Monday, August 29, 2016

Apotheoclypse Now: 8/22/16 - 8/28/16

"Sit back and relax / How can I when I'm Going Down in Flames?"

(Art by the Lemonade Project)

* * *
* * *

Ishida Hiroshi didn't start out his day intending to become a god, really. He just hoped to get to high school on time.

He missed the alarm. Then he missed the bus. And every taxi he tried to flag down was either busy, going the wrong way, or wanting to ignore him.

Tired, hot, and sweaty, he cursed fate. Today of all days! There was a major test in Chemistry, this morning. And if he wasn't there for all of it, he was in trouble.

He thought of running home, but his father was already at work, and his mother could do nothing but berate him once more for being asleep too long. 

So he walked. And as he walked he dreamed of being able to fly. Wouldn't it be nice to just spread his wings and be at school in moments?

Of course, that was foolishness. Just things from the Anime his younger brother watched. The same things he watched when he was that age.


He felt the bright light upon him before he saw it. He thought he was about to be hit by a car, or something, from the onrushing of the heat and the pressure. 

But then he was floating, far above the Earth, and a man made of red and grey metal was telling him that everything he'd ever hoped for was true. That he could fly, and do so much more.

All these things would be his, if only he would agree to let the Revolutionary Men join his soul within his body...

Ishida Hiroshi hadn't intended to become a god, that day. But when the school bus that left him in the dust arrived at school to find him standing there, waiting for it, he couldn't help but smile at the mere mortals inside it -- puzzled at how he got there ahead of them.

And he wondered what else might be possible, now that he was no longer entirely himself... 

Monday: 8/22/16

I !@#$ing hate Rio, son. Always have. 

(deep drag on a cigarette. slow exhale)

Why? Well, there's lots of !@#$ing reasons. Crime and exploitation. Brutality and squalor. Millions of !@#$ing people crammed into a city that should have given up while it was way ahead of the population curve, even for mega-Catholic South America. 

And that's all !@#$ing topped off by a police force that alternates between not giving a !@#$ about the fact that you lost your wallet, but is all too damn happy to deliver a beatdown to some poor !@#$er who didn't pay their protection money this week. Either that or organizing after-hours hunts for street kids, where the winner's the one who brings the most pairs of blood-spattered shoes back to the !@#$ing precinct. 

And yeah, maybe half the !@#$ing third world hellholes I crawl through while doing this job have the same damn problems. But for !@#$s sake, son, at least they're !@#$ing honest about it. At least they're willing to admit they got all this !@#$ going on, and try to apologize for it. 

(inhale. exhale. uses cigarette as a pointer)

I mean, !@#$ -- Bangkok? Cape Town? Kabul? Mexico City? Jesus, son, you start !@#$ing pointing out the flaws and your average tourist flack will say 'oh yeah, not so good over there. We need some foreign aid. But let me take you someplace nicer..."

But Rio? Oh no. It's all big diamond smiles in the Marvelous City. Bronze buns on the !@#$ing beach and carnivale in the streets, while people get their damn heads splattered on the !@#$ing curbs less than ten feet from the sand because they looked at someone funny, and the cops just laugh and drink their caipirinha on duty.

So when I heard they were getting the Olympics, this year? I about !@#$ myself. 

Were they !@#$ing serious? Rio? Really? Wasn't that like having Iran on the !@#$ing United Nations anti-terrorism council? Saudi Arabia on the committee to improve goddamn gender equality? 

Soviet Russia talking about economic freedom,for Christ's sake? 

(And yes, son, they did host the Olympics, once, in Moscow. Let's not even !@#$ing get into that. We'll be here all damn day.)

(inhale. exhale. repeat.)

So yeah, I wasn't exactly !@#$ing thrilled this year. Not that I really give a good goddamn about the games since the Soviet Union collapsed, and I didn't have to worry about steroid junkies, chemically-altered he-women, and !@#$ing replicants trying to steal hard-earned gold medals from our brave boys and girls. These days I just pay attention to the shooting events, fencing, and men's wrestling... for obvious !@#$ing reasons. 

That and I usually catch the closing ceremonies, because they tend to be so !@#$ing over the top that they remind me of the early 80's. I often wonder how many MTV video directors, europop costume designers, and new wave artists quietly retired to go organize these !@#$ing things, and what kind of illicit prizes they offer each other to one-up the previous Olympiad. 

This time, I wasn't !@#$ing watching. I was dealing with an in-house situation with one of my heroes, and the new weird-ass friends she's made since she quit being a !@#$ing Wendigo. 

(Or, more correctly, got that Wendigo !@#$ under control. I have to admit I was !@#$ing worried for a while. Not any more.)

So I was nowhere near the scene of the crime when the damn Prime Minister of Japan, who's hosting in 2020, got his stupid ass shot on live TV -- dead bang right in the center of the show. 

(one last drag. stubs it out. lights another.)

The facts, for anyone who gives a flying !@#$, are these:

The man made a damn surprise visit. No one knew he was coming, outside of his inner retinue and one or two people who were involved in the show, itself. They're !@#$ing swearing up and down they kept it quiet as hell. So far as anyone knew, it was supposed to be someone else coming out onto the stage, then.

The Prime Minister was wheeled onto the floor in a big green plastic pipe made to look like something from that Super Mario Brothers game an entire !@#$ing generation of college kids spent their best years getting !@#$ing stoned as hell and playing. He was supposed to rise up to the top as soon as a video animation sequence, showing one of the damn brothers in question falling through the Earth from Tokyo to Rio, ended. 

And he did, too. He just wasn't supposed to get his head turned into a target the moment he raised the red ball and smiled at the !@#$ing camera. 

(inhale. slowwwwwww exhale.)

The shots in question was fired from high up in the stadium. Up on the level where all the !@#$ing fireworks were shot from. A nice perch for a sniper, provided you were !@#$ing invisible and had something that could help you really see the ground floor to evaluate and shoot the mother of all targets of !@#$ing opportunity. 

As for the bullets? They're damn special things, son. The kind that !@#$ing disintegrate the flesh they go through, rather than causing the sort of hydrostatic shock damage that bullets normally create. The kind that tunnel from one goddamn side of the body to the other, leaving a bright red hole you could drop a !@#$ing quarter down.

 The kind that can only be fired from one kind of gun. 

The same gun last seen in the !@#$ing hands of the man I fear more than anyone else in this whole damn world. The one person who's outwitted me at every !@#$ing turn, hurt me in ways that can't be measured, and come close to !@#$ing destroying me on more than one occasion. 

That would be my Alter Earth duplicate, son. My evil goddamn twin. 

The same one who pretended to me, pretended to shoot our last actual President on !@#$ing TV, and then !@#$ing pretended to be the former First Lady, kidnapped and corrupted their last living daughter, ran a damn super organ ring, filleted poor Disparaitre, stood by while his !@#$ing apprentice used Red Queen as a damn science project, terminally !@#$ed over poor Jess Friend...

And then, after giving us one hell of a !@#$ing proof of concept demonstration? Showed us all his !@#$ing cards and told us to stay the hell away from his damn side of the casino? 

He just vanished. POOF. Not a word in months. Had no !@#$ing idea what he was doing, where he was, any of that !@#$. 

And I did look, son. I did. I was busy as !@#$, as you well know, but I did try to keep an eye out for that son of a !@#$ing !@#$.

Well, son, it looks like he's !@#$ing back, now. And he just left five holes in the forehead of the Japanese Prime Minister -- arranged in the pattern of the Olympic rings, minus the !@#$ing overlap. 

(pauses. inhales. holds. when he speaks next, it's with smoke)

So here I am, in !@#$ing Rio De Janeiro, dealing with their !@#$ing incompetent police and kleptocratic government officials, trying to get a word in with the Japanese investigators, who of course are still !@#$ed off at me over how things went down with Organization Ten just before we tangled with the damn Decreator, and deciding this really isn't my monkey, my zoo, or my damn bananas. 

The Japanese are trying to take over the !@#$ing investigation. I got Hanami in there, trying to !@#$ing talk sense into them, but they don't want to !@#$ing listen to her. I guess she's not Japanese enough for them, anymore, whatever the !@#$ that means. 

Meanwhile? The Brazilians want the Japanese to step the !@#$ back, and then off. And the Olympic people are standing around not knowing what to !@#$ing do. And every time I try to tell them what's probably happened, I get !@#$ing shot down like a clay pigeon in front of a !@#$ing gatling gun. 

But then... 

(inhales. exhales) 

But then, to be totally !@#$ing honest? I'm not even sure this is him, somehow, son. This doesn't seem his !@#$ing style.

I mean,  I could see him not !@#$ing taking credit for this. I could see him just doing it and leaving us to twist in the damn wind.

I could even see him somehow !@#$ing knowing this guy was going to poke his damn head up out of that green, plastic tube, all the better to get shot. 

But this doesn't seem to have his poetry to it, somehow. There's not enough damn bodies. Not enough blood. 

Not enough broken people left on the damn floor, trying to !@#$ each other to death with knives.

I don't know, son. Maybe he's changed his damn style. Maybe this is something !@#$ing surgical. An overture of sorts.

But I gotta know, son. I have to !@#$ing know if this is him, again. 

Because if it is, then that parallel Earth son of a !@#$ picked the worst possible time to come back and try to !@#$ with me. He just doesn't know it yet.

But I will show him. Yes I !@#$ing will.

(inhale. exhale. flings it.)

(watches it smolder on the wet pavement, in front of a video billboard telling people how great it is that the Olympics are in town.)

(shoots the !@#$ing billboard. watches as pieces of glass fall down to the street.)

(lights up again...)

Tuesday: 8/23/16

... only to put it out as soon as two visitors enter the stark, white observation room, not wanting to look at all unprofessional in front of both her boss and her number one client. 

"Thomas?" the matronly woman asks the young man sitting in front of her: "Can you understand what I'm saying?"

"Please tell me you were not smoking in front of my son," Martha Clutch -- aka The Owl -- says to her, glaring hard enough to break steel.

"Ma'am, I know how this looks, but-"

"You may leave, Cecilia," Syphon says, smiling at her underling with something that might be mercy, or menace. Either way the woman's out of the room very quickly, leaving only the smell of her perfume and the wispy traces of a Parliament.

"You'll have to pardon her," the Olympian says, patting her large hands together: "Part of her philosophy is that her patients awaken faster if she's completely at ease when she talks to them. Sometimes it's cigarettes, sometimes it's a drink."

"Is it ever both?" the Owl says, looking at the cold, staring shape that is supposed to be her son -- sitting in a fuzzy, white bathrobe in a plastic, form-fitting chair, and completely dead to the world.

"At times," Syphon says, going around Thomas' back and looking down as his skull: "I think if we'd left things to her, we might have gotten better results."

"He's not responding," she says, holding a hand over her mouth to keep from sobbing: "He's not... I don't see the light in his eyes..."

"He's there," the large Olympian says, putting her hands on his shoulders and giving them a quick pat: "The last time, when we created him? We brought his mind around at the same time as his body, and the two didn't play together very well."

"I remember," the heroine scowls: "And I also remember you telling me to be patient and be grateful."

"Well, you should have been," Syhphon says, shaking her head but still smiling: "But let's move past all that, shall we? We're not making the same mistakes this time. We're learning."

"I sure hope so."

"And while I know he doesn't look so good right now? That's his mind coming back online. Settling into his body, again. Making sense of it all."

"So... how long?" Martha asks, reaching out to take her son's unresponsive hand in hers, and squeeze it gently.

"Hopefully not too long," the Olympian shrugs: "It's not an exact science, but with any luck it'll be a day or two."

Martha nods: "Will talking to him help?"

"It might," the large woman says, walking around her patient and putting a hand on his mother's shoulder: "It might confuse him, too. But I think that, in this case? Having your voice be the light in his tunnel would be a good thing.

"Just don't rush him. Don't be impatient. Don't force it. Let him come to you... okay?"

Martha nods, biting back the sour things she really wants to say to this woman. And before long she's alone with her son, holding his hand and looking into his vacant eyes.

He looks lost and alone, more so than she's ever seen him. And she realizes that what the Olympian told her was correct -- he is in there, somewhere. He just can't come out right now.

"Thomas?" she says, trying not to cry: "I'm here, son. Everyone told me to say hi, and that they miss you, and they're praying for you. We're all hoping you can come back to us, soon. But I understand if you need some time to yourself, in there.

"You just take all the time you need," she goes on, squeezing his hand and smiling: "I'll be here when you come out."

And she sits there, looking into eyes that can't quite focus on her, and remembers the best piece of advice her Grandfather and her father ever gave her, back when she was just the Talon.

Sometimes, the hardest fights are the ones you can't punch your way out of.

Wednesday: 8/24/16

"No, really," Director Straffer tells Odin, who's not certain whether to call his bluff or not: "Feel free to run me through with that pig-sticker of yours. But you won't like what happens next.

"Not at all."

They're all on Naglfar -- the long and massive warship made from the fingernails of millions of dead men. It was made to be used when Ragnarok came, in the final battle between the Gods and the great wolf, Fenris, whose actions would bring only doom to the world.

Now? It looks like the doom might be coming after all.

Now all the Lightships that Straffer has left have surrounded the great warship.

Now all the Space Service personnel that aren't on those ships are on the Naglfar's deck, pointing very odd-looking laser pistols at their Aesir comrades.

And now, all the Aesir are pointing their swords, spears, and bows at them. 

Odin (once Mr. USA) and Straffer stand just inches from one another. Straffer's got a very large, odd-looking laser pistol pointed up at the Lord of the Aesir's chin. And Odin, for his part, has stuck a knife -- its dark grey blade forged in the heart of a star -- in the nape of the blonde cyborg's neck.

"You dare to threaten us," Odin shouts, clearly offended: "After all we have fought together? After all we have done?"

"Damn straight, mother!@#$er!" the head of the UN Space Service shouts: "Because if that's the only way I'm gonna make you all see sense, then that's what I'll do!"

"This base treachery can merit only one response..."

"That's rich, coming from you right now-"

"I will destroy you!" the Lord of the Aesir hisses.

"Well, that's damn fine, pal," Straffer says, jamming the gun up a little higher into the man's heroic chin: "You go ahead and you do that. Because if we don't stop what we're doing, here? If we don't really work together from here on out? Then we're all dead, anyway. All of us!

"And it will be all your fault."

* * *

The turning point had come about a day ago, though its effects were a little slow to manifest -- mostly because it had taken Straffer this long to limp what was left of his battle group back to the ship, make a plan, and spread the word. 

They'd been taking the Lightships deep into the riddled, dark bowels of Mars, seeking what Straffer had come to call "the hidden fortress." He was convinced there was a place down there where some small piece of the Decreator yet remained -- cranking out monsters and mayhem, and not caring that the other 99.99999% of itself was bottled up and in the hands of Mister Freedom, somewhere. 

It was slow going, as the ships could only operate down in the utter darkness for six hours without direct sunlight. And that time limit shrank the more they had to exert the ships: careful, slow flying was one thing, but fighting and heavy dodging was quite another. 

They also had to be careful not to tell the Aesir what they were really doing. Straffer disliked the secrecy, but he had the distinct suspicion that they knew more than they were telling about what was really going on, here. 

And that possible secrecy on their part was costing him lives and lightships -- losses he could no longer excuse. 

So they dove down into Mars -- day after day, sortie after sortie -- searching for some primal dark that the monsters were still climbing out of. Some weird corner where the scouring of the red planet had failed to completely take. 

Yesterday, they found it -- that and a few other things that Straffer really could have stood to not see.

Straffer and five other pilots were deep under the Lunae Planum when they came across a large cave they hadn't mapped before. It literally came out of nowhere, and was as black as shoe polish, even with the ships' illumination on full burst. 

Straffer was about to tell them to mark it and come back with fresh ships when their instruments went utterly haywire. Time and space seemed to bark at one another like angry, rabid dogs, for a moment. Up became down became sideways and inside out. 

That's when Straffer -- possessing eyes capable of seeing a lot more than any human, to say nothing of the sophisticated array of sensors of an Olympian-built Lightship -- saw something very strange inside that darkness. 

He saw a ring of black light, akin to what one might see around the event horizon of a black hole. 

He saw a very disturbing number of those horrible, massive crab things coming from out of that ring -- their perspective distorted by the distances involved, but clearly moving closer with each second.

But no sooner could be call out to the other ships to turn and run then they were caught in a crossfire between those monsters, and the beings who were waiting for them to come out. 

It was a number of Aesir, hiding nearby and waiting for the beasts to appear -- like campers parked outside a spawn point in a first person shooter. 

They fired indiscriminately, not even seeming to see the lightships. Half the battle group died then and there. The other half limped away, taking damage from the crabs as they fled. 

Somehow, Straffer was able to make it back. Even after his lightship ran out of power, and it was just him crawling through the black, nasty tunnels the Decreator and its self-made servants had made, all the way to the surface, he somehow made it.

(Thankfully, the last time his body was completely wrecked, he had them make certain improvements to his new frame -- incorporating countermeasures against vacuum, a lack of oxygen, and pressure variations into his skin.)

And as he quietly communicated with his people -- especially his new Second, who was proving to be quite amazing -- and he realized that his most recent fears had been correct, it was all he could do to avoid telling them to just blow the hell out of the Aesir. 

He knew, somehow, that things were not as they seemed. That something was wrong in all this. 

He knew there was no reason for them to act like this. None. 

Therefore, something had to be affecting them. Something bad. 

Something alien, perhaps.  

But this was the Aesir. They were proud. They were fatalistic. They would rather die than admit fault in anything. 

And it wouldn't be until they were here, at each other's throats -- with the point pressed home that what was going on could not continue -- that they could be made to see the damn truth...

* * *

... so here they all were, waiting for that truth to be told.

Odin looks down at the man he fought all the way from Earth to Mars with. The man he shared songs and oaths and victories with.

Somewhere in his eyes, Straffer sees the conflict. He sees the hero the god is riding trying to get out, and to speak.

Finally, two words appear -- almost choked back through semi-divine lips: "Stop me." 

So Straffer nods.

And he does...

Thursday: 8/25/16

... nothing, as per usual for the last couple of days.

Randolph Scott's new schedule has solidified around him slowly, like sugar crystals in a kid's science experiment. There's minor variations, of course, but generally the major movements remain the same.

He gets up around six in the morning, like he normally would. He tries not to cry when he thinks of Velma, and why she's not there beside him. He fails.

He eventually gets out of bed. Showers. Some mornings he weakly jerks himself off in the stall, but sometimes he can't be bothered.

He sits for a time in front of the room's darkened television, drying off. He wants to watch the news. He refuses to. That would be too damn normal, and he is well past that, now.

He dresses like some !@#$faced white tourist would. Makes sure his holographics are working, so no one can tell he's that notorious outlaw reporter from THIS IS BULL!@#$.

He gets a light breakfast in the hotel lobby, and then walks the streets of Nairobi. Every day he goes to a different tourist trap, careful not to spend too much cash. He takes a lot of pictures he has no intention of looking at ever again.

And then, around Noon, he catches the tourist van out to the Carnivore, gets a table by the back, and sits there for hours -- slowly eating crocodile and sipping at Dawas -- until they either close up, or he gets the feeling he's been there long enough.

The staff doesn't seem to care that the utalii is there all day long, milking their all you can eat policy. He gets a new drink every hour, on the hour, and tips extremely well. He also doesn't talk to them more than needed, which they probably appreciate.

That and he's not the only one --  there's other people, here, who are clearly waiting for someone.

Randolph thinks he recognizes some of them from old newspaper stories. Failed politicians, disgraced civil servants, maybe an outed spy or two. Most of them seem to hail from somewhere on the continent, but he notices people from all over Europe, Asia, and the Middle East as well.

They're here to do business, of a sort. They come in, meet with someone, and talk about everything but what they've really come to discuss. Sometimes they slide briefcases under the table, sometimes they trade cell phones. And sometimes they just talk in what's clearly code, and then leave either quietly satisfied or sublimely upset.

He watches them, quietly, as he comes to slowly enjoy the daily differences in crocodile. He can tell who's behind the bar by how much honey is in his Dawa, and whether the lime wheel is standing up straight, or somewhat flaccid.

And every day, either just before closing or just after the dinner rush, he realizes that he's wasted the afternoon here, and goes back to his apartment before the last tourist bus.

Each night be looks at the burner phone he brought with him. It's only got one number on it. And if he called it, he'd be forgiven. He could leave this hotel, this country, this quest.

He could come home. 

But each night he puts the phone away, and says tomorrow is the last day he's doing this. Just one more day. One more try.

One more chance to talk to the most dangerous man in the world, and see if he'll do the insane thing that Randolph needs him to do...

And each night he turns out the light, and weeps quietly in the dark - knowing that if he goes to Hell, after this life is over, it will look very much like this room.

And the Devil will be the bleary, red-eyed man who stares at him from the mirror, every day...

Friday: 8/26/16

... laughing at what he's done, now.

It was too perfect, really, the Candidate thinks as he watches the television in his fancy hotel room. Just too damned perfect.

That stupid, horsefaced !@#$ who made her career badmouthing people? The nasty and vindictive !@#$ who'd painted herself into a corner, this election, and had nowhere to go but with him?

The one who decided to jump onto his train, just to sell another book? 

Well, he showed her. He showed them all.

He did the one thing he swore he'd never do. He went back on his immigration policy. He said maybe he'd do what the last President had wanted, and what all the other interim people had done since.

He said he'd give amnesty to illegals already here.

And oh, did that bring down the log cabin!

He sat up all the night, laughing as his supporters decried his change of heart, but remained on his side. He chuckled to see them twist and turn on the late night political shows, trying to put lipstick on his pig.

And he realized that this thing King Whip gave him truly was a wonder. Because not only did it keep his people his, no matter how outrageous he got, but it also meant they'd stay in his side even if he totally and completely betrayed them.

He drinks the champagne his people brought up. 300 dollars per bottle. He drinks it right from the neck like some kind of drunk idiot.

Hell, he is drunk. On power. On invulnerability.

On possibility. 

He is the Candidate for the Republican Party. He is electorally invincible.

And he's starting to realize that he really can do and say whatever the !@#$ he wants...

Saturday: 8/27/16

"... which is a bit of a loaded statement when you're dealing with a God, I guess. But since we were in the middle of a massive orgy at the time, well..."

Straffer smiles at the camera, and shakes his head.

"Lover, you are amazing. I will never doubt you again. I know I told you not to send the Love Guns that Rosi made, as part of your deal. But if it hadn't been for them, we'd be dead right now, and Mars would be an even bigger mess than it already is.

"You won't preemptively divorce me if I make a 'make love, not war' joke, will you?" he asks, and smiles again: "Well, hopefully not. I just got the catering arranged, damn it. And from Mars, thank you, between battles.

"So here's the deal. As near as we can tell, now that we've all calmed down after a much needed post-sex conversation? There's something down there, under the Lunae Planum, that is bending the laws of time and space as we know them. It's also giving off a lot of entropic energy, which is what was affecting the Aesir.

"I suppose it makes sense. They're fatalistic creatures, not only aware of the fact that they're all going to die at some point in the future, but unnervingly eager to get on with it. And that means they're also willing to do whatever they need to in order to bring it about.

"So, they may have new bodies, but the impulse is still there. But where they were willing to kill other people by the millions before? These days they're just wanting to kill themselves, with the occasional sacrifice of us poor sky pilots being an unfortunate consequence...

"Eh," he sighs: "Anyway, we got it all settled. They aren't going to do any more of that stupid !@#$ that's going to get them killed. And we aren't going to hold their stupidity against them. I figure we're all entitled to be spiritually hijacked by some weird thing from beyond time and space, once in a while, right?"

He smiles at the camera and raises an eyebrow. SPYGOD knows what he means by this, of course.

"But we do have a bigger problem, hon," he goes on: "Whatever's down there? I think that some of the Decreator went through it. And now it's sending reinforcements back.

"Which means the fight for Mars isn't over, yet. In some ways, it's just beginning. Especially if I'm right, and the time distortions we're seeing down there are because what's going on at the other end of that hole is a lot slower than here, and we're dealing with a well-rested and rejuvenated entity.

"So," he claps his hands together: "After I get done with you, I'm going to talk to the UN, advise them of the situation, and tell them we need ground troops, now. I'm also going to send an emissary to talk to the Martians in the White City and see if they have any idea what might have been down there, in that area.

"Obviously, this complicates things," he goes on, smiling sadly: "And not just for the war, either. It means I'll be here longer than I'd like. Longer away from you.

"But I love you," Director Straffer says, putting a hand on the camera: "Never doubt that. Never believe otherwise. This is hell for me, being away from you.

"But we've got our duty, and our jobs. And I know you understand. You wouldn't be the amazing man I love if you didn't.

"So... goodbye for now," he blows a kiss: "And I will see you soon."

The screen goes blank, and then black.

SPYGOD leans back in the chair of his Flier Office and considers what he heard. He nods a few times, and pats the screen.

"I !@#$ing love you, too," he sighs, and then leans forward and lights up another long, black cigarette with his heavy, metal lighter.

(The one that says "!@#$ COMMUNISM" on the side.)

He's lost track of how many of these things he's been puffing a day. He doesn't even remember when he started, really.

"They say these things cause !@#$ing cancer," he says to the black skull on his desk -- the one that used to belong to Helvete, but now acts as his ashtray: "But I guess there's worse !@#$ing ways to go, huh?"

And yes -- there are.

* * *

He thinks of that day, over a month ago, when all the Aesir were leaving their old bodies for new ones. How they screamed and fought every step of the way, like cats trying to avoid a bath.

He remembers how Ve, in particular, did not want to go. How he bellowed and raged -- furious at how base a fate this way. How below his station. How ignoble.

How cruel to be taken from the fight, now that Ragnarok itself was raging upon the Earth...?

But then the spirit of the would-be Lord of the Aesir was elsewhere -- being given unto another, willing volunteer to shelter and maintain -- and there was just pale Helvete, crawling on the ground.

He didn't know what was going on, at first. None of the former hosts did. The shock of being removed from their state of semi-divinity was the equivalent of being smacked by a Mack truck, flung about twenty feet into the air, and then landing on concrete -- right on their damn noggins.

But it was a lot worse for Helvete, because not only was he not quite himself, but he hadn't been so for some time.

He hadn't been taking the pills since he became Ve. He wasn't Wilhelm Kietel, wrapped in the flesh of Helvete, any longer. He was just a somewhat psychotic, very sadistic Finnish pyrokinetic who'd been tricked into becoming a member of ABWEHR.

Realization was slow. But SPYGOD likes to think that, by the time he focused his eyes enough on the superspy to know he was !@#$ing dead, that realization had finally come and gone.

He'd hate to think that he died not knowing the full gravity of his offenses -- unaware of all the chaos and destruction he'd caused.

He'd hate to think that when the poisoned bullet struck him dead bang in the guts, and his flesh started to melt from his bones, that he didn't know that he was actually getting off easy...

* * *

The black skull grins at SPYGOD. He looks down at it, and then at his fingers. There's a wispy, grey cylinder of ashes there -- about two inches long, and just a second's burn away from the filter.

"Not !@#$ing paying attention," he chastises himself, putting the ashes where they belong, and then pushing the skull away. That's enough of that for now, he thinks.

Instead, he grabs a bottle from the side of his new desk -- the one that's got the carefully controlled refrigerator unit on it -- gets out a perfectly-chilled glass, and pours himself a neat drink.

And then he gets hold of a few people he's been waiting for news from, one after the other.

One is someone in successor to Ju Kikkan -- the Organization -- who owes the superspy a marker or two after some embarrassing events, over in Seoul. He is very happy to make a full report on the autopsy of their Prime Minister, even going so far as to send an exact copy of the files to one of SPYGOD's dropboxes in country.

The other is a less quiet ally, this time from FAUST. Their Director isn't doing too well, these days, so most of the information is coming from that man's Assistant. She's hard as nails and about as friendly as an Eagle who's found a snake in her nest, swallowing her eggs whole, but she's also incredibly competent and perceptive. Which is why SPYGOD likes her, and allows her to berate him as they compare notes about their mutual problem.

That done, he makes ready to call one more person up. But then he stops, as he realizes that there's a message in his queue from someone he hasn't talked to in a long time.

And what Karl has to tell him makes his blood run cold...

Sunday: 8/28/16

... watching the tragedy unfold -- only in front of his eyes, this time, instead of his mind.

The AGENT heard all the stories about this time, courtesy of his fathers, and their friends. They weren't supposed to tell him so much, he thinks, but they had no idea he was ever going to be in a position to go back and have to relive them, either.

So he turns the surveillance packages off, leans back in the hotel room's comfy chair, and decides that he's had enough of watching and listening, waiting for the big moment to come.

He decides he needs to get out and do something else.

He looks over at the case where the gun is -- the special machine that only he has any business operating, given how advanced and strong his body is. Not a lot of people were ever able to handle the stresses and strains it put on the human form, and those that did were never quite whole afterwards.

He considers that, and goes over to the case, taking it out and letting it speak to his flesh as it does.

"Tell me," he demands of the weapon: "You remember all the times you were ever used, right?"

"I do, yes," Hǫfuð replies -- its soft voice becoming more intelligible as the AGENT's eyes grow in size: "Every shoot. Every kill. I can never forget."

"So if I showed you a body, you would know if it was your work?"

"Yes," the gun says, breathing in his hand: "Without question."

"Then let's go see a body," the AGENT says, turning his ANIL on and setting it for where he knows the corpse of the Japanese Prime Minister is lying in state.

* * *

Randolph Scott lies on the bed, looking up at the ceiling, and wondering how long he's got before they find him.

He wasn't stupid about this. He took precautions. He covered his tracks, hid all traces.

No one should know he's here, in Nairobi. No one at all.

And yet, he's being followed, somehow. He has been since last night, on the way back from the restaurant.

Just some lady on the bus back. But he didn't recognize her from inside the restaurant. And when he got off, he caught her looking at him in that special way.

The way you do when you realize the person you're looking at is wearing holographics...

It's no one to do with the person he's here to see, either. He doesn't have "people." He doesn't need them.

(Not unless something has seriously changed...)

So that means it's probably the COMPANY. Which means his kids went to SPYGOD.

Which means he's about a day or so from having that mother!@#$er come stomping up to him, at Carnivore, and demand an explanation for this bull!@#$.

Which means today really is the last damn chance he's got to talk to this person.

Which means, as much as he'd rather lay there and look at the ceiling, he has to get moving.

In another moment or two. Really. 

* * *

 The AGENT stands in the mortuary, unseen and unheard by the many technicians and investigators crowding around the body. 

The autopsy is done. The necessary damage to the body has been performed, reverently and with care. 

There's just his head to deal with, and they're in no hurry to move forward on that, given its central position in the criminal case. 

The invisible man looks at the five holes in the Prime Minister's head -- amazed at how neatly they've been placed, knowing the kind of expertise such a grouping of shots would take to pull off. 

"So tell me," he asks his weapon: "Is this something you did?"

"Yes," the gun replies, its voice betraying neither pride nor remorse: "I did."

"Can you tell me where the person who did this is?"

"Yes. My tracking mechanism can find anyone on the planet. You know this."

"Are you there, now, with him?" the AGENT asks, choosing not to take the gun's chastisement to heart.

The gun is silent for a moment: "I am not certain."

"It would be nice to know," the AGENT says, more than a little miffed: "If you're there, and I take you there, the paradox could be catastrophic."

"Then perhaps you should not go," Hǫfuð says, something approaching annoyance coming into its voice: "This is seriously off-mission. This is none of our concern."

"Maybe, maybe not," the man says, not entirely certain why he's here, now. But something told him to see this through, and he will. 

So he tells the gun to tell him where its last user was, all these years in its past. And then he fires up his teleporter, and goes right there. 

Hoping that the man they're going to see isn't nearly as frightening, and powerful, as he was always told. 

* * *

Carnivore is rather busy, today. More so than usual. Randolph almost doesn't get his usual table in the back, thanks to what appears to be two tour buses and a coupon in the paper.

At least, that's what he's supposed to think. But he knows better. 

He can see the way the people in there act. The way they talk, and then don't talk. 

The way they disguise how they're looking over at his table, every so often, when they think he's not looking at them. 

He's been made. He really should leave. He really should. 

But as he gets his first Dawa, and then they start bringing around the skewers of crocodile, he decides he's come this far -- he might as well finish this weird dance. 

It would be a shame to not give SPYGOD the chance to use the speech he's doubtlessly been rehearsing for a full day, or more. 

* * *

"Oh dear Gods," the AGENT says, kneeling down by the remnants of what was once a man, there on the cavern floor. 

He was black, that much is certain. Maybe medium height. Bearded. In decent shape, maybe in his mid thirties. 

He can tell that much by what's left of him, but not much else. 

And that's because the man has been deconstructed -- piece by piece -- and laid out on the floor in what can only be described as an anatomical illustration made from the real thing. 

(He may have also been eaten. There are bite marks in certain muscle groups. Ones prized for their tenderness...)

"Who is this person," he says, reaching out to touch a pool of blood and get a genetic sample: "Is this... no. It can't be him. He didn't die like this... did he?"

"This is not the man who fired me," Hǫfuð insists. 

"Who is it?"

"Unknown," the gun admits, leaving the AGENT's suit to tell him the rest. 

But no sooner does it tell him that this man is a former NGUVU Agent known as Khalil then someone actually sneaks up on him...

* * *

Randolph hears him before he sees him, thanks to the bugs he's placed around the restaurant on bathroom breaks and trips to the bar when service was slow. 

There's a long car, pulling up front. The sort of thing one drives around Nairobi in if one wants to make a splash, and appear to be more important than one actually is. 

Someone lets its passenger out. He hears the familiar grunt of a certain someone getting to his feet and heading for the front door. Into the foyer. 

And then into the restaurant, itself. 

* * *

The blow hits the AGENT in the back of the head -- right where his neck meets his skull, and with so much force it's a wonder he isn't internally decapitated. 

(A wonder paid for by the American taxpayer, and put into action by a legion of COMPANY bio-sculptors)

"That kind of hurt," the AGENT says, riding the blow, rolling with it, and executing a perfect leap back up to his feet a second later: "I'd appreciate if you didn't do that again..."

But there's no one there. Darkness reigns in the cavern.

Not silence, though. He can hear breathing. Excited. 

Aroused, even.

* * *

He's not going to watch SPYGOD come up to the table. He's already decided this. He won't give him the satisfaction of pretending to be surprised to see him, or even happy, or angry. 

He's just going to sit here, slowly eating the roasted crocodile tail they've brought him, and wait for the superspy to make the first move. Say the first words. Deliver the first insult. 

Throw the first punch. 

* * *

"I can see you," the sound in the cavern says: "But you cannot see me, I think..."

"I think I can," the AGENT lies -- at least for a moment, as he allows his eyes' sensors to map the temporal anomalies that are unfolding before him. 

In that moment, he realizes that he is in the presence of the Wandering Shadow, himself. 

He also realizes that the man also has Hǫfuð in his hands -- from 28 years ago, by his reckoning. 

"Yes," the tall, black man says, looking at the AGENT with eyes gone large -- both because of what the gun does to human bodies, and what is either excitement or insanity: "I have your gun, sir. And you have mine."

"You shouldn't be seeing me," the AGENT says, playing for time: "And you shouldn't have that gun, either."

"Yes, I suppose that is true," the Wandering Shadow admits, coming back into normal time to make the conversation easier -- appearing as he does: "But then, my new friend gave it to me. And how could I refuse such a damned wonderful gift?

"Especially after he explained to me how one might use it..."

He grins. His teeth are bloody.

And they have pieces of red, stringy flesh stuck between them...

* * *

"... no, really," the man approaching Randolph's table says as he comes close enough to be seen and heard: "Don't get up. Please."

"I wasn't planning on it," Randolph says, looking up and smiling.

But then the smile drops as he sees who's standing there -- dressed in a suit made from supple, brown leather, and wearing an eyepatch made from what might be human bones. 

"That's probably the most fucking sensible thing you've said in a while, Randy," the SPYGOD of Alter-Earth says, pulling a chair from another table and sitting down, across from the outlaw reporter: "And now, I'm going to explain why.

"And then..." he goes on, grinning like a sickly pale jack-o'-lantern: "We're going to have one hell of an interview, you and me..." 

(SPYGOD is listening to Animal (Zoo) (Front 242) and having a Five)

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