Monday, April 25, 2016

Valhallopolis: 4/18/16 - 4/24/16

"Do I Believe in God? / Do I Believe in Me?"

Director Straffer, The Bomb, and all three parts of Mister Freedom

(Art by The Lemonade Project)

* * *
* * *

Monday: 4/18/16

In Godspace, there is nothing but clouds and the mist.

Thoughts and ideas swirl together there, forming whirlpols of concept, eddies of identity. The occasional flash of insight or inspiration gives life to something more. 

From one such flash of light comes three distinct shapes. Not there one second, there the next, they emerge and come forth, or at least forward.   

And they say...
* * *

"... what exactly does this mean?" Gosheven asks -- either too late to be useful or too soon to be appropriate.

Myron holds up his hands and tries to get the metamorph to shut his damn mouth. He looks really ridiculous doing this in a heavily-armored environment suit, but there's no way in hell he was going to come in here wearing nothing but his Underman costume.

And, after what he's just seen, he was clearly right to have made that choice.

Because they're down here in the belly of the beast, as it were -- the main floor of the Korhogo Superslam. Ground zero of the awful hole the UN had been tossing its supervillains down for years, and a center of operations for the horrid new enemy Earth has made.

They should have known better than to just break in here, rescue Director Straffer, and get back out again. They should have known that their foes had one more awful trick up their sleeves.

And no sooner did they get in, and find who'd they been looking for, than the enemy decided to play it -- with a vengeance.

Which is why SPYGOD is standing over Straffer with a smoking gun in his hand.

And eyes full of rage...

* * * a man -- short, dark-haired, and olive-skinned. He walks with a cane, and can't seem to stop smiling. 

"I'm Abdullah Ismail," the man with the cane says: "I am a Muslim. A Frenchman. A Beur to some, just a man to others. I created an organization to work for peace and understanding. And some call me a hero."

BUT THAT IS NOT THE ANSWER, the stone statue says...

* * *

... because the damn raid was going to happen today. There was no getting around it, and no putting it off any further. 

After the fiasco that Saturday turned out to be -- and what happened the next day -- they all realized that if they didn't break into the superslam today, it wasn't going to happen at all. 

The enemy was too well-entrenched, there, now. Too many planes had landed and unloaded. Too many crews had walked off and not gotten back on, again. 

And if they let them build up their forces any further, their chances of success were going to go from "crazy" to "suicidal." 

So they attacked -- right at dawn, so they'd have the rising sun on their side. One moment there was nothing but calm and light. The next, Shining Guardsman and Free Fire were raining missiles down on their air defenses, and Swiftfoot was turning their ground measures into shrapnel and debris. 

Of course, the bastards didn't take that lying down.

They were down for all of ten seconds, and then started showing just how much they'd been modifying the jail in the meantime. Hidden defenses popped up from nowhere. Banks of missiles emptied into the sky and hails of bullets rocketed towards the ground.

And they fired and aimed and shot and thundered and roared, not realizing that the attack was just a distraction.

The real action was going on far below the ground, as Myron's newly-rebuilt drill tank came crashing through the wall. It ate its way through concrete and steel alike, and then pulled a full bootlegger reverse, just so its crew could jump out the back and mow down anyone waiting for them inside.

But there wasn't anyone down there. Just a rigged elevator, a stinking mess that used to be a lot of prisoners, and a black, metal harness that held Director Straffer.

Or what was left of him...

* * *

...a skeleton, wrapped in cracked, white, high-tech armor. He has no face left, but he seems to be frowning.

"My name is Bruno Roquer," the skeleton declares: "Better known as Foudre Blanc. I am also a Frenchman. A true Frenchman, not some immigrant riffraff. I work to keep my country safe from all threats, especially the invasion of foreign filth. And I am
a hero."

BUT THAT IS NOT THE ANSWER, the stone statue says...

* * *

.. that they should have known. Or at least suspected. 

It had been a month. Strafer had been in their hands this entire time. He represented one of the greatest threats to their plans. 

Why would they have kept him alive? Why wouldn't they turn him into one of them?

And if they knew SPYGOD was going to come after him, why wouldn't they leave what remained of him there for them to find, provided they got that far?

And that's exactly what the alien bastards did -- leave the squirming, barely-human remnant of what had once been Director George Straffer standing there in his restraints, leering and drooling at his would-be rescuers. 

SPYGOD was first off the gangplank -- lumbering through the poisoned air in his containment suit - and first to see what they'd turned his lover into. 

The black, burbling parody looked at him through eyes made large and protuberant by unknown anatomies, and stuck something out of its mouth that was much more tentacle than tongue. And it began to tell him that it was too late, and he'd been far too late to save him, and that nothing could save him now...

It probably would have said more, but SPYGOD didn't let it. 

The gun was one of his special models: the sort of hand-cannon that fired bullets the size of pop cans -- guaranteed to shred the muscles and break the bones of any normal person who tried to fire it. 

He put three bullets into the slithering heap of black, suppurating flesh that was once the man he loved. One, two, three -- right to the skull, neck, and chest. 

And then he stood there, reloading the gun with hands that neither shook nor wavered, and waited for it to give him an excuse to shoot it again. 

Any damn excuse at all...

* * * defer to a grey stone statue of a seated, bearded man. It floats so that its crown is a foot above the others' heads.



* * *

"... so what do we do now?" Myron asks, more to himself than anyone else. 

It's been a half an hour. The battle is still raging up top, and judging from what their allies are saying, the heat's not letting up. 

There's nothing down here but dead bodies -- one fresher and less human than the others. No computer systems to hack. No secrets to pilfer. Nothing. 

But yet SPYGOD stands there, over the smoking remnant of the man he used to kiss, hold, and say "I love you" to. 

And no one dares to ask him the same question. At least not just yet...

... until, finally, he turns and looks at the one person down here (other than Gosheven) who isn't wearing a containment suit.

"This is bull!@#$, isn't it?" he asks Mister Freedom, point blank. 

"In a sense, yes," the exiled Olympian says, walking through the dead, stale air of the prison's main floor and looking around: "The substance you describe is useful for making things grow. And that's what they've done, here. Made things grow."

"Like what?" Gosheven gasps, suddenly afraid of what's underfoot. 

"Doubt, primarily," the escape artist chuckles: "Suspicion, also, though that's been growing for some time now."

"Damn straight," Myron says, looking at SPYGOD as he recalls their quiet conversation from the other day. 

"They want us upset and angry," SPYGOD says, looking at the mess he made on the floor: "This isn't even one of them, really. I'd have to !@#$ing fill it with incendiary blasts to get it to lie down and die."

"Wait," Gosheven says, shaking his head: "I'm confused."

"They want that, too," Mister Freedom says, looking around: "Upset, angry, confused. Doubtful, suspicious..."

"And afraid," SPYGOD says, looking around: "On your feet, folks. Look for anything that looks new."

"Other than the bomb on the elevator?" Myron asks, pointing to the large device that's been attached to the doors. If they open, it goes boom, clearly. 

(Hopefully no one comes down)

"Yes," the superspy insists, and no one's reckless enough to challenge him. So they all check the walls, and the floor, and the cells, and supply closets, and anything else in this tall, long underground sepulcher of a prison that might contain something that looks too recent.

It's Gosheven who finds it, in a cell on the third floor. And the moment he sees it he realizes it can't be anything else.

Especially because it starts to attack him...

* * *

"... but are you a hero?" Ismail asks the stone statue: "Or simply playing at one?" 

"I could ask you the same question," the skeleton asks: "Are you a hero, or just exercising control over the world?" 


"But is that the question for the answer we're looking for...?"

* * *

" let me get this straight," Shining Guardsman says, down behind the cover that the heavy fire's forced him to get behind: "You need us to keep making like we're attacking them?"

"That's right," Myron says: "Not at all once, though. Spread your attacks out. See if you can make it seem like there's more than just the three of you, too, if you can."

"Well, I'll be sure to wear a damn disguise," the cyborg grouses.

"Good. We might be a while down here."

"HowLongIsAWhile?" Swiftfoot shouts, clearly speeding along.

"Well, that's hard to say," Gosheven cuts in: "I guess it depends on whether Freedom can actually pull this off or not...."

"And whether it kills him right away," Myron says: "Don't forget that."

"Yeah. And once he's got that out of the way, well..." 

"What exactly are you four going to be up to, down there?" Free Fire asks from wherever he is, right now.

"It's like this, folks," SPYGOD breaks in: "We found Straffer. He's in a !@#$ing bomb. And the bomb's intelligent, angry, and capable of ripping anyone who tries to defuse it to shreds."

"Oh," Shining Guardsman says.

"Yeah," the superspy goes on: "That's one !@#$ing way to put it, son. Now, you know Mister Freedom. He thinks he can !@#$ing defuse it. But it's like all their damn tech. It's as much concept as thing. So he's got to actually !@#$ing talk to it to get it to stand down."

"And who knows how long that's going to take?" Gosheven adds, perhaps unnecessarily: "I mean, I don't speak bomb."

"Well, good thing Freedom does," Free Fire says: "We'll keep them busy up here, then. You free him."

"Thank you," SPYGOD says: "Just a little while longer, folks. And then maybe we can finally !@#$ing go the hell home."

But as he breaks off, and his three attackers have time to consider the situation, they realize it might not go as smoothly as all that...

* * *

"... we are, in here," Abdullah says, both to the others and to himself: "Broken, we have become whole. Apart, we have become one. Limited, we have become limitless."


"Merde," the skeleton sneers, but doesn't sound very convinced of its contrary position.

And with that settled... 

* * *

...down below, in the room the monster-bomb has been installed within, Mister Freedom stands before the writhing, black thing -- as much shining, silvery metal as undulating, breathing black goo, with semi-symmetrical bone spikes along its sides -- and decides it's the most beautifully direct assassin he's ever tried to converse with.

"Hello," he says to it, bowing a little: "My name is Abdullah Ismail, better known as Mister Freedom. I'd like to talk to you about the person you're holding onto, and see if you'll help me take him home."

It doesn't say anything to that. But then, it doesn't send a legion of rasping, black tentacles out to try and shred him to pieces -- like it did to Gosheven -- either. 

Somewhat emboldened by that, Mister Freedom walks towards it, and then sits down less than a foot before it. 

It still doesn't attack him. Good. 

"Before we begin?" he says: "I need proof of good will. Please show me my friend's face. I wish to see that he's alive, and himself."

At first, nothing happens. But then there's a wet, gooey noise, and something pushes itself out of the black mess.

A face. It's Straffer's. He's alive, clearly, but either asleep or unconscious. 

"Thank you," the Olympian says, crossing his legs and putting his hands together: "I appreciate your cooperation. I feel I can trust you now.

"So now... we can talk."

And so they do.

Tuesday: 4/19/16

"Sir!" the Secret Service agent says, snapping to attention as the Interim President suddenly appears before him, just outside the Oval Office doors.

"Good morning," the man says, looking at his would-be guardian: "Sorry that I startled you."

"Yes sir. Sorry sir. No, I mean yes," the agent says, clearly embarrassed: "They, um. Well, they told me you just stayed in the office, these days. And that I shouldn't expect to see you out, or to see anyone come in."

"Well, they were wrong," Dan Quayle says, wondering if he did a bad job of shaving this morning. Or maybe the clothes are a little ripe, again.

It's hard to tell. He's too used to his own smell by now.

"Well, what can I do for you, sir?" the young man says, looking around: "Is your Chief of Staff here? Should I check with her, or...?"

"There's no need for that," the President says, clapping the nervous man on the arm: "And no need to panic, either. I just think I need to get out more."

"Of course, sir," the agent says, nodding: "Would you... well. I can come with you, if you'd like."

"I'd like that. What's your name?"

"Agent Gibbs, sir," smiling a little: "Tyrone."

"Well, Tyrone," Quayle says, leaning in to whisper: "I should tell you, there's a good chance I might be shot, soon. Or maybe blown up."


The Interim President takes a deep breath, shakes his head a little, and decides to just be honest: "I've been under the influence of a really awful person, Tyrone. Someone who can make you do anything he wants you to do just by talking to you, even over the phone.

"And this man, well, he's had me doing nothing when bad things have been happening. He's had me just sit on my hands and let other people make mistakes and stumble around. And it's only now that I've been able to get out from under him."

"Oh," Agent Gibbs says, nodding -- as though this was the sort of thing a President might tell a junior Secret Service Agent every day.

"So now I need to get out of that office and go try and fix things, if I can," Quayle says, putting his hands in his pants pockets: "It might be too late. It might not. I don't know. But I won't know if I just sit there and make calls, and no one picks up. Will it?"

"No sir," the agent agrees: "It won't. And I'll be happy to accompany you, sir."

"Alright then," the Interim President says, nodding down the hallway: "I'll take you up on that. But whatever we do, we do it alone, and we do it quietly."


"Because I don't know who I can trust, anymore," Quayle says: "But I get the sense you're still yourself."

"Well... that's the best complement anyone's ever given me, sir," Gibbs says, taking his radio and turning it off: "Where to first?"

"Get me to the Heptagon," he says: "I really need to talk to the COMPANY. Now..."

 * * *

"... better than to ask if you're serious," Hanami says over the COMPANY Transport's radio -- the signal scrambled so many times it might as well be a plate of eggs.

"I wasn't certain either, at first," Josie confides: "But after talking with him for a while, I'm pretty convinced he's not imagining this. He really did get this Mahdi in his head."

"Well, it certainly explains a few things. How did he get free?"

"That's... well, it's pretty damn strange, and I don't feel like talking about it at all, except face to face."

"Okay," Hanami says: "I agree. How much of the team do you need up there?"

"How are things in Florida?"

"About as well as can be expected," the Japanese android sighs: "The looters are still trying to make it over the cordon. And we've got people trying to get in there and make their own damn independent republic, too. So far we've gotten them all, but sooner or later..."

"Alright, then," Josie says: "You, Dr. Uncertainty, and Red Wrecker. Get your butts up here by tomorrow morning. I'll need you to hear what he has to say and see to his security from here on out."

"You got it," Hanami says: "We'll get on that."

With that, she logs off, and then looks back out at the city the US Armed Forces turned into a smoking crater less than three days ago. 

And she wonders if she should have told Josie what else they've run into, down here...

Wednesday: 4/20/16

"... among the glorious dead," the tall and spooky man says, striding acros the floor of the Beehive as though he were walking through a gooey swamp -- his movements slow and ponderous.

The place is mostly cleaned up, now. All the rubble has been picked up and moved away, the slagged computers and electronic equipment taken out and replaced with newer models.

(And as for the bodies they found when they broke through the ceiling, they're gone as well. Though the sheer number of the corpses -- and what they looked like -- spooked the hell out of the cleanup crew.)

"My boss isn't paying you for poetry, Nekronaut," Karl sighs, doing his best not to walk too far ahead of the fellow -- clearly disgusted by his funereal air and skull-faced makeup: "He needs to be certain you can do what he needs. And there's only ten days remaining."

"Does the Sun need a guarantee to rise and set?" the Dutch spiritualist asks, rattling a handful of human knucklebones in his hand: "Does the moon need a work order to wax and wane? Some things must be coaxed into being. And some things happen because they are meant to."

With that he kneels down, looks up at the ceiling, and then down at the floor. He spits on the handful of bones, shakes them up in his hand, and casts them across the tiles before him.

"I see... success," the Nekronaut says: "But not entirely the results hoped for. He'll have to learn to take the rough with the smooth, your boss. Also to deal with the pleasantly unexpected."

"He's not much for surprises," Karl grumbles: "You'd do well to remember that, unless you want to not have to make yourself up to look like a damn skull."

And the Nekronaut smiles, as though he's party to some small, private joke, and -- with one swift swoop -- collects his bones and stands up again.

"The first thing we learn, upon gaining the Craft, is the knowledge of exactly when, how, and why we die," he says, not bothering to turn around: "So you can threaten me all you like, if it makes you feel better to let your boss' stront run down the hill. Just know it will not make me work any harder that I already would to make this happen.

"Because I very much want for this to happen, Karl. On that you can depend, and believe." 

And with that, the Nekronaut walks away...

* * *

"... good of you to come," the Interim President says, shaking Hanami's hand. 

"Of course, Mr. President," she says, taking his hand and head-bowing a bit: "You've met Red Wrecker before, I'm sure. And this is Dr. Uncertainty. He's new."

"Sir," the President says, shaking his hand: "And Florence, isn't it?"

"Yes, sir," she says, trying to hide her distaste for the man behind a neutral expression. 

They're all gathered in one of the secure wings of the Heptagon. It's just them, Josie, Katie, and a few AGENTS who have special responsibilities in regards to the Mahdi situation. 

"So," the man says, gesturing to them to be seated: "I've managed to throw his power off of me, at least for now. But I need to stay under the radar until we get this taken care of. And right now's not a good time for me to just disappear, as I'm sure you know."

"That's true," Dr. Uncertainty says, nodding and adjusting his sunglasses: "Not with what we've had to do to Miami, and the Atlantic Seaboard. Not to mention the fact that more might be on its way."

"So the sooner we deal with this bastard, the better," Red Wrecker says, not caring about her mouth right now: "Where's SPYGOD, anyway? Isn't he dealing with this guy, right now?"

"He's on special maneuvers," Josie sighs: "Code black radio silence. The whole bit."

"Well, maybe we'd better get him back online," the President says, giving her the look that says this is not negotiable. 

And she nods, calls over an AGENT, and sees about making that happen...

Thursday: 4/21/16

"... are you !@#$ing serious?" Shining Guardsman asks -- clearly winded from the latest attack he's performed on the Korhogo Superslam.

"Yes indeed," Myron says: "We need to wrap this party up, somehow."

"Well, we have it covered from up here," Free Fire says: "But I understand the real issue is what's going on in your area."

"Right," Myron says, looking down the hallway and up at the area where the cell is.

(They don't dare go down the way to look. The thing might attack. Or it might ruin the whole thing if they do.)

"So how does that get hurried up?" Shining Guardsman asks.

"It doesn't," SPYGOD barks, jumping on the line: "But if we need to break up the party to keep up !@#$ing appearances, we're going to do it. Aren't we?"

"Yes, sir," Shining Guardsman says: "What do you need us to do?"

SPYGOD looks down at Myron, sitting on the gangplank of the drill tank. They're nearly out of water and food, and the atmosphere suits are running out of oxygen tanks.

"Opera Protocol," he says: "You all know what that means."

"Okay," Gosheven nods, getting up: "How many?"

"Depends. Does anyone have eyes on Swiftfoot?"

"Well, funny you should ask," Shining Guardsman replies: "I've been trying to get hold of him for the last couple hours, and, well... he's not answering."

"Okay," SPYGOD says, raising an eyebrow at Myron: "Free Fire, come down and resupply us. Can you do that?"

"I can, yes," the armored android says: "What else?"

"I think that'll do it," the superspy says, and breaks contact.

"I don't like this," Gosheven says, looking back up the tunnel: "That freaky old !@#$ used me like a damn pinata the last time I ran into him. If he's gone off the reservation-"

"Point the first, you have no !@#$ing idea how long I've been waiting for you, of all people, to use that term," SPYGOD chuckles.

"Ha ha ha," the Native American metamorph says, rolling his eyes: "Seriously, though. He's bad news."

"Point the second," SPYGOD says, pulling out something he's had waiting for quite some time -- something that looks a lot like a remote detonator: "He should have known better than to try to spy on someone who used to get other people to spy for him."

And then he presses the button. The light goes from green to red, and there's a loud BEEP. 

Then he drops it to the ground, shakes his head -- as if dispelling a bad dream -- and looks at the metamorph: "Ready to go earn your Oscar, Ms. Streep?"

"Ten times over," Gosheven says, wondering if he's been wired to pop, too...

* * *

... in Abdijan, on the Coast of Cote d'Ivorie, there's a small, metal building that has just turned into smoking, white powder. 

It wasn't always like that, of course. Once it was a shed that was surrounded by barbed wire, electric fences and a few guards. There were also signs saying it was part of some international security agency -- the same one that ran the Korhogo Superslam -- but no one was sure if that was legit or not. 

They just knew to stay well away from the guards and their guns, because they'd shoot on sight, and not be punished for it. 

After the superslam was decommissioned, quite some time ago, the building was abandoned for a time. Then a new company moved in, with the same sort of armed guards, and same tendency to shoot and not be punished. 

Just a different look in their eyes, was all. Almost unfeeling. 

Alien, even. 

Over the last few days, there had been a lot of activity in the building. Jeeps and covered trucks had come to and fro, quite a bit. There were troop movements, equipment transfers. 

And a sense that, every so often, something to fast to be seen somehow ran into and out of the compound. Though that had to be crazy, surely. 

That all came to a stop an hour ago, when the building suddenly exploded. It burned so brightly, and for so long, that the ashes were pulverized into powder. And nothing remained except for that dust.

Nothing should have, anyway. 

But as the curious come to gawk, now that they don't fear being shot, anymore, there's a sense that something is moving in the pale and smoldering dust. 

Something that has somehow escaped the heat and the blast. 

Something that, even now, slinks through the dust like a small, unseen snake, and slithers out into a waiting hole nearby...

Friday: 4/22/16

"Good of you to join us, then," Josie says as SPYGOD enters the room, along with Gosheven and Myron.

"Sorry it took me so !@#$ing long," the superspy snorts, ruffling his coat and heading for the chair around the big table: "Kind of out doing our damn jobs, you know?"

"Yes," Katy says, raising a green eyebrow and looking at her pink-haired sister, as if to say you're going to let him talk to you like that? 

"So, right to it," Josie says, sitting down and gesturing to a screen in the wall: "That's the Interim President, gentlemen. You may well wonder why he's sitting in one of our quarantine wards, incommunicado. The answer-"

"Oh !@#$," SPYGOD says, raising out of his seat.

"Well, I guess you guessed, then," Dr. Uncertainty says.

"The Interim President of the United States of America was under the control of the Mahdi," SPYGOD says, looking at Josie: "For how !@#$ing long?"

"Long enough," Josie says.

"Well, that totally explains a few things," Myron says, looking around the table.

"That's pretty much what we said, oddly enough," Josie agrees. 

"Well, you want to tell me how the !@#$ing !@#$ this happened on your damn watch?" SPYGOD bellows, looking down at the current Director of the COMPANY.

"You want to tone that down a little, AGENT?" Katy snaps.

"Katy," Josie holds up a hand, and then looks at the superpy: "Better question, how did it happen while the former Director of this organization, along with a hand-picked team, was going after that threat? You'd think you'd have found out about this by now."

The superspy looks at her, nods, and then sits down: "Fair point. I'm !@#$ing shocked. And not happy.  At all."

"So what do we do about it?" Josie asks, looking at the six supers, from two different teams, sitting at the table together: "He can't be President in a cell at the Heptagon, folks. We need to get him back to work."

"How did the mother!@#$er get to him?" Red Wrecker asks: "I hear he does this through voice contact."

"He's been communicating through a phone," Josie says, a little confused to hear her using that kind of language: "It's a satellite phone, shielded and separate from the White House communications array."

"Did the Mahdi give him this phone?" Myron asks.

"More likely he was contacted remotely," Dr. Uncertainty says, looking at SPYGOD for confirmation: "This person has that power. He uses it like a scalpel. Being seen in person would be the last resort."

SPYGOD holds up a hand a second later, and then looks around to... Josie: "Please tell me we have that !@#$ing phone, still."

"It's back at the White House, I think-"

"!@#$ing get it," he all but shouts: "Now."

"Why?" Gosheven asks, seeming a bit concerned at the dire look Josie just gave him for talking to her like that. 

"Because it might lead us right to the Mahdi," Dr. Uncertainty realizes, almost rising from his chair: "If he doesn't know the President's left his employ, that is?"

"Leave that to me," SPYGOD insists, sitting down: "In fact, leave !@#$ing everything to me. Because while you people have been !@#$ing snoozing on the damn job? We've been out there, in the trenches, chasing this bastard. We've done things you wouldn't believe, and seen things that would make you !@#$ your pants.

"We got this, folks," he says, leaning forward and looking around the table: "The President's good as gravy, now. You just watch..."

* * *

The first person to notice a Pre-Death -- officially, at any rate -- was Specialist Powell J. Hunt, stationed at (CLASSIFIED) as an "enhanced interrogation technician." Which is a fancy euphemism for "torturer" that fooled no one, at least inside the compound.

It was 0300 on Wednesday morning when he had two privates roust one Boutrous Khalil Muhammad al-Gheb from his cell. They pulled him up from the pool of his own filth he'd been laying in all night, and dragged him to the small, cold, concrete cell Specialist Hunt worked out of.

The plan was to spend a few hours "discussing" what Al-Gheb had been doing around Aleppo when coalition forces had picked him up, a few months ago. However, Hunt had long since given up any hope of getting anything worthwhile out of this detainee. And, in the time-honored tradition of all "technicians" everywhere, had decided today was going to be the day he indulged in the ultimate luxury his job afforded him.

Namely, allowing the "expiration" of his subject.

Unbeknownst to Specialist Hunt, he'd luxuriated in that ability one time too many for the Pentagon to be fully comfortable with his work record. So, the day before, someone he didn't know anything about arranged to have a hidden camera installed at his "work station," hoping to catch him in the act.

So what happened is a matter of record, and would be viewed and puzzled over several times over the next few weeks. It would also lead to the eventual charging and arrest of Specialist Hunt, though that turned out to not matter all that much.

Because as soon as Al-Gheb was strapped to the chair, and the privates left the room, he all but exploded in a welter of blood, bruises, and broken limbs -- dying from massive system shock caused by stress, topped off with a burst organ or two.

Specialist Hunt hadn't even touched him.

So far as anyone could tell, that was the first verifiable case of what would come to be known as Pre-Death. There would soon be many others.

Far, far too many to ignore.

People would get into cars, turn the ignition, and then die horribly of massive injuries that would have been caused by a fatal accident. Home handymen lost limbs before they even touched their chainsaws or high-powered weed whackers. A glazier was split in half by an as-yet seen sheet of plate glass on his way into work.

The suicides were the worst, because they died just about anywhere. People suddenly became waterlogged and exsanguinated at their desks. Gunshot wounds to the head appeared just before they got online to vaguebook their sadness. Aspirin overdoses in contentious meetings, broken necks and strangulation at single bars.

(Drug overdoses were also somewhat confusing, as the tragic demise of a true American musical genius soon proved.)

Heart Attacks, strokes, and other such fatal maladies occurred as normal. On the other hand, entire cancer wards emptied out overnight. A whole Death Row in Texarkana was electrocuted one fine afternoon.

In a more spectacular case, a Delta 333 sat at the gate, deserted, for hours before anyone verified that its 300 or so crew and passengers were all dead. They were found in their homes and hotel rooms, pulverized and burned. FAA investigators would soon determine a serious fault would have developed with the airbus in flight, doubtlessly damning everyone on board to an fiery crash that none could have possibly survived.

No one could really give a cogent, rational explanation. How could they? There was none. It didn't happen to everyone, or at any given time, or to any kind of person. It was hopelessly random, and terribly unsettling.

And all the magical talents the COMPANY could call up would simply say the same thing: somehow, for some reason, Death was becoming insatiably greedy.

And it wanted its due, now. 

Saturday: 4/23/16

"... here in Orlando, this is WESH news at 10. I'm Shelly Roper..."

"... and I'm Clyde Smiley. Our top news at this hour, a stunning nighttime resignation by Governor Rick Scott, following this morning's equally-stunning info dump of extremely damning evidence regarding the Governor's exact role in the Columbia/HCA Medicare Fraud case."

"That's right, Clyde. Viewer may remember that, when the Governor was CEO of that company, back in the 90's, he resigned just ahead of a very embarrassing investigation that revealed the company was bilking Medicare to the tune of millions of dollars. While Governor Scott was never found guilty of any wrongdoing in that scandal, there was a great deal of suspicion that he was at least partially aware of what was going on."

"Well, as of tonight, he's still not admitting guilt, Shelly. But the trail of emails, hitherto-unseen internal documents, and tape transcripts that was released today, on the Governor's own web page of all places, makes it clear that he not only knew what was going on, but was in full command of it. They also show that, towards the end, he was making moves to jump ship ahead of a looming audit -- one that led to what was the largest government fraud settlement in US History, a 1.7 billion dollar fine."

"The Governor, excuse me, former Governor gave a short, last minute statement to a few members of the press at 8:59 PM, tonight. We have some near-exclusive excerpts, but will caution our audience that, as a large group of protesters had gathered by that time, some raw language can be heard in the background. We cleaned it up as best as we could, but some parental discretion is advised..."

* * *

"... no, really," American Steel says, holding her palms up to the large group of would-be infiltrators she and Blastman just caught trying to sneak across the cordon: "You do not want to go in there. It's bad for you."

"And that's not just because she'll zap you clear down to your bones, folks," the middle-aged man with the pyramid on his head says: "It's just not safe."

"So we've heard," the man who seems to be in charge of the group says, not acting as though he's ready to surrender -- or even afraid of having been caught: "We'll make that decision for ourselves, we think?

Blastman rolls his eyes, not bothering to hide his disdain for these people. Especially this group -- all dressed up in their Sunday best to tread into a No Man's Land, just ahead of a city they burned down to powder less than a week ago. 

"Okay, let's try this again," American Steel sighs: "You're all wearing dress clothes and penny loafters. We dumped enough defoliant in there to burn the rubber off of combat boots. Your feet won't survive the trip, and your hands and knees won't do too well, either-"

"You think we aren't prepared to suffer?" the man asks: "We'd crawl on our hands and knees through the burning dirt to get in there, sir. Of that have no doubt."

"Why?" American Steel asks, putting her hands down and sinking down a few inches, closer to the ground: "What could you possibly want to do in there?"

"The only thing we can do, madam," the man goes on: "Surrender to our new masters. Seek refuge in their mercy. Beg for a place in the new world to come."

"oooooo-KAY," Blastman says, not a beat later, and looks at American Steel -- the look that says the less they actually talk to these people, the better. 

"Why do you think they'd listen?" the woman in the large exo-suit asks, taking a step forward: "They sent a massive monster to eat the city, sir. There were dozens more of them on the way to hit other places. And they did this with no preamble, and no communication. If they're willing to accept a surrender they aren't going out of their way to let us know about it."

"You don't know that!" the man shouts, clearly not used to having his faith questioned: "They're intelligent beings! They have to listen to reason! They have to!"

"Alright," American Steel says, and, nodding to Blastman, activates the hypno-lights in the front of her chest unit. The pulsing glow quickly lulls the group into a state of waking dream -- the easier to corral them, and carry them away to join the others like them. 

"Why the hell didn't you just zap them when I told you to?" Blastman asks on the way back.

"I wanted to know why a bunch of intelligent-looking, well-dressed yuppies would risk their lives to enter that kind of area," she explains: "I wondered if maybe someone was goading them on."

"Who the hell would do that?"

"Best case scenario? Some crazy fool on the internet."

"Worst case?" the middle-aged hero asks, seeing where his new teammate is going with this.  

"Infiltration agents," American Steel says: "We know these things can take people over and change shape. There might be someone out there who's trying to get more people to go in so they can be taken over. And that would be a !@#$ing nightmare."

"Well," Blastman says, nodding: "That's... pretty good thinking, kid."

"And you just wanted me to zap them," she grins.

"Yeah, well..." he says, but decides not to say anything more than that.  

"I'll feel a lot better about this once we got the wall up," American Steel goes on, a minute or so later: "There's something about all this that has me seriously spooked."

"You think so?" Blastman says, somewhat incredulously: "You don't mind my saying so, kid, that's probably the damn understatement of the month, right there."

"Just the month?"

"It's going to be a bad year," he says, waving at a jeep full of Army guards as they come out to rendezvous with them. But he doesn't care to elaborate.

And by the time the Army can take custody of their prisoners, and they both fly off to continue their patrol, American Steel doesn't remember to ask him to.

Sunday: 4/24/16

"So did you get the damn phone?" SPYGOD says to himself, over the communicator in the Drill Tank.

"You bet our fine gay ass I did," his doppleganger says: "The tech boys are quietly taking it apart as we speak. It rings once every six hours, on the nose, so we think he's still trying to contact the President."

"And still has no idea how he !@#$ing broke loose," the superspy says, nodding: "That's good news. We got an ace in the hole. Let's !@#$ing use it."

"How thick you want me to lay it on?" the faux-SPYGOD asks: "I'm already dancing on the valentine, here. Josie doesn't know whether give me a medal or shoot me. And that Katy !@#$, jesus, she needs to change her tampon or something-"

"If you dial it back they'll get !@#$ing suspicious," the real deal interrupts, not really wanting to think about clone reproductive cycles: "Just don't make them have to knock you the !@#$ out or it's game !@#$ing over. Okay?"

"Alright," Gosheven says: "Out."

"Damn right," SPYGOD says, putting his suit helmet back on so he can go outside the tank.

It's been a long drag down here, with just him and Myron for company. Every so often Free Fire makes it down the tunnel to deliver supplies -- mostly food, water, and oxygen tanks --  but that's all the company they can get.

And they don't dare go around the corner and up the stairs to see how Mr. Freedom is doing...

"What's the news?" Myron asks, rounding the corner with a ratchet in his hand. He'd decided to take the time to work on the tank a little, not liking how it had taken the bootlegger when they broke in down here.

"Progress at last," SPYGOD says, grinning like a mother!@#$er: "Now as long as our Olympian friend gets my man back, I'll call this a !@#$ing success and a half."

"A bit costly, though," Myron says, looking askance.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean... well, Swiftfoot," he says, instantly regretting having uttered the name, and then deciding to push forward: "I mean, okay, he was dirty, but-"

"But nothing," SPYGOD says, shaking his head: "Maybe all those times he was running away he was reporting right to these !@#$ing black jello monsters. Maybe he was reporting in on us. Maybe he was in league with those !@#$ers the whole time, getting us ready for all this invasion bull!@#$ we're having to deal with now."

"Maybe," Myron says, looking his team leader in the eyes (or glasses, as the case might be): "Maybe we could have found out more if we'd confronted him. Maybe we could have used him against them. And maybe... well.."

"And maybe we could have redeemed him, somehow," the superspy says, nodding, and putting a hand on Myron's shoulder: "I considered all that, Myron. Believe me, I did. Given our history, and all that's gone before between us, I considered all that.

"And then I considered that, for all we !@#$ing know, they might have had a hold over him. He might have been reporting back all we said without even knowing it. And they might have had a bomb on him, too."

Myron shudders at that thought, and SPYGOD nods, taking the hand away: "I didn't want this to end with his death, Myron. But better him than us. And better us than the whole !@#$ing world.

"Try to remember that, eh?"

And he walks away, all clever, not realizing how ridiculous he sounds -- even if he is 100% right...

* * *

"... now, we have to decide what we are going to tell them,"  Abdullah says, looking at his other two selves, here in Godspace.

"Why not the truth," Foudre Blanc sneers from where he sits, some distance away: "It's what you white knights are always saying is the best policy, after all?"

"Perhaps not in this case," Abdullah says, looking at the black thing they've been conversing with for all this time. 

(Days? Weeks? Years? Aeons? Time moves strangely, here...)


"Which is just a pretty way of saying 'let's lie to our friends about what's really happened, here'" the skeleton of Bruno Roquer accuses, getting to his feet and stomping over to where the other two portions of Mr. Freedom are.

"They're your friends, now?" Abdullah asks, raising an eyebrow. 

"You know what I mean!" the dead French super-racist shouts: "How are you going to explain how you could tell it what to do? How are you going to explain how you know what it's going to do next? How do you explain any of this?"

"I don't know that I can," Abdullah admits, looking between the statue and his worst enemy: "So I suppose we will have to be careful in what we say, for now. And err on the side of positive action, as opposed to inaction."

He directs this last bit at the statue, who he can tell is troubled by the concept, but also in agreement -- for now. 

"Your hypocrisy sickens me," Foudre Blanc snorts, turning away: "But fine. I agree. If only because I don't feel like dying all over again when they find out what our stone supervisor's done."

THEN WE ARE AS ONE, THOUGH MANY, the statue in question says...

* * *

... and then -- with a wet, sucking noise, off in the distance -- Myron and SPYGOD somehow just know that it's over.

"Oh my !@#$ing God," the superspy says, getting to his feet. He puts a hand on his gun and another on his heart, hoping he won't have to use the former on what he sees next.

Mr. Freedom walks along the upper tiers of the prison without a care in the world, or so it seems. He cradles the body of George Straffer in his arms -- his butt seated on the weird manacle he always wears -- as if the man weighed next to nothing. 

And as he comes down the stairs, one careful step at a time, it's all SPYGOD can do to not rush up to greet him. Each motion is a special torture for him, with his heart beating out of his chest, his mouth dry as the desert, his mind racing through a million terrible outcomes. 

But then, at least, the Olympian is on the ground floor, and SPYGOD can see that the man he carries is alive, and just now coming around. 

"Straffer?" SPYGOD asks, walking closer -- arms out to take him -- "Is that you? Are you...?"

The man just smiles. He looks horrible -- pale and drawn, as though he'd been crawling through a mine for a couple weeks. 

"Metabolic shutdown," Mr. Freedom explains: "His body was eating everything it could to preserve his brain, and keeping him asleep. I think he can recover, given time and care. But try to avoid taxing him-"

SPYGOD heard as much as "time and care" before rushing forward, all but yanking Straffer's body out of Freedom's arms, and taking him into his own. He's too light, too pale. 

"I love you," he says, kissing him: "I'm sorry. I love you and I'm !@#$ing sorry. Please forgive me for not coming sooner. Please forgive me for being !@#$ing stupid. I'm sorry. So damn sorry..."

Is he crying? Yes, he is. He very much is. 

And Straffer just closes his eyes and smiles, too weak to take him in his arms in return. 

"Well, that was one hell of a defusing," Myron says to Mr. Freedom, who walks away to let the reunited lovers have some space.

"What do you mean?" the Olympian says. 

"The bomb?" Myron asks: "You defused it to get him out?"

"Ah, no," Mr. Freedom says, smiling: "I did not defuse it, not as such. I have not defeated it. We simply have an understanding."

"Then... what's to stop it from exploding?"

"For now? My presence here," he replies, walking up the gangplank of the drill tank: "But even that can change. I suggest we leave as quickly as possible before it changes its mind."

They don't have to persuade SPYGOD -- he's already on his way up the plank and into the tank, hoping his time in the belly of that beast has made his still-human parts less susceptible to the poison in the air. 

As soon as he's up, the other two join him -- both eager to be gone from this place.

And then...

... as Free Fire gets the message they're bugging out, he activates an inbuilt, triple-encoded communications channel to tell Josie that -- several days and one dead hero later - they've succeeded in getting Straffer...

... and Josie takes the news from her mole with a wide, big smile she hopes no one notices, and wonders what she's going to do with her wayward, traitorous former Director when he gets back...

... and Dragonfly sits lotus-style on her trailer, overlooking the rapidly-assembling wall around Miami, listens to the Purple Rain soundtrack one more time, and wonders how long she can keep this deal...

... and Tombo abruptly leaves the All Dead Rock Band -- suddenly very interesting, given its newest member -- and turns to look down at Moscow, wondering what the hell she just felt happen down there...

... and the Interim President reads one of the books these COMPANY people thoughtfully provided for him as he sits in his quarantine cell, trying to to think of the burning tattoo on his arm, and what it's protecting him from...

... and Secret Service Agent Tyrone Gibbs weeps as he makes the device the man on the phone told him to, knowing he'll be using it to kill both a good man and himself, but unable to stop his hands from doing it...

... and the black, roiling surface of Mars shakes as its equatorial tides slide into motion, preparing to whip themselves around so quickly that they can hurl more pieces of itself at the small, green and blue planet it cannot help but kill...

... the drill tank powers up, surges into motion, and leaves the Korhogo Superslam the way it came in -- leaving only ruins, death, and a very confused conceptual weapon in its wake.

And silence, cold and supreme. 

(SPYGOD is listening to Prince (Controversy Mutiny) and having a Prince

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