Monday, August 15, 2016

Apotheoclypse Now: 8/8/16 - 8/14/16

"I'm tired of emotions / They bare me with distortions"

(Old friends, never forgotten -- no matter how hard we try)

(Art by the Lemonade Project + Dean Stahl)

* * *
* * *

My dearest, my darling.

You're reading this, so you know this means I am gone.

I told you this would happen, one day. I said it would be after the war, and I tried to hold on for as long as I could. But I can't stay here, anymore. Not for anything. 

Not even for you.

Please believe that I love you. I would be yours forever, no matter what. I would pray in your church, take your vows, take your name. Whatever we needed to do to make this world believe in what we already know to be true. 

But I cannot, my love. I must go. The future is calling, and I have to answer.

You were an amazing man. You will always be that man. And know that your family will endure, and be fruitful. All the way until I can no longer see, there is an Owl. 

And they are all magnificent -- each and every one.

Please do not cry. Please be happy. Love your wife. Love your children, and their children.

When you pray to your God, please include me. I know you already do. Please never stop.

And when you feel sad? Look to the future. It's where I'll be, waiting. 

Yours forever. 


Monday: 8/8/16

"I'm just saying, we really should have more people here for this," Shining Guardsman says, stepping out of the massive, stretch party limousine someone perversely insisted on getting for the occasion. He looks very out of place in a suit and tie.

"Really?" Gosheven asks, chugging something fruity and noxious from an innocent-looking water bottle -- his second, so far -- and dressed like he just came out of a disco for the color-blind: "Well, if you can find them, tell them they've got an hour to get their asses here, and then the party's just gonna go, go, go..."

"Asshole," Red Wrecker snorts, pushing past him on her way to their destination, just past the statue of the Torchbearer. She's dressed like she normally would, out of costume, these days -- which is to say loud and skimpy.

"Hey, was that nice...?" the metamorph whines, shaking his head in indignation as she quickly leads the pack -- her new, extremely short haircut not entirely flattering, but maybe that's the point. 

Hanami comes out next, wearing the white dress uniform she had with the Space Service, and then stands by as everyone else stumbles or half-crawls from the cramped, cavernous interiors: Rakim in his prayer robes (sober as ever); Myron in a suit and tie (sober as a rock); Dragonfly, also in a suit and tie (a little tipsy); and Free Fire, in armor as always (still unable to drink).

"I have to say, this is going to be a little strange for me," the orange android says as he closes the door behind them: "Given what happened, I am not certain it's appropriate for me to be here."

"You couldn't have helped it," New Man says to Free Fire, appearing in a flash of purple light not too far away: "There was mind control involved. You had to defend yourself. No one's blaming you for that."

"Still should have more people here," Shining Guardsman repeats: "Just not !@#$ing right..."

No one pays any attention to him, though. They just march on 

* * *

The Torchbearer stands tall and proud as ever -- eternally guarding the McPherson Drive teardrop, and the many heroes and strategic talents buried there. 

The super soldiers who died in World War II, and then Korea. The Freedom Force members who fell after that. The occasional "charity case" who may not have been on a team, but whose work was so legendary (or death so tragic) that the powers that be afforded them a place here. 

Many more people were laid to rest here, following the Imago incident -- almost all of the original Freedom Force, in fact. Since then, there's been dribs and drabs, mostly older heroes who fell asleep and didn't wake up, or the occasional accident. 

But now, in the wake of the cluster of bad, crazy, and tragic that led up to the Apocalypse, it's been just like the Imago all over again. 

The group trudges past the newer graves, some with reverence, others with impatience. Arachnoid and Zephyr lay side by side in recognition of their having died together. American Steel and Doctor Uncertainty are "buried" here, too, in order to maintain the fiction of their existence. A few other names, mostly unknown. 

(Both New Men, laid side by side -- father and son. A sight that makes New Man pause, then move on a little faster than perhaps he should.)

And then there's the two they all really came to see: Chinmoku and Blastman, laid to rest by the other members of the Freedom Force. 

"Oh god," Gosheven says, and starts bawling. Dragonfly puts an arm around him, which he literally melts into. 

"It doesn't seem real," Red Wrecker says, dabbing at her eyes with the handkerchief she brought, just in case. 

"I can confirm that it is," Free Fire says, wondering why that doesn't help much. 

"Brave allies, both," Hanami says, holding her hands behind her back: "I'll miss their sense of duty."

"Chinmoku's wisdom was considerable," Rakim opines: "Even if I sometimes needed to turn on the brain computer to understand it."

"Blastman was an asshole and a grump," Shining Guardsman says: "But he was always there, you know? He had your back."

"I worked with Chinmoku before, on this one crazy damn op when SPYGOD was on the run," Dragonfly says: "We were allies, then enemies, and then things got !@#$ing weird. But when I came back out of the cold, he just looked at me and smiled, like he was expecting me to show up again. And never let the past get in the way of working together. I appreciated that more than I ever said."

"Chinmoku once told me he saw his own death, back when he started to learn that kind of kung fu," Myron says: "He said he knew how and where, just not exactly when. But he said it was enough for him to know that, no matter what he did, he would succeed, until then. In some ways I envy him that. In others... it seems like a damn cheat."

"I miss them both, incredibly. And I envy them both as well," New Man says. No one wants to ask why. 

"Neither of them shared my faith, but I pray for them," Rakim says: "They say Allah will save those he deems worthy, and damn those he does not, regardless of whom they prayed to, or how truly. I pray he finds them worthy,  and grants them Paradise."

"I'll drink to that," Gosheven says, using some more of the cocktail to stop from weeping. 

They stand in silence, after that. At least until Gosheven realizes they've only got the limo for another thirty minutes and hustles them all back to it. 

All the while, Shining Guardsman grouses, thinking of the bodies that aren't buried. The people who aren't there. 

He thinks of poor Yanabah, stuck in that hospital while they figure out what's to be done with her. She should have been there with them for this, regardless.

He thinks of Mr. USA, now playing host to the being calling himself Odin. What happens when that presence leaves, and he goes back to being at the worse end of stage four cancer? 

(He also thinks that Night Phantom should be there, too, regardless of what that Olympian says. He was a person before he became part of a God, damn it.) 

And he thinks of SPYGOD, sitting up there in his fancy new Flier, not deigning to come down and mourn with them for reasons he didn't care to specify. 

(He doesn't specify a lot of !@#$, these days.)

But he keeps those thoughts to himself for the rest of the trip back to the hotel they took for the night, the somber dinner that follows, and the new wave karaoke wake Gosheven insists on holding afterwards. 

"Next time," Hanami later tells him, somewhat conspiratorially: "Let's tell Second to give someone else the power over the mourning funds."

Next time, will there be anyone left to attend? he wonders. And for a scary moment he thinks he said it out loud.

But if he did she says nothing -- merely watches as Dragonfly, ever the good sport these days, scoops the human puddle formerly known as Gosheven off the floor with an ice bucket, and pays a bellhop $200 to pour him under his door.  

"I !@#$ing hate superhero funerals," the guy says on his way out. He's not the only one.

Tuesday: 8/9/16

The COMPANY Transport gets to Chicago around noon, which is exactly an hour earlier than SPYGOD said, but an hour later than he really wanted.

(The small detail of having to listen to the manager of the Rosewood complain about the mess "his people" left after the wake, last night, delayed him more than he cared to. If he still had the gun that shot bullets over the phone there would be one less grumpy hotel manager in the world.)

Lake Calumet rushes up to greet them -- barely recognizable for all the cordons, force-barriers, and portable containment units the UNSS threw up at or around 6 in the AM. There's enough hovercraft down there to hold a damn race at this point, and two Warbots are circling the area, just to be certain.

"Thank you for coming, sir," the white-uniformed officer in charge of the show says as he tromps down the Transport's gangplank -- his salute so smart it should be on Jeopardy for a whole week.

"My goddamn pleasure, son," the super-spy lies, saluting back. He's wearing what he's taken to calling his Summer Uniform: a shiny, leather skort over padded pants festooned with handguns and knives, with a thick, mesh shirt open to the navel and shoulderpads that seem to have a damn life of their own. All in black, of course, with pink and silver touches.

(He's also wearing black underwear. He's in !@#$ing mourning, after all.)

"So tell me exactly what we got, here," he says as the officer leads him into the nearest portable containment unit -- something reminiscent of a hamster palace, only in translucent white rather than transparent orange.

"A rare case of our two agencies touching in on a single case," some long-haired, youngish guy in a white smock says, walking away from a large bank of video screens: "We called you in a soon as your file got flagged. We also stopped all investigation until you could arrive."

"Well, hot !@#$'in damn," SPYGOD says, realizing he can't light up in there, but doing it anyway -- much to the concern of the Space Service personnel in the room: "Guess all I had to do was !@#$ your boss to get the A+ treatment, huh?"

"Well," the chief scientist says, coughing into his hand: "I can't really comment on that, sir. But... well, it's just easier to show you..."

He gestures over to the screens, and begins to tell his excavation crews to begin moving forward again. As they do, SPYGOD almost drops his cigarette.

"Sir...?" the officer asks, seeing the look on the superspy's face.

"Get me down there, son," he orders, reaching out to touch the nearest screen -- what might be tears wetting his eyes: "Right. !@#$ing. Now."

* * *

The hot zone is actually under the water, though it's hard to tell that at times. 

A bubble of air surrounds it, which is a large part of what gave the manifestation away when it appeared, at exactly 5:21 in the AM, Chicago time. Whatever's inside the object, it's generating its own passive shielding - keeping air in, but allowing larger objects to slide in and out with only a little surface tension. 

They've extended a human-sized, plastic hamster tunnel from the containment unit over the lake into the bubble. It's sealed and guarded at one end, and the guards there are impassive as !@#$ as SPYGOD strips down to his skimpy, black combat man-panties to suit up in an armored, stark white U-suit, straps on several devices (and one very sanitized, ultra-compact weapon).

And they get the !@#$ out of his way as he stomps past them, down the gently-inclining tunnel, and out the other end -- on the bottom of Lake Calumet. 

The bubble wavers in the air, like a humid curtain. He pauses long enough to touch it -- feeling the sensation the U-suit's haptic sensors report back to him -- and then walks through. There's enough lights on the probes to see where he's going without turning on the suit's illumination strips, for which he is eternally grateful. 

(He has bad memories of the movie Electric Horseman. Never ask him why. Just !@#$ing don't.)

There, brightened by the lights of the probes -- floating in mid-air, or just outside the bubble, in the lake itself -- is what looks like a UFO. A flying saucer, maybe six feet high, and fifteen feet in diameter, with a person-sized, glassy bubble right in the center. 

Only it's not a UFO. Not to SPYGOD, anyway. 

He grabs hold of the side of the ship, somehow knowing it'll form a handhold for him. It does, and he carefully climbs up to the top, and makes his way across -- ducking just a little to avoid soaking his head in the lake, above. 

Inside the bubble is a control chair -- thick and comfortable. Cradled in the chair is the mummified body of a young woman, wearing a futuristic, silver suit. Her skin is badly desiccated from the vacuum, her eyes are dried and fishy, and her lips are thin things, pulled back over perfect, white teeth. 

He reaches out to put a hand on the dome. He doesn't expect it to open. It would only do it from within, he thinks. 

"It's her," he radios back, trying not to choke up: "It's Space Commander."

"My god," the scientist gasps: "I mean... I read about her, but... I thought she went out into space?"

"Yeah," the superspy says, remembering the first time he saw the photo of her, back when the Owl took him under his wing, all those decades ago: "I guess she didn't make it."

He turns the radio off, after that. There doesn't seem to be much point in saying any more. 

And there's only one person he really needs to talk to, right now...

Wednesday: 8/10/16

"I'm just saying, I feel really uneasy about how this is going," Director Straffer says, trying to hold court with Odin as his hunting party make ready to launch themselves at Mars, once more.

"Do you fear success, my ally?" the Lord of the Aesir -- riding the body of Mr. USA -- asks, looking back and down at the blonde cyborg: "Are you afraid that we won with too much ease?"

"Well, frankly? Yes," he says, nodding: "It was a hard-fought battle to get here. And taking the surface of the planet was extremely harrowing. I just keep waiting for the other shoe to drop?"

"Perhaps one day your other ball will?" red-headed Tyr offers, clapping him on the back in a friendly, very manly fashion. That brings out the laughs in the others.

"I'm just saying we need to be more careful down there," Straffer says, knowing what sounded like an insult was just a friendly joke between allies (at least, that's what he hopes): "Just until we know for sure what we're facing."

"We are facing the last, desperate soldiers of a battle gone to dust," Odin says, smiling widely: "We are facing a defeated foe that knows not how to surrender. Their commanders are dead, their tactics in shambles, and no reinforcements shall take the field. 

"All we need do is wait for them in the most likely of places, and they shall eventually impale themselves upon our spears."

"Or my hammer!" Thor offers, shooting a large gout of lightning down to light the way, to much appreciation and applause.

"I just don't feel confident that we have room to be celebrating yet," Straffer tries to explain: "For all we know, we just mopped up the forward folks. There could be a lot more waiting down there."

"Then be grateful that we shall draw them out for your vaunted Lightships to destroy, my friend!" Odin says, making ready to leap down with the others: "And then we shall all drink to glory!"

And then he's gone -- hurtling towards the surface of the red planet at an ungodly speed.

"Well, that wasn't exactly a productive conversation," his Second says, coming up behind him as he watches them fall.

"No," he says, putting his hands on his hips and turning to face her: "Do me a favor?"

"Of course, sir."

"Get the strike force captains up here on the double," he says, walking to the other end of the Aesir's long, creaking ship: "I want to change our search tactics. We need to figure out how long we can be outside of the sun's rays."

"They estimate six hours just flying, sir. That's just flying, though. Regular speed, no shields, no fighting."

"Then let's find out how they do when you have to do more then just fly in the darkness," he says: "Raitha didn't really hand over an instruction manual. It's been trial and error ever since we left Earth. Now's the best time to find out what we're really dealing with."

"Before the Aesir let loose something we're not ready for, you mean," she says.

"Damn skippy, Second," he says, crossing his arms and looking at the stars above the ship. Wondering what other threats might be out there, today.

And how long before he can focus on them, exclusively, once more.

Thursday: 8/11/16

"We do appreciate your looking after our... mutual problems," the whip-thin prison official from FAUST says as they march down the halls of the Habitrail, going past a long bank of prisoners who aren't going anywhere: "I know this is something of a political football."

"I like to think that we are beyond such concerns," Mister Freedom says -- his fancy, complicated wrist restraints gleaming under the neon lights as they walk: "It is not a matter of expediency or favor, here, Msr. Andek. It is simply a matter of duty."

"Well said, sir," the official says, putting his hands behind his back as they continue on.

In the cells to their left, behind a transparent steel wall. are a number of very sad and sorry individuals -- a rogue's gallery of hate and fear. Militant atheists, Muslim haters, racial separatists (both European and American), and other assorted scum.

Some sit on their cots and glower. Some stand and pace. Some pound the wall and scream -- for lawyers, for doctors, for mercy.

"I need help!" one of them insists: "I wasn't responsible for my actions! Do you hear me? It wasn't me! It wasn't me!"

"Maybe not at the time, Mr. Harris," the Olympian says -- somewhat amused to be addressing him in Abdullah Ismail's body: "But you knew what you were doing when you made the agreement to participate in this venture. In that sense, you are as culpable as a drink driver who knew what he was going when he became drunk, even if he had little control over what happened after."

"No!" the man insists -- eyes red from hysterical crying: "I'm a victim, here! I'm a victim!"

"Tell that to the people of Moscow, Msr," the man from FAUST sneers: "And be grateful this man has allowed you to be housed here, before your trial. If we had you anywhere else, I think you would not last a day."

With that they leave the sorry sight, heading for another area -- one where conditions are much less penal and stark, and more calming.

"Oh my," the official says as they pass a certain cell, and see what its current occupant is getting up to.

"It's best to pretend you don't see her," Mister Freedom says, as quietly as he can -- knowing the last remaining daughter of the last President will hear, anyway: "A great deal of her exhibitionism is a cry for help. We let her have those devices to express her desires, but to watch for too long is to be drawn into them."

"What happens then?"

"Madness, murder, and suicide," the Olympian says: "Hopefully not in that order."

The man nods, and decides to focus on who they really came here to see -- around the corner from the feverish hothouse of her diseased imagination, and down the hall a ways.

The man in question is a nondescript fellow, so bland that one would have a hard time picking him out in a crowd. He's lying in a life support bed, with very heavy restraints upon every major joint, and VR goggles over his eyes.

"Agent 78," the man from FAUST sighs: "The true victim in all this."

"I cannot disagree," Mister Freedom says -- his godly eyes able to see the true spiritual damage that's been done to the man: "He will be like this until the Aesir who took control of him decides to return."

The man from FAUST nods: "And after the altercation that one had with Odin, I fear we may never see him again."

"Oh, he will return," the Olympian says, smiling: "Which is why I have created the traps I have."

"Traps...?" the official asks, looking around the room, and the man: "I don't... where are they? I don't see them."

"Then hopefully, neither will be," Mister Freedom replies, smiling.

As he smiles, he mentally checks on his other, most interesting prisoner -- far from here, and yet merely a step away.

It's far, far down in the deepest, darkest pit he has. There, just above a void not even he dares go too far into, lest his concept be crunched by the heavy teeth of raw entropy, sits a container that is both all states, and yet none.

Endlessly cycling between random shapes and materials -- locks and combinations -- it seems to vibrate, like a silent fan blade. Should it stop for even a second, its occupant would doubtless squirm out of it, and wreak untold damage upon Restriit's domain.

But it will not stop. It will not falter. It will not fail.

It is the culmination of a lifetime's contemplation, wrapped into being through a shared working between both ends of the creation-destruction spectrum. Hoosk and Restriit, laboring under the watchful eye of Senchro, who made the work of an age happen in merely a day.

And then, once the liberators of Mars had done their work, it fell to Restriit to go there, and capture his wayward creation within it.

It seethes, now, inside its prison. Hate and anger boil up within. Confusion steams away, along with determination. The need to one day be free of this insult -- this betrayal -- and do what it was made to do.

What it must do. 

Friday: 8/12/16

She doesn't scream and throw things at him from across the break room table. There's that, at least.

But then, Velma never was one for angry outbursts. She's never yelled at him, even once, during the entirety of their relationship.

Been angry? Sure. Glowered? Like mad.

Fumed? Oh, that, too -- for days on end, sometimes. And sometimes, after a day or so, he wished she would just yell and get it over with.

But it's not every day one lover tells another that's he's decided to do something like this.

"What do you want me to say, here?" the Toon finally asks, pushing her glasses up her nose and looking at him.

"What do you want to say?" Randolph Scott  replies, putting his hands closer to hers: "What do you need to say?"

"Would it make a difference?"

"... I don't know," the outlaw journalist admits: "I've put a lot of thought into this. I've been thinking about it since what happened, that day. The day I almost lost you. The day I thought I'd lost Helmut and Helga, along with Karl and Jana. The day I thought I'd lost everything."

"Yes, but you didn't," Velma says, taking his hands in hers: "You didn't. You got us all back."

"Yes, but-"

"But what?" she asks, glowering: "Am I dead?"


"Is this some damn illusion? Do you think you're living in the !@#$ing Matrix?"

"Dear God, I hope not."

"Then there is no but," Velma says, holding his hand a little tighter: "We won. We got Karl and Jana back. You rescued them. You made the world move your way and got them out of there. You saved them."

"Yes," he admits: "I did."

"And you stood by me the whole damn time. Talking to me. Telling me you loved me. I could hear you, even if I didn't know it. I knew, the whole time I was under, that you were there for me. I never felt afraid or abandoned. I knew you were there."

"I'm glad," he says, starting to cry: "I was so scared..."

"I know," she says: "And when I came out, and I couldn't talk? And we were convinced those bastards were going to come back and finish the job? I still wasn't scared because I knew you were still there, with me. I knew we'd find a way."

"And we did, didn't we?" Randolph says.

"We sure did," Velma smiles, kissing his hand: "Craziest damn plan ever. And I never want to watch my own funeral again."

"Would you pretend to be a super hero, again?"

"Who says I pretended?" she raises an eyebrow.


"But I'm not cross-dressing for the part again," she insists: "Whose idea was that, anyway?"

"Wasn't it Josie's?"

"I have no idea. I'm just glad you agreed to do the same."

"Hey, in for a penny-"

"And that's the problem, here," she says, tapping his hand: "I'm not comfortable with what you are wanting to do. Not just because of what you want to do, but because this is the first I'm hearing of it, and it sounds like you're over halfway done with the plans."

"More than that," he admits, wiping his tears: "I make one more phone call, and it's on."

She lets go of his hand like it was on fire: "You... you're kidding me."

"No," he says: "No I'm not."




"Velma, please listen to me," he insists, holding up his hands -- somehow glad to hear her actually raise her voice: "You're right. Yes, I should have come to you earlier. Yes, we got the family back. Yes, we came through it all okay. Mostly-"

"Oh no-"

"But Velma, please. Don't think about what we still have. Think about what we lost."

"You think I don't?" She gasps, clearly insulted: "Do you really believe...? Do you?"

"Because every time I close my eyes, it's the massacre all over again," he says: "It's that day, all over again.

"It's the explosions in Toon Town. It's the buildings on fire, the dead people in the streets. It's people I know and love dying or dead or on fire.

"It's that poor cat stumbling down the road, holding his guts in and saying 'I'm not here, this isn't happening.' Over and over like a song until he died from shock and fell down.

"It's knowing that an evil bastard has my son and my daughter. Knowing he can do whatever he likes to them. Knowing that he did.

"It's you on a stretcher, with a hole in your head-"

"Stop it," Velma hisses, almost getting up from her chair to leave: "Do not make me part of this-"

"But you are," he says, reaching out to take her hand, and feeling crushed by the weight of an entire world when she recoils: "You are. They raped my daughter. They burned my son's face so badly it took a full month to make him look halfway decent, again.

"And if that bullet had been just a little faster or slower..."

He leaves the point. He doesn't have to say any more.

"Your daughter," she says, looking at him through very narrow eyes: "Your son."

"I meant ours-"

"You said yours," she says, finally getting up from the table: "I think that says everything."


"I can't stop you," she says, holding up her hands: "If you've made up your mind to do... this, then I can't stop you. I know it. You've got a plan, you've got people. For all I know, Anil's going to show up outside the door in ten minutes and then it'll be on."

"He doesn't know where we are," Randolph says: "None of them do. I promised."

"Glad to hear you can keep some promises," Velma says: "So here's one of mine. I won't stop you. And maybe it's because I want to see this happen, too. Because of what happened to our son, our daughter. Because of what happened to our friends.

"And because, yes, if that bullet had just been a little faster or slower, we wouldn't even be having this conversation. I would be dead, or worse than dead.

"Yes, this person deserves retribution. Even if he wasn't exactly himself when he did what he did, much like Jana and Karl weren't themselves when they did what they did. There's some things you just don't walk away from with clean hands. There's some lines you don't cross.

"This is mine," she says, making a line between the two of them with her finger: "I won't support this. I can't. This isn't journalism, anymore. This is... I don't know what this is. But I can't be a part of it."

"So," he says, putting his hands on the table: "I stop, or you go?"

"No," she says: "You stop, or you go. And if you go, you don't come back."

He blinks: "What?"

"Ours, remember?" she says: "This Is Bull!@#$ was ours. We said it was about getting at the truth any way possible. We said it was about not being afraid to become part of the story to get the story. Even if we became the story, sometimes.

"This isn't just becoming the story. It's manufacturing one. And I won't work with someone who's willing to do that."

He tries to say something, but she holds up a finger and glowers at him. He knows that she is done talking, and so he is done trying to talk to her. And she turns, sadly, and leaves the room without another word.

After that, there's just the quiet of the breakroom. The sounds of his kids running around to make the evening broadcast happen, as if nothing was wrong. As if his absence affected nothing.

Tears come -- slowly, and then in a flood. He tries to sob quietly. He does not succeed, but eventually calms down, and is very quiet for a very long time.

No one sees him leave.

Saturday: 8/13/16

"I swear, sir, I don't know what happened," the rather terrified AGENT says over the video link: "One minute Yanabah was there, in her bed. The next she was gone, and the restraints were... well-"

"Spit it the !@#$ out, son," SPYGOD snorts: "I got more important things to deal with than your having !@#$ed up with a high-profile situation like this."

"Ripped to pieces, sir," he says: "There's silver all over the place."

"Was anyone hurt?" the superspy asks, after a moment.

"No, sir. Not so much as a scratch."

"Then I think we're alright," SPYGOD says, praying he's correct about this: "Stand down, report back to the Heptagon. I'll see you at 6 in the goddamn AM for your debriefing. Bring ear plugs."

With that he closes the channel, leans back in his office chair in the Flier, and considers a thing or two.

Finally, he gets Hanami on the video link: "Hey flower, how's your morning?"

"Alright, sir," she says, smiling at him.

"You still on leave?"

"I never went on it, sir."

"You're !@#$ing entitled, you know."

"I know. But someone needs to be on guard in case of emergency. I decided it should be me."

"Because you don't sleep?"

Her smile falters a little at that: "Because I don't need to, sir."

"How about everyone else?"

"Well, some of us are better than others," she replies, carefully: "They're saying Gosheven might eventually resolidify, provided someone doesn't keep pouring more alcohol into the bucket he's chosen to mourn in."

"That sounds about right," SPYGOD says: "Tell Myron to stop !@#$ing boozing him. I know it's probably the most damn peace he's gotten in a while, but we need that goofy !@#$er back on the clock. We got all kinds of !@#$ to deal with."

"Yes sir-"

"And I got a !@#$ing job for you, Hanami," he says, leaning in close: "I need it handled quick and quiet. Surgical, if you get my !@#$ing drift."

"I got it, sir," she nods: "Who and where?"

"Ever been to Taos?" he grins.

Her smile drops.

* * *

The AGENT sits and watches the scene unfold. 

He's in a cheap hotel he's feels he's used before, out in Austin, Texas. It's far enough away from the Flier that, should anyone suspect bugging, it would be one of the last places considered. But then he could be anywhere in the world, or off it, and observe the goings-on as though he were right there. 

After all, he does have the backdoors into all their security. He's had them since he started this job. 

(Technically, even longer than that...)

As he watches this man give orders, he wonders if he's ever heard about this day, before. It sounds familiar, anyway. 

But who did he hear it from? Did he read it somewhere? Was it buried in a briefing?

And was it even real...?

That's the problem with all of this. He can't be sure about anything, now. 

If what the temporal sensitives are right? What if he's fated to go through what he saw, back in Rikki's office, moment by moment until the second everything goes black?

But what if they're wrong? What if it doesn't happen that way, after all? 

And if they're wrong about that, then what else have they been wrong about all this time..?

Of all the AGENTS they've had working with the Time Chamber, he's the only one who's lasted this long. All the others have retired, or had to be retired, due to the stress and strain that going through history causes. All the brain wipes. All the not knowing anything about what you did, once you get back.

Never knowing if you changed something, however small, that made a ripple that became a wave and changed everything...

Fading is for losers. He used to say that. He used to believe that. 
But isn't this exactly what fading from reality would feel like? Being told you have to do something like this?  

Being told you shouldn't even exist...?

He looks away from the screen, and then back. He grits his teeth. He thinks of his husband, his wife, the child they're all going to have that he just learned about. 

He decides, right then and there, that he's going to get through this craziness somehow. He will make it through to the other side, where it will all make sense. 

He will make it home, to where his loves, his life, and his fathers are waiting for him. 

Meantime, he just has to hang on, watch carefully, and be ready for the moment he's seen to come around. 

* * *

The video link goes off right on time -- 8:35 in the damn PM -- and SPYGOD turns it on so fast he barely sees himself move. 

"Hey hon," Straffer says on the prerecorded message, sent however many hours ago from Mars: "It's me, dialing in from the death ship. If I've got this right you should be receiving it with just enough time to catch that movie. You'll have to tell me what you think. I'd be curious to know what came out of the debriefing. 

"Anyway," the blonde cyborg sighs: "Lost another lightship, today. They were doing a run over what's left of the Arcadia Planitia when something just reared up out of a hole and shot a gout of black snot the size of an economy car at the fighter group. 

"Fortunately, they were obeying orders and flying far enough apart that one ship going down wouldn't take out any others. But we lost Specialist Wyndcombe. We think he died right away. I hope he did.

"We also lost the ship, which might be a little worse in the long run. I started this liberation with 200 of the things. I'm down to 73, as of right now, and I've been losing them at an alarming rate since we supposedly won.

"And when they're gone, well... I don't have to tell you. You're the one who shamed those Olympians into putting some metal behind their words, after all. But they've still got their rules. I guess gods are nothing without them.

"Speaking of gods, the Aesir took care of the problem for me. They even brought back the body, carrying it with all the reverence of one of their own. Which is to say they practically threw a party for poor Wyndcombe, and wondered why the rest of us didn't feel like getting drunk and saluting her voyage into Valhalla. 

"(REDACTED)..." he says, looking one way and then the other, and then leaning in to be quiet: "I don't know what's wrong, here. But something is not right with these people. Before they were all evil and nasty, because they were riding some very disturbed and hateful people. 

"But now, well, they're noble and good, but something's still wrong with them. And I get the feeling they're not telling me the complete truth about what's going on. 

"I think that there's still worse, waiting for us down there..."

He pauses, and then leans back: "I know you hate talking to them, given how they operate. But if you could ask the Olympians if they have any idea what's going on here, that might be a good idea. Either that or maybe you could talk to Mr. USA... sorry, Odin. You knew him as a man. Maybe you can get through to him?

"Anyway," he sighs: "I love you. I miss you. I want this to be over so we can all go home and argue in real time about what color to have at the wedding, and whether your friend Frankie can be a bridesmaid, or best woman, or whatever. 

"But I'm willing to compromise. Black and gold sounds great. You'll make it work. You always do.

"I love you," he says, putting a hand to the camera: "I'll talk to you tomorrow."

And then the video link goes off, and SPYGOD sits there for a while, considering his options.

Before he knows it, he's making another call, and then taking another, and then doing even more things he hadn't quite expected to do.

The movie will have to wait. It usually !@#$ing does.

Sunday: 8/14/16

"Well, it's just that I had plans," the Candidate says, not really expecting his political sorcerer to show up in his room unbidden -- much less just teleport in, somehow.

"I know you did," King Whip says, tousling his short, perky haircut and sitting down in what appears to be the comfiest chair in the executive suite: "That's why I'm here."

"Okay," the beefy man says, deciding to sit down: "Is there something wrong? Something I need to know about?"

"You could say that, yeah," the goth-boy says, leaning forward and looking at the man over his dark sunglasses. Something about his eyes makes the man shiver.

"You need more money," the Candidate surmises: "I was going to talk to you about that-"

"Money," King Whip says, raising both eyebrows: "You know what money is?"

"Well, I'd like to think so-"

"Money is an illusion that's made itself a reality," the sorcerer interrupts, pulling a fresh, crisp Franklin from seemingly nowhere: "This piece of paper? It's a hundred dollars, right? It says so on the thing. It's got stamps from the treasury department, a serial number, a signature or two. Mark it with a security pen if you're not sure, but to the untrained eye this is worth ten thousand pennies. Right?"

"I'd say so," the man says: "Unless-"

"Unless it was just a fake?" King Whip asks: "Oh no, this is genuine. I stole it myself this morning."

"Who from?"

"Someone who doesn't need any illusions, anymore," the dark-aspected kid grins, turning the bill over in his fingers: "But supposing I take this bill, and I send it somewhere that no one will understand that it is. Not just into the past, for the dinosaurs to find. Not a thousand years from now, when paper money is but a distant memory. But somewhere that the ideas of paper and money don't exist. Somewhere that writing doesn't exist.

"What do you think the beings that find it will make of this bill?"

"I don't know," the Candidate says, mentally reconfiguring his schedule.

"I don't know, either, but this won't be worth a hundred dollars to them," he says, turning the bill one more time, and then letting it go as it quickly catches fire -- burning straight up in a flash: "It'll just be some weird thing they found, floating around in their environment. They won't know how to interpret it, or know that they should.

"They'll just float on by and not realize that, if they took this and came to Earth in the early 21st century? They could buy a whole lot of cheap-ass cheeseburgers."

With that the sorcerer leans back into the chair, drums his fingers on the sides of the armrests, and smiles: "Money doesn't rule me. I usually don't need it, and when I do I can just steal it."

"So... what do you do with the money I send you?"

"Give it to people who still need it," King Whip says: "No point expending time and effort if I don't need to.

"Which is kind of what I wanted to talk to you about, today," the kid says, no longer drumming his fingers: "I hear you think you can just waggle more money in front of my face and make me fix your bullet proof vest."

"Well, can't I?" the Candidate asks.

"You can, yes," King Whip admits: "But like I said, I don't really need your money. I really need some other things done, instead."

"Ah," the man says, nodding and getting up from his chair: "Smart man. Ask for some favors."

"Not favors, no," the sorcerer says, also getting up -- somehow seeming to tower over his employer: "Understandings. You're going to be the next President of the United States of America. When you are, there's some things you're going to need to do, and not do. Some of it will be for my benefit. Some of it will be for the benefit of others."

"Excuse me?" the Candidate asks, clearly taken aback: "You think you can just... now wait, wait! I just went through this-"

"Oh no," King Whip says: "We're not playing that game. I'm not going to control your mind. You have free will in all this, sir. You always have. You can do whatever you want.

"All I'm saying is that if you want me to continue to help you? You'll do what I need you to. Otherwise, I will walk. I will leave the campaign immediately, and all that I did for you will not only cease to work, but possibly backfire.

"And if I do that? Well... there's just a chance you'll be able to limp across the finish line in last place without me. But whether you'll do it in those expensive loafers or prison shoes is the question. Isn't it?"

The sorcerer smiles, and the candidate glowers, then purses his lips, and then sighs.

"Alright," he says: "As soon as I'm in the White House? Tell me what you need. But until then I need you to keep this thing working. Otherwise-"

"Otherwise," the sorcerer says: "You have my word, Mr. President. Enjoy your day."

Then he disappears -- fading from view as the Candidate watches.

(Was he even there? Was this all an illusion, too?)

The man's face quivers, for a second. Then it falls completely.

And then...

* * *

... Hanami and her team watch from a distance as Yanabah -- dressed entirely unlike herself -- walks through the streets of Taos, seeming as much a tourist as the people she's trying to emulate...

... Odin rushes through the thin atmosphere of Mars, smelling the hunt to come and grinning at the stark and bloody choices it provides him...

...  an almost-unrecognizable Randolph Scott gets off the plane at Nairobi, heading to talk to the one man he knows can help him do the impossible, now that he has no one else left...

... The Owl looks over the old photograph of her grandfather, taken back in 1928, and says a small prayer for the smiling, lovely woman he's posing with...

... Msr Andek wakes in the night to find himself unconsciously pleasuring himself at the thought of encountering that dangerous prisoner, and having a one on one, private conversation with her... 

... the head of the autopsy team rushes down the sterile corridor to call someone -- anyone -- to tell them what they found in the dead woman's body...

* * *

... and, after a full hour of listening to their employer smash and destroy the executive suite like some kind of rock star, his security guards finally go inside to find the Candidate sitting in the ruin -- red-faced and crying, like a little boy. 

Looking for all the world as though that world had finally deserted him.

* * *

This heavy heart / heart that I carry
Still holds the weight of you
And when I fall / As I always do
I'm crushed by the absence of you

* * *

(SPYGOD is listening to Crushed (Front 242) and having an Ashtray Heart)  

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