Chief of Naval Operations almost lose whatever he had for dinner the night before. 

* * *
In one, almost massive burst of motion, the flesh and steel machine is let loose.

The barracks are deserted. The hangars are opened. The seemingly-endless lots of trucks, tanks, troop carriers, and other vehicles are emptied, one long row at a time.

The jets scramble and take off. The helicopters whirl and judder away. Satellites narrow their eyes and take careful aim.

The ships break off and form new convoys, heading down the coast. Guns are positioned and made ready, then aimed at their targets.

And around the cordon surrounding Miami, the National Guard gladly salutes their better-equipped replacements, and leaves their post.

Hopefully to never see the likes of this again.

* * *
"What in the name of God is that?" the Assistant Chairman says, fighting back some toothsome combination of horror and nausea.

"As near as we can tell, it's what's left of anyone who died during the attack, prior to infection," Josie says, doing her best to appear unfazed: "The infected are using them as raw materials for their building projects, and then slapping them together with what might be excretions, or pieces of themselves."

"It looks a lot like that crab thing," the Air Force chief opines.

"It does, yes. Their organic technology all has a similar feel to it."

"It looks like !@#$," the Chief Marine says: "Pardon my English."

"Well, yes. We have taken to calling it Turdscaping, but not in public," Josie says, glad for one moment of levity: "We're not entirely sure what all the structures are. But we've been able to make a few educated guesses, based on what we're seeing.

"Now, the things that look like smoking anthills? The fumes coming out of them are mutagenic agents. Anything living that gets hit by those fumes gets infected within minutes, and starts to grow black globules. Sort of like corn smut, I'm told.

"Here's the thing, though. Note I said anything living. That includes grass, flowers, plant life, and animals. But it also means things you can't normally see."

"Like what?" the Secretary of Defense asks, clearly terrified of the answer.

"Fungus, mold, microscopic organisms, pollen. Anything that's alive in our definition of the word is being changed, which means the infection is being spread across buildings, and even the air. You can actually see lines of the stuff forming in mid-air, slowly tracing its way back to the source of the pollen. Like those trees, here, or these flowers."

"What are the other targets, Director?" the Marine General asks, amazingly even-headed in the face of the threat.

"Well, we have these things here," she says, changing the feed over to massive clusters of what might be cancerous grapes, slopping over both sides of Miramar Parkway: "As you know, Hanami made it to Mars and back and made a detailed report of what she found. Based on that, we're guessing those are eggs for a creature like what attacked Miami the other day."

Everyone gasps, and she holds up a hand: "Now, before you panic prematurely? She also said they had to be grown in something like a special womb, maybe the size of a jumbo jet hangar. We don't see any of those, yet, so it's not like we're going to be crawling with giant radioactive crap crabs anytime soon.

"However, we have a bigger problem. And that's the major part of why I called you all together, today..."

* * *

From the depths of the Flier, they come -- heroes, one and all.

Mr. USA, senior-most and sere. A symbol of a nobler, simpler time who knows all too well that those days were rarely simple, and not always noble.

Blastman, grinning but grumpy. One of the old Baby-Boom guard of heroes who's still got it, but at some personal cost.

Hanami, certain and stern. A super-powered android from a future she can't remember, adopted by a country she's no longer comfortable with, and given authority she's still learning to handle. 

Red Wrecker, pint-sized but powerful. Once the shining star of the team, now rather disillusioned with the cost of fame and heroism.

American Steel, high-tech harridan. Piloting the latest Crisp Industries exo-suit, she's not sure if she's a protector or product placement, much less if she's really Freedom Force material.

Dr. Uncertainty, genius and cypher. Content to work behind the scenes, up until now, the 'Human Question Mark' is here to solve problems -- one ass-kicking at a time.

And Dragonfly, reborn yet again. Once their killer, hidden from view, now up in the frontlines with a vow to take no lives, and a secret she must forever keep...

Hanami leads them out to their waiting COMPANY transport, parked at the far end of the flight deck. They're in no hurry to get in, given what's waiting for them, But they come forward, anyway.

Because they're the Freedom Force. And this is what they do. 

* * *

"What the hell are we looking at, Director?" the Marine General says, furrowing his brow: "It looks like... is that a heart?"

"It is, sir," Josie says, pointing to the throbbing, cyclopean thing, strapped to the base of what used to be the Freedom Tower: "A heart the size of a two-story house, beating at the rate of fifty times a minute."

"So what's that mean?" the Chairman asks: "Are they building another creature?"

"No sir, it's worse than that. This isn't technology as we understand it. This is conceptual as well as functional. The heartbeat isn't meant to pump blood or anything like that. It's meant to send a signal."

Everyone opens their mouth, and then -- one by one -- closes it. 

"A signal," the Secretary of Defense repeats: "To Mars?"

"Exactly," Josie says: "The previous instances of our being shot up by projectiles? They've been firing them using a poor understanding of orbital mechanics. As near as we can tell, only about ten percent of what they've launched is actually coming right at us. The rest is missing badly."

"Ten percent's bad enough," the Assistant Chairman -- who's also an Air Force General -- states for the record: "Ten percent's got the UN Space Service down to twenty-five percent flight capability, right now."

"Exactly. So if they get a homing beacon?"

"Then they won't need luck or mechanics," the Secretary of Defense says.

"So what do we need to do, here?" one of the Generals asks the rest: "I'm sure we can blow the smokers, and take out the heart. But something tells me that's not going to be enough."

"No," Josie says, shaking her head sadly: "If it was, I'd just tell Gold Standard to send in some remote units and deal with it. I think what we have to do with Miami is a lot more drastic. 

"And, frankly, I don't think my people should be the ones to do it."

There's silence, around the table. And then slow, deliberate nodding. 

"What about the problem at sea?" the Fleet Admiral asks: "That's something else we need to consider. If this is what's happening on land...?"

"We're... taking steps on that," Josie says, coughing into her fist: "I'd rather not get into details at this time, but I can assure you that we're going to do our best to counter the problem."

"Then I guess we need to wake up the President, and tell him the bad news," the Chief of Staff says, sadly: "And then get our forces ready to mobilize."

"May God have mercy on us all," the Fleet Admiral says.

And no one really wants to disagree. 

Tuesday: 4/12/16

Korhogo, Ivory Coast. Hilly, hot, and humid as !@#$. 

I'm sitting outside on the mud road outside the scenic Hotel Mont Korhogo, not too far from the mountain it gets its damn name from. I'm on my second bottle of Flag Speciale, which is just cool enough to make me forget how bad my !@#$ing boxers are climbing up the crack of my ass, and waiting for my team to make it back from recon. 

After a month and change of looking, we finally know where the hell Straffer is, son. And we're here to get him out of the Superslam those !@#$ing black shoggoth zombie alien things stuck him in. 

So they're up, north of town, having a check on the physicals. Just posing as !@#$ing tourists that got lost in all the damn green. Not too !@#$ing hard to do, around here. 

(Korhogo isn't big on signage.)

Meanwhile? I'm just !@#$ing sitting here, son -- drinking beer, eating fried bananas, and watching the foot traffic go by. Counting motor scooters and the occasional car. Smelling the earth, feeling the breeze. 


Yeah, yeah. I know what the kids are using the term for, these days, son. But back in the day it had a different meaning for me. 

See, places can !@#$ing haunt you, same as people. And when we're someplace long enough, it leaves a little piece of itself in you. Feelings, sense memories, tiny pieces of the landscape. 

Now, you !@#$ing know how memory is, son. You forget half of the !@#$ you see, say, and do in an hour. Another half the hour after that. And then another half after that. So by the time your day's !@#$ing done, it's a wonder you can remember a damn thing, sometimes. 

And then, if that wasn't !@#$ing bad enough? Your brain's changing !@#$ around on top of it, too. Watch old TV shows you saw as a kid if you don't believe me. 

But I'll tell you, son. You go back to one of those places you visited, however long ago? And you sit in one damn spot, for a while, and just let it all roll back?

The ghosts will come back, son. The memories will return.

Been a long !@#$ing while since I was here. At least, that's what I've been !@#$ing led to believe according to the notes left to me by the Superspy Formerly Known as SPYGOD.

(Who would be me, before I lost my optic nerves, !@#$ing frontal lobes, and most of my damn memory, last year.)

According to those !@#$ing notes, I came here a number of times from 1995 on up. Mostly visits to the Superslam, though I'm told I might have dropped in to work with, or at least around, a certain pan-African spy organization that I may have helped deep-six a couple years back. 

(Long !@#$ing story, son.)

Now, looking back through those files and reports, it looks like a lot of !@#$ went down. Prisoner transfers gone bad !@#$ing wrong. Schemes started and foiled. The occasional assassination. You know, the usual spy !@#$.

But after everything that's happened in the last year or so, I can't remember a goddamn thing. 

So all these reports and things? They're just words on !@#$ing paper to me. Sounds on a tape of some ego-driven asshole with a gun the size of his damn arm justifying how many times he had to !@#$ing shoot it off that day.

And yet, when I sit here, sucking on a cold beer on a humid day? Watching the folks go by, staring at the weird white guy with the glasses and the tacky as !@#$ tourist clothes? 

It's like I can actually remember some of it, son. Just bits and pieces, but enough to say that, somehow, my !@#$ing brain is accessing some of those memories I thought were gone. 

And for me, that's just !@#$ing wonderful. Especially because maybe it means that I might start to remember something about Straffer. 

Because that's what really !@#$ing bothers me, son. All the rest of the !@#$ I went through? I got files, I got tapes. I got people who were !@#$ing there I think I can trust, up to a point. And I got guns to persuade the rest of them to !@#$ing tell me the damn truth. 

But Director George Straffer? Former Director of the Space Service, steward of Deep-Ten? The man who fell in love with me? The man who !@#$ing cheated death twice over to get back to me? The man who moved heaven and Earth to put my fine gay ass back together again?

I don't have those kinds of files on him, son. No AGENTS to tell me how we kissed, or how we argued. No top secret photos of us !@#$ing or kicking ass. Just a weird blank in my memory, shaped like a man. 

And now he's been captured by !@#$ing aliens, of all the damn ironies. And all I got's a trail of !@#$ing bread crumbs, leading from one !@#$-show to another. That and confusion and regret and a lot of long-simmering anger and desire. 

And a burning sense that, whatever else, I have to !@#$ing do right by this amazing man who insists that we're going to get married, soon.

I know where he is, now. I know how to find him. And thanks to what we got from the Flier, the other day? I think I know how to get him out. 

Which means, as soon as everyone gets back from recon, we got some work to do. And then we're gonna put these jokers through some !@#$ing changes. 

But meantime, I'm going to sit here and enjoy the beer, the breeze, and the scenery.

And the ghosts, all waiting to haunt me. 

Wednesday: 4/13/16

If you want to think of Hell on Earth, you need only explore the sub-levels of the Heptagon.

The first few are fairly germane, of course. An underground parking garage and vehicle bay. Maintenance and machinery, laboratories and disposal.  An armory or two -- three if you count the one no one can find on the directory.

(The secret energy source no one's supposed to know about.)

But below that? It's a series of prisons, holding cells, and interrogation blocks -- all stacked one atop the other like an inverted pyramid of bad, evil, dangerous, and insane, with the threat level getting worse the further down one goes.

Down around the mid-level -- right on the cusp of "too dangerous for a Superslam," but not edging into "Why not Detention Camp Zebra?" -- is the floor where the COMPANY keeps its would-be world-burners.

Genocidal monsters who thought Hitler and Stalin were too lenient. Eco-warriors who think the world doesn't need humans, anymore. Magnetic pole-flippers, atmosphere-thieves, quislings for alien invaders, and scientists so mad they need better adjectives to describe their level of insanity.

All of them have been stuck in cold, concrete cells for years, maybe even decades. Given only a bed, a toilet, and a shower unit for scenery. Three meals a day, clean linen and library books once a week are privileges, revoked at the slightest provocation by the guards.

And they're always watching, and listening, even if it seems like they're not.

Down there in the dark, surrounded by thick concrete, heavy steel, and endless, wet earth, these men and women who would have destroyed their own planet are waiting for one of the only two certainties they have left down here: death, or a deal.

And they have no real idea when one or the other might arrive.
* * *

On a good day, the dry man only dreams of a sea -- cold, black, and seemingly endless.

He dreams of his feet in the water ---  oh-so-white against the brown sand and dark rocks.

He dreams of his father, far beyond the rolling waves -- head above water, strong arms waving.

He hears only the crash of water, the laughter of others, maybe a seagull or two.

Not the screaming. That hasn't started yet.

And on a good day, he wakes up before it ever does. Before it turns red and ugly, and all too warm.

Before he sees the true danger that lies below that black, undulating wall of water for the first, and most formative time...

On days when he doesn't wake up in time, he screams himself hoarse for at least an hour. And though the guards may hear him, they pay him no mind, anymore.

They don't care that he cries. They don't worry that he panics at the sight and feel of the water of his own tears.

The blood below the skin he claws at to try and stop the water from coming.

On a really bad day, they gas him to keep him from doing too much damage to himself. Suicide by panic is not an option, here.

Not when he's got so long to wait for a chance to work off his evil.

But the rest of the time they just let him scream and claw at his face. They've fixed it so he can't do much damage.

(They just hope he doesn't realize how wet his eyes are, or this is going to be extremely messy.)

* * *

Today is definitely a good day for the dry man. Not only does he wake up before the ocean turns red and violent, but it's because the all-too-infrequent stomping down the hall ends at his cell door, for once. 

At first he thinks he's imagining it. Have they actually come for him, this time? Or did they make another mistake, like they did about four years, three months, twenty-six days ago?

(Yes, he counts. And you would, too. Don't lie.)

The door to his cell is silent, for maybe one moment too long for comfort, and then it groans into motion. Just the outer one, of course -- the metal armor in front of the inches-thick, clear-plastic shield. 

Standing on the other side is a large, burly woman with buzz-short, pink hair and black tribal tattoos running up the sides of her neck. She's wearing a COMPANY uniform, and so are the heavily-armed and armored guards standing to either side of her. 

"Good morning," the woman says, her arms behind her back as she looks at him: "I'm sorry we didn't call before we came. The intercom's been down for a couple years."

He looks at her like something from a dream, and tries to reply. 

"My name is Josie," she says: "You don't have to say anything if you can't talk. I can take a nod or a shake of the head. Do you understand?"

His voice is a dry, rasping thing when he finds the words: "What... you want... me?"

"Your cooperation, Dylan," she says: "If you give it freely and fully, I am in a position to reward your compliance. If not, I can't force you. And I'll tell you everything you're in for right away, up front. 

"But if you say no? You will come right back here, to this cell. And we might never call on you again.

"Do you understand this?"

He looks at the woman, and then down at his hands. It's been so long since he really looked at his skinny, dry fingers.

(The ragged stumps where they took his nails out.)

"Dylan, I need an answer," she says: "Nod if you can."

"Yes," he says, nodding and looking up at her: "I understand."

"Alright," she says, and takes a deep breath before she steps back: "Get him cleaned up. Then down to the briefing room. We've got a lot to cover and not a lot of time."

With that she walks away, not wanting to smell what comes out of the door.

* * *

"I'm not sure involving him is a good idea," one of Josie's clone-sisters says to her as they ride the elevator back up to the better, less oppressive levels of the Heptagon: "He's a mess, frankly."

"I understand that, Katy," Josie says, looking at the prisoner's file, again: "I wouldn't be here if we didn't really need this guy. But you've seen what we're dealing with..."

"... and he's got the best skill-set we can use," Katy nods, her green bob shimmering under the lights as she nods: "But don't let him out of your sight, hon. The last psych workup we did on him recommended a damn lobotomy."

"Jesus, when was that? 1978?"

"Last month," Katy shrugs: "Sometimes the worst solutions really are the only ones."

"I know, sis," Josie says, squeezing Katy's hand, sadly: "That's why I'm here."

And then the elevator ride's over, and Josie leaves it to head off to her rarely-used Heptagon office. 

Wondering if it'll feel any more welcoming, this time. 

Thursday 4/14/16

"Jesus Christ, hon," the white, touristy-looking woman at the hotel room door says, grimacing as the person who answered the door puts the massive pistol down and lets her in: "It's only me. And I swear I got the right order, this time."

"That's what you said the last time," Swiftfoot grumbles from where he sits on the bed, next to Gosheven.

"I rather liked the wrong order," Mister Freedom says, smiling at the table.

"I'm glad you did," Myron chuckles: "What was that joke? If you can't tell !@#$ from tuna fish, don't order seafood in a French restaurant?"

"Damn straight," SPYGOD says, ushering the woman in, along with her many bags of takeout. Halfway across the room she turns into Gosheven, and -- after putting the food down on the table -- goes to rejoin himself on the bed.

"I never not get squicked out watching that," a susprisingly-unarmored Shining Guardsman says, adjusting his ballcap and having a pull off his beer.

"Perhaps you need a new stomach," Free Fire smiles -- armored as ever -- and wonders what might happen if he tries one of those beers.

"Maybe we all need to get some !@#$ing focus," SPYGOD says, closing the door with something just south of a slam: "We're about to crash the damn party on one of the most secure !@#$ing prisons in the world, here, folks. I could care less about what you think about Rabbit-boy's unique talent or how what he brought back's going to sit in your damn guts.

"I do care about intel. Because that, added to what we got from the Flier, is the only way we're going to make the sorry-ass pile of !@#$ we called a plan last night have a hope in Hell of working.

"And by happy holy !@#$ you better have some better !@#$ than you !@#$ing brought to the table yesterday, or I'm going to cram your dinner up your damn backsides and send you back out for more."

And almost everyone coughs, just a little, and begins to spill what they know.

* * *

"Dylan Williams Aberforth," Josie says to the COMPANY observers, who are sitting on the other end of a number of hidden cameras, here in the interrogation room she's about to use: "Better known as the Lamprey..."

She shows them the picture of the man after his arrest: skinny, dry-skinned, and wearing some weird mask that made him look like a cross between his namesake and a deep sea probe.

"Bio-chemical scientist. Bonifide genius. Extremely hydrophobic. Psychotic by any standard definition of the word. And caught and jailed by the COMPANY in 1996 after his third and final attempt to kill all aquatic life on the eastern seaboard.

"Judged to be too dangerous for standard incarceration, even by Superslam standards at the time. Rendered into Extraordinary Confinement on the orders of SPYGOD. His research is all ours, of course, and we've used bits and pieces of it from time to time.

"But this situation, as you know, is something radically different. We need him to interpret the situation we're facing and use his skills to neutralize it. And we need a neutralization solution as quickly as possible."

"How much latitude are you willing to give him?" one of the observers asks.

"Full lab facilities, and everything he needs," Josie answers: "With full, multispectral supervision, constant mind-reading, and a full review of his ideas before implementation. We have numerous experts standing by to overview his findings and solutions before we let him near so much as a damn test tube."

"And what are you willing to do for him?" someone else asks.

"I'm going to try the carrot instead of the stick, at least at first, but if worse comes to worse I'm not above smacking him."

"Are you planning on giving him the carrot?" the same person asks, maybe a little panicky: "There's still a mile-long scar off the coast of Rhode Island from his third attempt. They say nothing will grow there for at least a thousand years."

And Josie nods and, somewhat reluctantly, tells that observer the truth -- knowing he won't like hearing it any more than Josie likes saying it.

* * *

SPYGOD listens as the last person finishes speaking, and then nods, ever so slowly, and takes a thoughtful pull off his beer. 

They've talked for hours, now. The food is almost gone, save for the weird, almost-unidentifiable things that Mister Freedom can recognize, but doesn't care to explain -- save to pronounce their name in his lovely, Beur-accented French. 

But there's always more beer. SPYGOD makes sure of that. And maybe it's because he thinks people say more than they realize when they're a little tipsy, and maybe it's because he needs to be more than a little !@#$ed up to put it all together in his head.

They've discussed everything. The air traffic, the ground visitors. The condition of the gates and the walls. The positions of the ground and air defenses, seen and unseen. The guards and their rotations, the alarm tests and drills.


And only now -- now that it's gone from afternoon to early evening, and they're all talked out -- does SPYGOD seem remotely satisfied.

"Now that's what I !@#$ing needed to know," SPYGOD says, nodding: "Thank you, gentlemen. You've done good work."

"So you're not going to shove the food up our asses?" Myron asks, just to be sure. 

"I don't think there'd be any difference," Shining Guardsman says, casting a sideways eye at the unmentionables in question.

"No," SPYGOD says, putting the lid down on the questionable morsels: "I wanted you talkative, gentlemen. I got talkative.

"So now, we put all that talk together," he says, getting a printout of the plans for the Korhogo lockup out and putting it down on the table, and handing everyone a pad and a pen: "And once we've done that, we make ourselves a !@#$ing plan that's better than what we came up with, last night, with that half-assed intel you gave me before.

"And then we save your man?" Swiftfoot says, with maybe just a little cattiness behind it. 

"Yes," SPYGOD replies, either not noticing the remark or not caring to dignify it. 

He's got bigger fish to fry, after all. 

* * *

"I see," the Lamprey says, sitting in the chair he's been shackled to, in the shade of the guards standing over him.

"And what do you think?" Josie asks, sitting down in her chair, a full ten feet across from him.

"I think..." the thin, dry man begins to say, and then looks down at his hands again: "I think you are ignoring the bigger problem."

"What's that?" the Director asks, looking across the table into his dark, sunken eyes.

"The life you want me to kill. This alien virus, as you call it. It's no virus. It's what's already there."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that... you're upset that this black slick is turning nature upon itself. Causing the balance to be upset. Darkness eating the light. The alien changing the terrestrial.

"But I wonder if you understand that what exists down there, already, is exactly what you describe," the Lamprey says, his voice rising as his eyes narrow: "Life feeds, Director. It consumes. It cannibalizes. It devours. It is one non-stop bacchanal of hungry violence, down below in the black and the dark. 

"And you want me to kill a competing species because... it might replace something that's just as evil?"

The genius looks at his captor, and laughs -- full, dry, and black -- for several minutes, until blood starts to stain his teeth.

* * *

The seven men all look at the notes they have taken, and the conclusions they've drawn, and blink a few times. 

"So, we all understand what we're up against?" SPYGOD says: "Because we can't really !@#$ing try this !@#$ out. Once we roll the condom on, we're !@#$ing in the hole."

"I think so," Shining Guardsman says, tapping the outsides of the compound: "These things are going to shoot us down if we don't have the transponder signal-"

"Which we don't have," Free Fire says.

"Exactly," the cyborg goes on: "So air approach is a no-go, and will cause them to shoot their whole load at us."

"Totally," Myron nods: "And that'll cause the ground to lock down, too."

"Right," SPYGOD says: "And if we go by ground, they'll !@#$ing do the same thing."

"But I can run faster than they can see," Swiftfoot says.

"Right, but you get too close to the guards and you're having other issues," Gosheven says.

"And you can get in, smaller than they can see," Free Fire says to the metamorph: "And have no problems with the issues."

"Exactly," Swiftfoot chuckles, leaning back: "So I'm... what, exactly?"

"Expendable," SPYGOD says, without missing a beat. And everyone laughs but the old speedster. 

"So, we can go loud, or go quiet," Myron says: "And even if we go quiet, we'll get loud eventually. And then lockdown. And then crazy."

"I can handle the lockdown," Mister Freedom says: "And crazy is simply the end result of a number of variables that cannot initially handle their new position relative to one another."

"What he said," Gosheven shrugs: "But if I understand what you're all saying? We're !@#$ing going in loud, anyway."

"Got it in one," SPYGOD says, looking over at Myron: "As long as we got the package...?"

"We got it," Myron says, smiling: "And that means that, as bad as it all looks? We're getting in..."

* * *

"Well, that went better than anticipated," Josie mutters, looking down at her side of the desk.

The guards have come and gone, taking one Dylan Williams Aberforth away to get fitted and fixed up. New clothes, a new cell, and access to lab facilities.

Some small degrees of freedom, however mega-supervised.

But what he wanted in return...

"I'm not comfortable with this," one of the observers says: "Any of this. That man is sick. He deserves treatment and needs confinement."

"Oh, he'll get it," Josie says, turning to regard the hidden cameras: "I'm not giving him a long leash here, folks. As soon as he's gotten our problem taken care of, he's going back in his box. No question there."

"And if he flips on us in the meantime?" someone else asks: "You heard what he said about the sea life, Director. About what he thinks is down there. Can we really trust him?"

"Trust, no," she says, amazed she has to explain this to any of these people: "Use? You bet your ass. And that's all this is, people. Using. That's why we keep those people alive in the first place instead of just !@#$ing shooting them and dumping the damn bodies."

With that she gets up, takes her things, and leaves the room -- disgusted on several different levels.

(Also, it has to be said, at herself. Just a little.)

Halfway down the hall she gets a message over her wrist pad. It's her special friend on SPYGOD's team.


And she doesn't have to think too long or hard when she says: GO ALONG WITH PLAN. WE NEED STRAFFER. WILL ADVISE FURTHER AFTER.

That done, she gets ready to report to the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- and, hopefully this time, the damn President -- that they're about to get the black slick issue under control.

And maybe, just maybe, actually feel good about herself for the first time today. 

Friday: 4/15/16

The Candidate puts the phone down and looks at it. A minute goes by, maybe two.

He's in the ready room at the Connecticut Convention Center. Outside the room, he can hear thousands cheering him. They shout his name like a mantra -- their minds empty of all but their undying love for him.

He takes a very deep breath, rubs his jowly face, and looks in the mirror. 

"So it's just that simple," he says to his own reflection: "That's all he needs me to do. Just go out there, be myself. No special instructions. Nothing. Just..."

He grimaces, and shakes his head: "Just do what I do best, he says."

And suddenly he's got nothing to say.

* * *

"So, what did you want to talk to me about?" Swiftfoot asks, wondering why SPYGOD's in his room.

He just woke up to find the superspy sitting there, in the cruddy chair by the door. He's been there for some time, clearly. Just sitting there.

Watching him in his sleep. 

"I want to know I can count on you," SPYGOD says, after a moment or two.

"Look, that thing I said about Straffer..." Swiftfoot says, easing himself up onto the pillows: "That was rude, (REDACTED). I'm... well... I shouldn't have-"

"I don't give a flying !@#$ what you think about my love life, Steven," the superspy interrupts, holding up a hand: "That's none of your damn business."

"It used to be," Swiftfoot says: "Once. Or is that something you forgot, too?"

"Oh no," SPYGOD says, nodding: "I remember that just fine. And I would have figured you would have figured out, some time ago, that what we were doing was about as far from love as you can get."

"So you were just using me for intel on the Freedom Force," the speedster says, looking down: "Well... I can't say I'm shocked. But I'd... well..."

"Oh, cut the !@#$, Steven!" the superspy curses, about to lose his temper: "The whole damn reason I set that up is because I knew you didn't give a damn about me as a person. You had someone you could !@#$ and make you feel important. I got what I needed and kept !@#$ing you. And we kept it up until there was !@#$ing nothing you could offer me, anymore. 

"That's all there was to it, Steven. I was !@#$ing using you as an asset. That is all you were.

"And don't tell me you did not know that."


"No," SPYGOD insists, sticking his finger in the man's face: "You don't call me by my damn name and pretend, friend. We both had needs. We used each other to get them. And there's nothing I need from you now, except for your powers.

"You !@#$ing got that?"

* * * 

The stage beckons. He takes to it, smiling and waving. Music he can't identify is blaring.

Blank faces, cheering. Staring. A sea of signs with his name on it. 

"Wow! Hello folks!" he says, behind the podium: "Hello! Amazing. Who loves Hartford, Connecticut? Everybody, right? Everybody."

They cheer harder. It's a throwaway. He knows it, they know it. They don't care. 

"Thank you everybody. It's an honor to be here. That's some crowd. That's a lot of people. You got people pouring in from outside. It's great."

More cheers. Everyone loves having their ego stroked. 

No one loves being told they're just the same as everyone else.

* * *

"Well," Swiftfoot says: "I see. Fine. Is that all you had to tell me?"

"No," SPYGOD goes on, leaning forward: "That's just the damn warmup. I wasn't even going to bring it up, because it's not an issue to me. But maybe that explains why I'm having to !@#$ing tell you."

"Tell me what?"

"You can't think I didn't notice you've been ducking out on us when things have gotten !@#$ing hairy, now can you?"

"I don't know what you mean," Swiftfoot protests, but it's rather weak. 

"You run off during fights when things get too !@#$ing crazy, Steven. You might not think we notice, but we do."

"Now come on-"

"I would have just let it go, at least for now. But the others have noticed, too. And if they can't trust you, they can't work with you. Now can they?"

The old speedster looks at the man he used to have wild, crazy, hyperfast sex with, back in the day, and swallows.

Now he is genuinely afraid.

* * *

 "So, scary things have been happening, lately," the candidate says, looking around the room: "You know it, I know it. We started this campaign out and I talked about things that were worrying me. Things you already know about. Jobs, Mexicans, Muslims. And I was the only one talking about them. 

"Now we got even bigger problems. We got Martians tracking their bad business here to Earth. We got Toons and the violence they bring. We got those so-called supergods in their white city, south of California, trying to lord it over us. 

"And now we've got monsters falling out of the sky!"

Boos, cries. He wasn't sure how they'd take it. But he sees something more than fear in their eyes. 

He sees hope. Hope that he can say or do something. 

Hope that breaks his heart.

* * *

"Here's the thing, Steven," SPYGOD says: "I don't know what your damn problem is. I never knew you to duck out of a fight before. 

"The War, the Liberty Patrol, the Freedom Force? I saw you go toe-to-toe with every !@#$ing thing the world ever threw at us, and come out the other side grinning like a damn champion. 

"Because you were a champion. You were our hero. Catty and flawed, yes, but out of everyone else there I at least knew I could count on you to leap into the fight and come back out of it again. 

"Now yeah, it's been a while. !@#$, it's been decades. And I know that you slip up and you fall. But I also know you never fall where I can't find you. And I know exactly what it takes to get you the hell back into the field and moving again. 

"And maybe that's all trust is, in the end. Knowing someone's limits and being willing to !@#$ing work with them."

He pauses, then, and looks away. But when he looks back it's merciless. 

"Now? I don't know, anymore. I recruited you for this team because I needed someone I could !@#$ing depend on. Someone I knew from the old days. Someone I !@#$ing trusted to stand by my side when I decided to !@#$ing go rogue. 

"But all I'm getting is snark, Steven. That and a tendency to drop the damn ball that even I am finding very hard to !@#$ing excuse, anymore. 

"And that's !@#$ing saying something..."

* * *

"The others? They aren't saying much about this problem. Even with Miami on fire and the armed forces surrounding it.

"Kasich defers to our Interim President. Sanders probably wants to welcome it in with open arms. 

"Me? I'm saying we find out who's responsible and we take this fight right to them!"

The cheers go up. They're deafening. And he stands there for a time, letting them wrap around his heart and soul. 

Hoping they will lift him up, now that he's got nothing left. 

Because now he really understands what all this has been about, all this time. 

* * *

"So," SPYGOD says, getting up from the chair and looking down at Swiftfoot: "Just so there's no mistake? I'm telling you now. You need to consider where you want to be, Steven. Because this mission isn't just to save the world. It's to save my !@#$ing soul."

"What?" the speedster asks, but clams up quickly when SPYGOD raises a fist. 

"That man, in that superslam? He didn't just save the world, Steven. He saved me. Time and time again.

"And in spite of everything that's !@#$ing happened? All the stupid mean !@#$ I've said and done because I've been in a damn pity party for one, or scared out of my !@#$ing mind, or whatever? 

"Well, Straffer's stood by me. He's remained. And he moved Heaven and Earth and made a deal with the !@#$ing devil to get me back.

"That's more than a lot of others have done for me. !@#$, that's more than I've done a lot of times.

"So you know what? I will do the same damn things to get him back, okay? And !@#$ the COMPANY. !@#$ Josie. !@#$ the rules. !@#$ the procedures. !@#$ anything that gets in my !@#$ing way.

"And if it means we're both outlaws after this? Well, !@#$ it. I don't care.

"And if you think I am going to cut you a break if  you screw up when we go in to get him, Steven? You are very. !@#$ing. Wrong."

He pauses then, and turns to the door, preparing to leave: "So if you can't help? You stay behind. I've made allowances for everyone being incapacitated. We can get by without you. Not as well, of course. Otherwise I expect your a-game.

"And if not?" he says, turning to look at the man: "I'm taking away your damn license to speed, Steven. You know I can do it. And you know how I'll do it.

"And if you aren't Swiftfoot? Well, who are you?"

And with that he's gone, leaving the old speedster to sit in the pre-dawn dark and shiver until the bed almost vibrates apart.

At least until he gets his wits together, realizes what he has to do, and goes to do it...

* * *

... turning off the television before Helvete even needs to tell him to.

"Astounding," the pale-skinned pyromaniac says, sipping at his finely-prepared drink and looking at the darkened television from across the room: "He knows, Karl. I am not certain how, but he knows."

"So what will you do?" the black-haired clone asks, his face no longer as bandaged -- the burns healing nicely. 

"For the moment, nothing," Helvete decides, putting down his mug and stirring the remnants with a spoon: "He cannot get too far out from under my shoe. I think he knows this, too. I have my hooks in too deep for him to squirm away."

"So it is possible?" Karl asks: "What would he have to do?"

"Stay very very far away from me, and my voice," the pyrokinetic says, smiling through jet-black lips: "And no matter where he goes? My people will find him. And I will speak with him. And there will be no escape."

Karl nods, and then deftly changes the subject: "Speaking of escapes? We had a little trouble with some of the people we brought over to join us. When we told them the plan they... well, they had problems with the concept."

"Were they irreplaceable?" he asks, suddenly quite concerned.

"No sir. No one major. Just one of the groups you wanted to join up. Minor players who did one, major thing."

"Very well," Helvete says: "But keep a better eye on our future recruits? I don't need any more heat, as you Americans say."

Karl nods and smiles, knowing that he could have corrected him -- he's not American, as the resurrected super-nazi should well know -- but decides to let his master melt his spoon instead of another spot on Karl's body.

And be grateful the ghoul doesn't realize what's really going on here...

Saturday: 4/16/16

... in the Oval Office, as the phone that only the President knows about rings and rings, and he does not pick up.

He grits his teeth and sits on his hands. His eyes start from his head and he can feel his heart pounding in his chest.

But he will not answer it. Not today.

Maybe not ever again.

A tattoo on his body burns like the sun. He doesn't like how it itches, but he's glad for its presence, today.

(And he has no idea how he'd forgotten about it, all these months. After all, it worked before...)

And as it burns, and he realizes -- with every passing minute -- that he feels less and less of a need to answer that damned phone, he knows that he can do what has to be done.

He can give the orders that only he, as Commander in Chief, can.

Even if it means his death, he can still do one last good thing...

* * *

... and that's not be found. 

His name was Terry Busey. He was the leader of a weird, religious racist group called the Sons of the Serpent -- blending early Christian doctrine, odd metaphysics, and white power into a heady brew of religious hate. 

He was also supposed to be meeting with members of Odal, a couple days ago. After all, someone in their organization was good enough to get them out of jail, down in Florida, and put them onto a plane for Dusseldorf, there to meet up for a larger, nobler purpose. 

Except that something went seriously wrong, somehow. 

He wasn't met at the airport by the right people, for one. He and his Sons were put into a car with someone who had some rather interesting ideas on what they could do for the group, none of which sat well with them. 

So the car took a couple wrong turns, just after the conversation did, and all the Sons got to meet their serpent -- up close and personal. 

Now he's face down, ass up in a rusted barrel full of quicklime, south of the city. So are his fellows. With any luck no one will ever have any idea they're dead. 

At least until the people who killed them have made their move...

* * *

"... now?" Myron asks, looking at the disheartening news they're getting from Korhogo.

The !@#$ of it was, the day was going to be perfect. Cloudy and humid, full of atmospheric issues to cloud their approach. Maybe some heat lightning, too.

Everyone was ready. Everyone was past ready, in fact. The last few days gave them time to think, to plan further, and be on their best game.

And then, for some reason they hadn't anticipated, the superslam became the star attraction for what had to be a prison guard convention.

UN Transports and VTOLs are landing and taking off every hour. Dozens of guards are exiting and no one is getting back on.

And SPYGOD has the uncomfortable feeling they're unloading more than people...

"Why?" Gosheven asks from his staging point: "How?"

And SPYGOD doesn't say anything to him, but quickly looks to Myron -- the one person here he knows he can trust -- and mouths the word 'mole.'

And what is there to say after that?

Sunday: 4/17/16

"Any second now," Mr. USA says, solemnly.

He and the other members of the Freedom Force are standing at the chokepoint of the major highway going into Miami -- ready for anything, though they think they know what's coming.

No one really can though -- not for something like this. And if Hanami minds the older hero taking point on this one, she doesn't show it.

There's nothing she really could have said, otherwise.

They've been here all this week, helping with the extended evacuation. A half mile in every direction from the previous cordon -- every last person they could find, every pet, every farm animal.

And then, when they were good and sure that they'd found everyone they could, the Army came in with terrible machines. Tankers full of contact poison so awful they had to manipulate the weather patterns to keep the fumes from spreading too far, and defoliant that made Agent Orange look like knock-off weedkiller.

Now that deed is done. There is a horrendous zone, just past them, where nothing living remains. Where nothing green will ever grow again.

And even that is not the worst thing that's going to happen, here, today...

* * *

"Good evening, my fellow Americans.

"I come to you tonight not merely as your President, but as the Commander in Chief of your armed forces.

"I also come to you in humility, and with my hand and my hat held out. I come to ask your forgiveness, both at what I have done, and what I have said, and what I now must do.

"I am certain I do not need to tell you about the dire circumstances surrounding one of our greatest cities. Miami Florida is in ruins, attacked and destroyed by a creature we still know very little about.

"But what we do know is the reason I am here, speaking to you.

"Because right now, I need to tell you some things. They will not be easy things for me to say. They will not be easy things for you to hear.

"And when I have said those things, I will need to ask you your forgiveness...

* * *

"No," the Lamprey says, cackling as he corrects the men doing his bidding on a Naval frigate, hundreds of miles away.

He's standing at his workstation in the Heptagon, watching as the substance he worked on over the last few days is tossed overboard.

Depth charges,  they figured. The best way to get the poison dispersed as quickly as possible.

All good, of course. But some weepy-eyed sailor had to say the words that the Lamprey finds the most foul and horrible in such a situation.

He had to say "God forgive us."

And the Lamprey found that both offensive and incredibly funny, for reasons he doesn't care to share with any of his minders...

* * *

"Forgiveness, because, for the past few weeks, we have not been telling you the entire truth of the situation.

"At first this was done because we didn't have the full accounting of the facts. Hopefully you can understand that.

"But as time went on it became an exercise in censorship, hoping to suppress panic.

"You doubtlessly know about the Martian crisis. You have heard that the people of that planet have come here, to Earth, to escape the horrible fate that has overtaken their planet.

"You have also heard that they are victims, their world destroyed by the remnants of the Decreator we destroyed, near their orbit, more than a year ago.

"Remnants that vast and dangerous creature fell to the surface of Mars, destroying what they touched.

"Corrupting both the soil and the soul of that planet, and turning it into a dark, hungry thing that sought to corrupt all living matter that stood in its path.

"My fellow Americans, it is with a sad heart that I have come to tell you that this world-killing danger is now upon the Earth...

* * *

Hanami hears it first. The whistling noise that heralds a fleet of transport planes, coming in low and fast. 

"Hold your ears," she commands to those who have actual eardrums, and they obey. 

(Especially Red Wrecker -- looking somewhat odd in the new boots that make her seem taller, and more imposing.)

Mr. USA doesn't need to, she thinks. But he does anyway. Maybe he doesn't like to think he's too far above this. 

Too far removed from the fear and horror of being all too normal, or at least vulnerable...

* * *

"The black ball that fell off the coast of Miami is the exact same thing that fell upon the International Space Station. It is also the same sort of thing that has been shot towards our world many, many times over the last few weeks.

"Only the brave actions of the United Nations Space Service have saved us from being all but overrun by creatures like the one that destroyed Miami, which we now realized hatched out of that ball.

"But even in death, the monster continues to attack us. 

"The darkness inside of it is infectious. People who are hit by it swiftly turn into horrible creatures, incapable of human decency and emotions, and wanting only to eat and despoil what they encounter.

"And any plant and animal life meets a similar fate.

"The water the beast strode through, and died in, is now irrevocably tainted by the foul contagion the monster carried with it. This means that a great deal of the Atlantic waters, going up the coast, has been tainted. All the animal life in it is undergoing mutation.

"With the assistance of the US Navy and Coast Guard, we have begun dumping substances that will kill all life into the water. It is highly toxic and will doubtlessly ruin the ecosystem in that area for some time. Perhaps forever.

"But if we do not take those steps, we will have to sit by quietly, on our hands, as the darkness spreads up the Gulf Stream, over to Europe, and beyond..."

* * * 

The Lamprey laughs, so he does not have to cry. 

It is not a comforting sound to those who have to listen. It is black and horrid, like someone being forced to guffaw at a truly offensive joke that just won't stop itself from happening. 

And as he watches his life's work do its thing -- turning the waters of the Ocean a strange, neon pink color as the substance obliterates all sealife it touches -- he imagines just how many things he's killing, right now. 

The fish. The plants. The crustaceans and cephalopods. Every living thing down there, below the black -- very large or incredibly small. 

All dead, or soon to be. All killed by the pink goop he taught them how to make. 

He laughs, imagining his father revenged. Imagining his own broken childhood revenged. Imagining every slight, every dismissal, every backstabbing he ever suffered because he, and he alone, knew the truth about what goes on down there, below the water. 

If he could die right now, fulfilled and happy, he would. 

* * *

 "My fellow Americans, I beseech you to understand. We cannot take the chance of this spreading any further than it already has.

"Sometimes, in medicine, you have to amputate an arm to save a patient. As the Commander in Chief, I have decided to amputate.

"That decision is echoed in my second announcement, this evening.

"I know that, early in this crisis, we spoke of being able to save Miami. I know that we said we could rebuild that proud and beautiful city, and one day return to it.

"I also know that we said we would maintain the cordon, but still provide emergency services for any survivors left remaining inside the city limits.

"Once again, I beg your forgiveness for being less than truthful..."

* * *

The bombs the transports are dropping are very dangerous things.

They're called MOABs: Massive Ordinance Air Blast bombs. They fall out of the back of the transport, activate on the way down, and explode above the ground -- creating a firecloud so massive that it dwarfs all standard ordinance. 

Creating heat and pressure so intense that nothing living can survive.

There are fifty of the planes coming, one after the other. Each one has four of the bombs on board. 

And, one by one, they drop them down onto a predetermined grid pattern within the Miami cordon. 

"The mother of all bombs," Blastman mutters, closing his eyes...

* * *

 "The fact of the matter is that Miami is now unsuitable for human life. It is a suppurating wound on the landscape, filled with creatures that were once human, but have been warped and changed beyond all recognition.

"And this wound is quickly turning into a danger to us all.

"As of this moment, as I speak to you here tonight, a number of advanced weapons are being dropped throughout Miami itself, and Miami beach. Nothing will be alive there by the time I end my speech, tonight.

"And if we've done our jobs correctly, nothing will ever live there again.

"I cannot hope to convey my sadness to you at having to do this. I can only say that I hope you understand why I did not come forward with this information before. And why I am doing so now.

"In the days to come, I will be more forthcoming about this crisis. I will also be announcing the emergency measures we will be taking in order to help those directly affected by this crisis.

"To the brave people of Miami, I say this. You are not alone. Your people, your government, and your President are all standing with you. You will be taken care of. This I swear.

"To all other UN member states, I call upon you to also be more forthcoming to your own citizens about the threat we face. I respectfully ask that the Space Service be ready to continue to defend our world against the danger we're up against.

"And I pray to my God -- a real and loving god, rather than the pretend pantheon we are currently being ignored by -- that these United States shall not be ushered from the Earth by this calamity, but only made stronger, and more indelible.

"I bid you peace and strength, and wish you goodnight."

* * *

And the Freedom Force stands helplessly, in the light of 200 newborn suns, and watches Miami burn.

The towers collapse. The streets go up in flames. The heat melts everything, and the pressure pulverizes what remains.

Those with super-sensitive hearing can almost hear the afflicted beings screaming, over the flames. But it might just be a trick of the noise, too -- the brain filling in details where they don't exist.

"Please tell me this is the last time we do this," American Steel says, looking at Hanami: "Please tell me we can do better than this."

But she has no answer, except to look up at the sky and wonder if that hideous, alien heart succeeded in telling their enemy where to send its next wave. 

And wonder if all this will really be enough to stop the horror she's seen from coming here. 

(SPYGOD is listening to Be Apart (Porches) and having a Final Absolution)

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