Too Many Long Boxes!

End of Summer

Half Empty Bowl, Half Full

by David J. LoTempio

A 2nd Helping of Chicken Soup For The Supervillain Soul

Dedicated to David R. Black for reasons

Author's note:

Thank you for opening this story. It's about a man - Count Werner Vertigo - who should be executed for crimes against humanity, and his search for his own human soul. It's about two lovers caught between the titanic forces of personal responsibility and international intrigue. Certain events are mentioned in passing that you might be interested in reading. Blythe Bonner and Werner Vertigo first met in the story Opposite Perceptions . The Vile Virus epidemic appeared in several stories including Prometheus Justified . In addition, a two-part profile on Count Werner Vertigo was published in Fanzing issues 44 and 45. You don't need to read any of them to enjoy this story, but you might be interested in the information.

Much water goeth by the mill,
That the miller knoweth not of.
-- John Heywood

Chapter 1: Megalomaniacal East European Despot Seeks Other

The gentlemen's room of the World Bank in Metropolis was a gild affair of Italian marble and American brass; the delicate scent of musk, so reminiscent of money, rose from its elaborate sink. Werner Vertigo, crown prince of Vlatava, cut a swarthy look standing before the stone urinal with his Hugo Boss suit and impeccable blond hair. He had a meeting in a mere five minutes with Jerome Kerouac, the Assistant Secretary of National Equity, regarding the financial future of Vlatava, and his bladder had betrayed him.

Calling Vertigo the crowned leader was a hasty euphemism, since the country of Vlatava currently existed only in the hearts and minds of several thousand expatriates and exiles. They were the few to escape the tragedy that had devastated their country, an inferno that had scoured the land from border to border, killing everything in its path. The flame had been building for years, fanned lovingly by civil conflict between the Catholics and Muslims. Unable to quiet their perceived need for vengeance, they had unleashed a tide of warfare, killing all but the two leaders - Werner Vertigo and Aleksander Hafza, an ex-general in Vlatava's former army. That had been five years ago; now the surviving remnants of that country were attempting to reunite themselves. Werner was here to plead their case to the World Bank.

While his nervous bladder slowly emptied, he reflected on the rococo business plans and constitutional laws of his fledgling new government. Business had never been his strong point - killing was - and he cursed his luck that he had not better prepared for this meeting. Instead, he had spent the evening discussing controversial plans to reintroduce Vlatavan exiles to their homeland, despite international reservations. The Foreign Minister from Finland hadn't been able to keep his hands off of Blythe. In the morning, he had barely been able to concentrate through the pain of his gene therapy regime, part of his presently successful battle against chronic manic depression. His arm still throbbed, pulsing rhythmically against the fine-spun wool jacket. While pain, exhaustion and depression were not allies, Werner had lived with them long enough to make them something closer than enemies. Now here he was, waiting for his national pride to clear itself, and his head filled with vague links between infrastructure costs, existing national debt, and available resources.

Finished, he quickly but not frantically - never frantically - went to the marble sink and washed. A compliment of toiletries stood proudly to the side. Curious, Werner reached for the most elaborately decorated bottle, a cylinder with silver epaulets and gold-flaked medal, and dapped his finger. The odor reeked like day old cheap Indian take-out. Werner's infamous past as the villain Count Vertigo had taken him to many rancid places - the fetid Cambodian jungle, the charred flesh scented streets of Apokolips - but they were next to nothing before the ugly taint of cheap cologne. This confirmed Werner's suspicions that something stank in the heart of the World Bank - Old Spice.

He washed his hands again, applying jasmine-scented lotion, when the toilet flushed and a large man exited from the small cubicle. He was a tall, athletic man, unlike the other pear-shaped bankers walking through the walls of the building. His suit was respectable, probably off-the-rack, and Werner mentally noted that the man was lucky to find a suit to fit him. He had an odd look about him and it took a moment for Werner to realize that he was completely hairless: no eyebrows, no hair, and no chin shadow. He reminded Werner of an ill-finished statue to some ancient god, perhaps of war. The lack of eyebrows was somehow offset by a deeply rippled brow and crags about his eyes. The man poured a pool of Old Spice into his palms and generously massaged it into his face and neck.

Werner toweled off and made for the exit, briefly passing through the noxious cloud of man-scent. His smooth-skinned hand was on the doorknob when the man called to him. "Vertigo, you forgot this." The man was holding Werner's leather portfolio, which contained documents regarding Vlatava's solvency and interim government. Werner cursed himself for the mistake; it could have cost his country. He took the portfolio from the man and slipped it beneath his arm. Now he was beholden to this brutish fellow and nothing offended his dignity more.

"Thank you, sir. My mind was on a rather important meeting and I did not want to be late." The man looked away from Vertigo and grabbed a towel from a stone cherub.

"Kerouac ain't going to be starting nothing until I get there," he said, his voice slightly muffled by the Egyptian cotton. "So don't you worry about missing that meeting, Vertigo. Come on, we'll walk over together."

Werner had spent several years working with clandestine government groups, particularly the infamous Suicide Squad. Those times of deceit and lies had taught him to recognize an Agent of Influence - shadowy men employed by corporations to straddle the delicate line between the intelligence and business communities. He was not familiar with this man, which concerned Vertigo since such an unusual appearance should surely have warranted notoriety. He wore a nametag but all it said was Magistrate. Was that his name or title? Too late, Werner knew he had dropped his guard and let this man, who clearly knew much, into his zone. Werner put his defences up anyway, his face returning to its usual inscrutable mask.

"I take it you work with the Assistant Secretary?" The cologne stench was over-powering with the Magistrate walking so close. He was too close, really, deliberately invading the invisible borders each of us consider sacrosanct. Vertigo thought about using his special ability - to induce nausea and distortion by playing with human senses - but that would have escalated the situation; tact was called for. Stepping away would have been a gesture of weakness and, despite the Magistrate's imposing figure; Werner absolutely refused to show frailty. He had murdered gods, after all, in his time.

The Magistrate graciously opened the door to the Assistant Secretary's office with a foppish bow. He was a brazen fellow, Werner thought, and he silently thanked God for that. It gave Werner something to concentrate on, something to hate. He scanned the room. It had a very American appearance with dark wood panels and deep leather chairs. The coffee table had a tactful number of golfing magazines, and the requisite bag and clubs sat next to a large leather lounger, as if it were a quest in the room. The sweet tobacco scent of cigars was hidden beneath the atmosphere. Assistant Secretary Keroauc was standing by a mini-bar, pouring a round of orange juice. He appeared to be in his mid-40s with a plump belly and a golfer's tan blistering his face. Conservatively but well dressed in a grey suit. He turned to Vertigo, all smiles, and greeted him.

"Count Werner Vertigo, it is my pleasure. Would you like a glass of juice or a mimosa? I have some fine champagne around here." His voice had a New England accent.

"Assistant Secretary," Werner said as he pleasantly gripped his hand. "Juice would be fine. I must confess to being slightly surprised. I expected you to be French. Your surname, after all."

Kerouac brought over three juices and placed them neatly on the coffee table. The Magistrate casually took the lounger, his frame solidly filling its length. Kerouac sat in one of the chairs adjacent to Werner's own. "My family is French-Canadian actually, which I suppose is French enough, but whatever. We switched sides during the French and Indian War. Supposedly I'm related to the writer."

"Forgive me," Werner replied. "My interest in literature is a recent vintage. I'm unfamiliar with your relative. Is he any good?" He raised the glass of juice and smiled primly at his hosts.

"He was a bum. You're not missing anything," Kerouac replied.

The Magistrate looked queerly at Kerouac. "A hopeless romantic," the Magistrate said. "Naïve. But I thought he captured the Rockies well - the comfort of its vastness, that sweet taste in the air after a hard snowfall, the headiness. But everything has two faces; he just ignored the menace."

In the exchange, Werner had divined the true measure of the relationship. Kerouac was the underling and the Magistrate was the lord. The pair was circling him like hunting dogs, probing his mind for defects through this innocuous conversation about literature and nature that obfuscated the true train of thought. If Werner joined them, he would play their game, with no clear view of the path but only the conviction that it would be bad for him and his country.

"I'm sure that is sage advice in all matters," he said, taking the initiative. "Perhaps we could turn our attention towards my country, else I fear we become a coffee klatch. It has been five years since Vlatava was razed to the ground by fire and I am very eager to resurrect it."

Kerouac took on a serious pallor. He nodded to the Magistrate. "Just to let you know, we are aware of the - shall we say - Biblical nature of the disaster. We're very interested in preventing such a matter from ever happening again."

The confession was interesting but not unexpected to Werner. It was believed by the world at large that Vlatava's population, including plants and animals, were exterminated by a terrorist's nuclear bomb. The savage truth of the matter was known to the Heads of States throughout the world, a carefully guarded secret spread only through whispers, like a ghost story - Vlatava had been judged and destroyed by an act of God. Kerouac's disclosure meant that he or the Magistrate was connected with the highest levels of power, warning Werner that larger stakes were in play than merely his country. But what?

"As am I. You have my word that my countrymen are committed to peace. It is our fervent hope to create a new Vlatavan state that respectfully includes both Christian and Muslim factions. The current state of the world can ill afford another breeding ground for terror. Our Muslim cousins have every right to participate in the new government."

"That's pretty big of you, Count," the Magistrate snorted. "You must have swallowed a whole lot of pride while you watched your country burn. The Muslim Vlatavans burned your family's relics, didn't they? Was that 1994? They were placed in the Church of St. Stansislaw, which I do remember having an exquisite stained glass depiction of Christ's baptism. There were 100 refugees hiding in the Church when the Muslims bombarded it with mortar. Everything burned in a night. That's a tough pill to take."

So this was to be the game, thought Werner. Kerouac feints while the Magistrate lunges. The destruction of St. Stansislaw's Church was a tender scar. When the church fell, Werner had his troops burn the Muslim refugee camp of Gramada in retribution for that crime: 300 women, children and injured dead. He had confessed the tragedy to a missionary priest, who threw Werner out of the confessional, yelling - "How can God forgive?" In the end, the priest was right. God did not forgive. He had sent his wrath to burn the country, leaving Werner to carry the burden of guilt. He had also learned a bitter lesson: ideology knows no division as its ashes mingle in the air. In due course, manic depression had returned.

Werner shook the thoughts from his head. This was neither the time nor the place to contemplate such things. It weakened him, made him susceptible to these over-bearing personalities whose lust for his country was a palpable tang. He drew his hate and focussed it in his mind at the Magistrate. The destruction of St. Stanislaw had occurred near the end of the Civil War and no official records existed detailing its fall and aftermath; this was a boon to Werner since no records existed regarding his war crimes either. How could the Magistrate know of such things? By playing one hand, the Magistrate may have left himself open to another. "You speak as if you were there, Magistrate. Is it Magistrate? We haven't been formerly introduced."

The Magistrate drew his wrinkles into a fat smile. "I read a lot." Werner noticed that the Magistrate had a tablet open upon his knees; he was sketching across its surface.

"We also see Vlatava as a great opportunity for other countries in the region." Kerouac said, coming to the defence of the Magistrate. He took out a cigar and held the box out to Werner, who gently declined. "A free standing country with no indigenous population is unheard of, even in this age of Superman, Green Lantern, and alien invasions. Vlatava has a large reservoir of fresh water supplied by the neighboring Carpathian Mountains and long-term underground aquifers. Water is going to grow as a commodity in the 21st century. Did you know that we're already seeing water scarcity in the Southern Hemisphere? Those wealthy countries in the north of Europe will pay top dollar to water their lips."

Werner pictured Kerouac as an annoying toad, something to squash beneath his feet. "A very intriguing suggestion, Mr. Kerouac. Are you proposing environmental resource development as a viable industry for our fledgling nation? We were considering a return to coal production, in the hope that the World Bank could provide financial assistance for the rebuilding of Vlatava's infrastructure - roads, communications, utilities, and industry. I am more than willing to entertain your proposal if you are saying that money is available to develop such a program. What kind of jobs would this create? Do you have 10-year projections?"

Kerouac smiled at the Magistrate and then turned to Werner. There seemed to be a personal joke running between them. "I apologize, Count," Kerouac said. "I didn't explain myself fully. The member countries of the World Trade Organization contacted me and some are eager to identify a resource for cheap, available water that could be used in production. In addition to other resources like coal and copper. They're willing to pay you a respectable fee for the rights to mine these resources, as well as assuring that the mounting debt of the former government is cleared."

"Mr. Kerouac," Vertigo said, slightly puzzled. "You seem to be forgetting about the thousands of expatriate or exiled Vlatavans, both Muslims and Christians, who hope to return to Vlatava and rebuild their lives. The former Vlatavan Ambassador Riina Trelinka and her junket to America have already crafted a preliminary government structure. We plan to move within the year. I hardly think leasing our natural resources to foreign nationals will bolster our independence."

Kerouac chuckled slightly. "Well, I'm sure former Ambassador Trelinka's people have informed you about the $56 billion in debt owed by the former government. In fact, I know that you have consolidated all your remaining finances. How much are you worth, Count? $50 million? $20 million? That won't even cover the legal fees. Your parents sold the family jewels years ago to cover your indiscretions, and whatever valuables left were burned with the rest of the country. Once an interim government is up, the confetti won't have time to hit the floor before creditors and businesses come looking for their money. The World Bank can make that disappear."

This was the real chain that they were trying to hang around Werner's neck - debt. Werner had seen it used in many other countries - Thailand, Congo, Sumatra. It was a ghostly presence reducing people to commodities, devaluing independence. Werner's self esteem wasn't for sale. "You're suggesting that I sell my country. You would make Vlatava disappear."

"Those creditors could make a lot of things disappear, Vertigo," The Magistrate said. "Gene therapy is expensive. Medicine is expensive. You visit a $3,000 per hour psychiatrist once per week. The Vlatavan consulate - excuse me - former Vlatavan consulate costs $500,000 per year, including utilities. Let's not forget that girlfriends are expensive too. How much does it cost to keep her out of jail, Vertigo?"

Werner concealed his anger with a polite smile. His involvement with Blythe Bonner, the novelist and former super villain, was an open secret. She and her brother had committed various computer crimes as the digitally powered villains - Byte and Bug. Identify theft, extortion, attempted murder, and embezzlement was a short counting of their crimes; it was nothing compared to the offenses committed by Vertigo. The United States Government tactfully forgot about these issues after the trio had assisted the US during a viral epidemic last year. They were politely told that the back door was open and to never haunt the halls again. Blythe and Werner were broken spirits, fractured by biology and environment. Their edges interlocked in places to form temporary bridges over the cliffs of their neuroses. They had found some comfort together and were crafting a relationship whose end Werner preferred to avoid predicting. "I occasionally forget how pre-occupied you Americans are with money," he said. "You don't recognize other currencies like honor. Go ahead and take my money. I'm afraid you'll find that it doesn't stop me. Maybe your files are missing that information."

The Magistrate rolled his eyes. There was nothing he disliked more than a drama queen. "Count, you may think you're on a high horse but there isn't anything under you but your bare bottom flapping in the breeze. Your country has got nothing to be proud of. To be honest, I always thought Vlatavans were jackals and rats fighting each other over stupid religious reasons. They were judged and got what they deserved. I don't see God coming down and giving you the two tablets. If you want to be Moses then you need a beard."

Werner took out his cell phone and told Josef, his driver, to bring the car. "This meeting is over, gentlemen. I've politely heard your offensive suggestions and am quite tired."

As Werner got up, Keroauc held a folder towards him. Werner took it, surprised at its weight but not that its contents described in brutal detail the economic fall of Vlatava's interm government. The final pages reiterated Kerouac's plan, notably in unspecific terms; no countries or companies were named. "Consider it," Kerouac said.

Werner glanced at the Magistrate, who was probing his gums with a lively and sizable tongue. He met Werner's gaze, his anarchistic eyes breaking past Werner's royal sheen. With sickening understanding, Werner knew that the Magistrate was judging him. Who was he to judge Werner? The stench of the oldest spice - blood - hung about the Magistrate as palpably as on Werner. The eyes told the difference though; the Magistrate enjoyed murder. "I suggest you stay out of Vlatava until we sort this out like men," he said. "If you go back and try to reclaim it, then the smell hits the fan. Out of our hands, old bean."

Werner concentrated on the Magistrate, using those terrible eyes as targets. He watched with pleasure as surprise wrapped the man's face in sweaty fingers. The Magistrate gripped the edges of the sofa, cracking the wood trim in his hands, and tried to keep seated. His tablet fell to the floor; a startling portrait of Werner lay open. Colors inversed and funneled towards the Magistrate, forming a killing gyre. He reached up to defend himself, but he needed the hand for balance and so the room grabbed his arm, pulling him into its distortion. He landed beside his drawing tablet on the floor. "Vlatava crossed the threshold of forgiveness when it burned for its sins, Mr. Kerouac," Vertigo said. "You and your leaders may see it as an opportunity to exploit. I prefer to think of it as a chance to build something better than the values that killed it. I will consider your indecent offer. I suggest you consider whether soda water will get human bile out of spun silk suits."

Werner closed the door on the Magistrate retching.

Kerouac went to the Magistrate. "Not on the carpet," he grimaced. The Magistrate knocked Kerouac's handkerchief away. Part of his jacket slipped away from his frame, its edges bristling with blackened fibers. Kerouac took a step back and drew in an astonished breath. Small dark craters lay in the carpet.

Magistrate whipped something from his lips that wasn't blood. "I'm glad that I get to break him," he said.

Former Ambassador Riina Trelinka and former Foreign Minister Lyuben Zhotev sat in the Vlatavan limousine as Count Vertigo stepped in. Their faces looked expectantly towards his. It took them a moment to realize that his pallor was not his typical depression. "They want us to sell Vlatava's natural resources in exchange for relieving our debt."

Riina collected her sparse energy in a deep lungful of air, savoring Werner's cologne. She exhaled her anxiety in a slow, controlled breath. The quest to renew Vlatava was making her experience titanic stress. Even in sleep, she could feel time's pressure squeezing at her youth. At 36, she was the youngest ambassador to America in Vlatavan history - a position acquired by attrition when the former ambassador died defending the Vlatavan Royal Library: mortar attack - 1, human body - 0. She'd always dreamed of leading her homeland into a happy dawn, but now her dream was denied not by her country's self-loathing but by provocateurs. She began to understand how hate was born.

Minister Zhotev was the first to break the tension. "Sounds like your meeting was as fruitless as ours with the U.S. Department of Agriculture." Lyuben was a pragmatic man and negative feelings were tossed onto his bonfire of inefficient thoughts. Surviving Soviet occupation, six assassination attempts and a bloody civil war could do that to a man. It made him useful. "The United States is prepared to loan us money to purchase a significant amount of grain and food but only if we buy it from them. If we take the loan, we create more debt. It's a Catch-22: we can not start our country with debt, and we cannot start it without it." He tapped his lower lip; there was a successful book here somewhere. He would be sure to discuss it with Ms. Bonner.

"Perhaps we should negotiate," Riina suggested. "The World Bank wants all, but we give them some. We may have to marry the West, but we can set the dowry."

Werner turned his head away from Riina and Lyuben. "I doubt the Assistant Secretary will want to see me too soon. I made someone named The Magistrate spew across his carpet."

Riina threw her hands in the air. She should have anticipated something like this fiasco. Vertigo was a considered a villain by the Western press, his lineage and upbringing ignored by all but the tawdriest magazines. He didn't help his image or his country's with acts of provocation. Secretly, she had hoped that the crucible of diplomacy would burn away Werner's imperfections. As much as Riina hated to admit it, her own secret passion for Werner trying to hide it, Blythe Bonner was the only thing that brought out the Count's true luster. It was with no small relief that she heard Werner's next command.

"Take me to the Starbucks. I need to see Blythe."

Chapter 2: I Can Bend Steel In My Bare Hands But I Can't Have You

"So these books really sell?" Casper Gent eased his bulk into the oversized chair, letting the foreign flair of Starbucks Sumatra blend drips into him. He had just finished a thankfully brief stint in Blackgate Prison, his so-called summer home, and was glad to finally have a decent cup of coffee. His new pair of jeans, favorite Green Bay Packers sweatshirt and the lovely woman sitting before him, her black hair looking full and warm, combined to make the afternoon one of his more memorable days, post federally-imposed holiday.

"10 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List. Paperback, not Hardcover." Blythe Bonner casually recorded Casper's bio into her iBook. They had briefly met last year during the Vile Virus Crisis, a biological terrorist attack that had turned the world's heroes into villains, and villains into heroes. Blythe had revelled in the experience, freed of years of emotional trauma that had led her to a life of crime and humiliation. Casper went from Casper mob enforcer to Casper Milquetoast.

"My publishers didn't think it would go over so well, but the public loves a good villain. There's just so much better dirt you can dish out with villains; heroes just come off as being too saccharine. Like, 'Oh, I would never look at women's underwear with my X-Ray vision' or 'Power rings carry a serious responsibility.' Whatever. You know what I mean?" She crossed her eyes in playful indignation.

"That's funny 'cause I seen these books in the Prison library and I thought they were too silly. Y'know, positive affirmation makes a guy look vulnerable in the joint." Casper casually flipped through the pages of his complimentary copy.

"Remind me to tell you about Catwoman's big brush off." Blythe sipped at her Frappachino, opened Entourage on her iBook, and scheduled a 30-minute workout on the stairmaster back at the Vlatavan consulate. Frappachinos were delicious but they were murder on the hips.

Casper glanced down at her feet. She wore heels with slender straps that gently curved around her ankles. Her nails were finely burnished and painted. A year ago, Blythe had been wearing a crazy get-up that had made her look like a reject from an old video game, which, Casper thought, was kind of ironic since Blythe Bonner, as the former villainess Byte, could enter electrical gadgets like computers at will. She hadn't been too attractive then, and, truth be told, he had been a little too busy checking out Catwoman. But Blythe had obviously done well for herself while he was in prison. She looked good. Casper wondered if this meeting could be construed as a date.

"So Casper, do you have any amusing anecdotes about your life as Blackguard, super-armored enforcer? I really like that one about how your armor rusted up when you fought Aquaman."

He hid his face behind over-sized fingers trained to break necks. "Oh man, don't use that one. Where's Ariel when you really need her, right? I could have used the talking crab when I was stuck under 50 feet of water and Aquaman's just called the electric eels. It's funny now, though. Are you recording this or something? You ain't typed anything into your laptop there."

Blythe smiled and turned the iBook's screen towards Capser. A rapid succession of text - Casper's story - appeared on the screen. "I was never much of a typist, but now I don't need to type to enter stuff into my iBook. My powers even let me answer phones without picking up the receiver. But don't stop with your stories while I show off."

"Y'mean you just think it and it pops up on the screen of your laptop? Wow, that's pretty cool. The mouse is about as technical as I get. Although, I am good with tools myself. I mean in a purely tune-the-engine-up kind of way and not the - y'know." Casper grabbed his wrist and mimicked a loud snapping sound.

"Like, I'd rather not know that last part, Casper. Why don't you tell me about Batman and the kid in Gotham City," Blythe said.

"It was probably one of the more stupider things I've done," Casper said, "just ahead of putting on that science fiction suit that made me a super gangster. These always seem like good ideas at the time." His frame swelled up as he told the story as best he could. "Well, I knew this kid from the neighborhood: ran a few deliveries for the business, always kept his mouth shut, quiet. I mean I don't know him from Adam but he asked no questions and wasn't afraid of a lot of blood, which makes him 10 feet tall in my book. So I sees him holding onto his gray guts behind this dumpster, with six bangers standing over him. They're in an alley which I'm using to amscray. Now, these guys have got no business with the kid, but I don't want to stop because I should be out of Gotham by now; Batman is looking all over for me. But I don't want to leave the kid either."

"What about your suit?"

"Right, the suit!" Casper rubs his teeth. "The suit was out of juice from when I last tangled with Batman. Usually, these gangers would be nothing to me, I'd whip up a laser sword or something, but I was a knight in armor without his sword and shield. Still, it gave me an edge for all of five seconds and then the bangers were all over me. All of a sudden - BAM - Batman shows up! Takes these guys out in a couple minutes. Now, I should have just ran out of there. But I sees the kid looking at me with that stare that ain't there. I seen it too many times before, like when you're up close next to a guy with only pliers holding him together. I get up and start pushing his guts back into him. And I yells at Batman, I mean I gave him both barrels of my lungs, 'You better get on that Bat-cell phone and call an ambulance or I'm shoving it down your pointy ears.'"

A smug little grin played across Casper's face. Blythe noticed his nose had a cute broken curve to it. "Bats ain't used to guys like me mouthing off in those situations. He just blinked at me like a dummy and then he calls 911. I went to Blackgate but the Kid made it. He'd be dead if not for me."

What the story lacked in finesse it made up for in emotion and Casper's own je ne sais quois. She liked the image of Batman's pointy ears.

"I think it's really nice with you telling our stories," Casper said. "I don't know but it's like we get a bit respectable. We get some of the limelight and people don't think we're all feebs or bad guys. I'm mean, yeah, I'm a bad-buy, but I'm not a badguy. Y'know what I'm trying to say, right? You're one of us."

Blythe clenched her jaw and looked into the sugary murk of her Frappachino. "Well, I really don't do that anymore. Like, that's in the past and I'm much happier as a writer. That virus changed our minds; it really helped me. I don't need to be Byte - angry electric person, anymore. Speaking of which, they have a name for viruses of the mind that change your perception. They call it a meme. That's my new superpower; I control memes."

Casper didn't like people messing with his mind. He was never wise or independent, granted his cunning was sharp. So he was more than a little fearful of people trying to play with his brain. "Hold on, I don't know what you were thinking but I don't want you leeching my mind like an oil change."

"Calm down, Casper." Blythe laughed. "Superpower is just a figure of speech. Memes are just ideas and concepts, which is what writers manipulate. We adjust the thoughts of the audience. Advertising is all about memes - 'We get your whites whiter, Clean is cleaner' - it doesn't matter if it's true, just that you think it's true. Like, people think that computer programming is such a guy thing, but the first computer software was really written by a teenage Victorian girl. Sometimes it can be a good thing, though. That's why I like these Chicken Soup books, because it makes supervillains nicer. It's like I'm creating a new mythology for them.

"For instance, do you remember Dr. T.O. Morrow," she said, "He tried to kill Superman and the JLA? Everyone thinks he's some kind of terrible person - granted he tried to kill Superman and the JLA, but that's another story - but he was able to engineer robotic parts that are now used to create adaptable limbs for people with disabilities. No one ever remembers that Blackstar expanded theoretical physics, changing how we see the universe, or that Captain Cold once saved an organ transplant recipient with his Cold gun. Look at me, I was a total loser as Byte and then that virus made me realize how utterly stupid I was, and then I decided that this - moi - is the image of me that I want. It's like I wrote myself a new identity."

She flung her head back, baring a big pearly smile, and then Casper noticed the polished stone necklace, its deep enamel gleam catching the richness of her hair. He nodded his head. Blythe had come a long, long way from last year. The last time they saw each other had been when another criminal - unaffected by the mind virus - had turned on them, reducing Casper to fool, infecting Blythe's mind with worse thoughts. Now, she was like Julia Roberts. Was that a meme, he thought?

"I was wondering if you wanted to catch some dinner? I could tell you some more stories."

"Sorry, Casper. I've got plans with my boyfriend at Little Lady by the Lake." Casper's chin sank into his face, which was quite a feat since it stuck out about two inches. The old Byte, born out of family dysfunction and hormonal fear, might have taken up Casper's offer. His eyes and arms weren't uncomfortable. But Blythe recognized that the gesture would be misplaced; loneliness is a poor interpreter. Blythe began to put away her Palm Pilot and iBook.

Casper pointed to her laptop's cover, the traditional bright white Kevlar replaced by chevrons and stripes. "I've been meaning to ask what that design is."

"This is the flag of Vlatava. Eastern European country. Former Soviet Bloc."

His eyes lit up. "Oh yeah, that was the country with the Muslims and Catholics killing each other. They set off a nuclear bomb; that was like out of a Tom Clancy novel. "

"Yes, like the moral to that story is think good memes." Blythe gently padded Casper's paws in confirmation.

"Lady, you're a bald-face liar and con artist." A man in his mid-30s turned towards them. He had been checking stock prices on his Handspring visor, drinking a Spice Chai and nibbling pleasantly on a cookie, only a feet few away. His eyes were impossibly blue. "Sorry for interrupting, but I couldn't help but overhear your baloney. Are you expecting people to shut off their morals and forget the crimes committed by you people?"

Blythe was not used to such forward criticism. She had been on the defensive most of her life, desperately trying not to get hurt, succeeding most of the time by hurting others. After high school - never completed - she had tracked down several of her nemeses and ruined their credit histories with a few electrical tricks. She liked to believe that life had evolved her into a more levelheaded, stronger person. Nervously, she replied to the man. "No, I'm just showing that you can't pigeonhole villains as inhuman. We can do good things. Like, you're a racist! We have families. We have husbands and wives."

"And you're really responsible, caring for your family behind bars," the intruder spit out. "That's pretty incredible. What is that - a new superpower - psychic parental projection? Face facts, you're trying to wipe your bloody hands clean. I'm sick of liberal media trying to make me accept that right is wrong and wrong is right."

"What's wrong is going to be your face in about five seconds, buddy." Casper got up from his chair, prepared to lay his fist between the beady, faux blue contact lenses of the man. Before he got the super suit, Casper's fists had been known as bricks, his strong bony knuckles protruding out, ready to dent the flesh. He could see the man reaching for a canister in his suit, probably red pepper spray or mace. Neither man carried out their action, though. A sound like bees gurgling came from Blythe Bonner. Her eyes were turned back displaying the red-riddled white of catatonia. Her teeth ground against each other. The men paused in horror. "Sweet Jesus," Casper exclaimed.

As suddenly as the buzzing, cracks and sputters popped out of her head, they stopped and Blythe Bonner's pleasant face returned. "You're a fine one to talk, Basil. What does your friend Verlaine mean when he said to go blow later? Oh, and have you decided whether to have dinner with your wife tonight - she's making Dim Sung - or are you going to ditch her for Alice at the Four Seasons?"

"What the hell are you talking about," the intruder said, as he ripped his jacket from Casper's grip. "You can't insult me like this. You don't know me!"

"Answer your cell phone, Basil," she said impassively. The soft MIDI sound of a cell phone swelled from the man's jacket. He plucked it out. Glancing at the screen, he noticed that the call was from a blocked number.

"Yes?" The man's eyes darted between Blythe and the cellular. He studied her face intently, looking for a sign that the call was a hoax or a trick. Blythe sucked upon the sweet Frappacino. The man slammed his cell phone into his jacket and dashed out of the coffee shop.

"What the hell was that all about?" Casper said, more than a little perplexed.

Blythe turned to Casper and motioned to him. He looked down and saw that he was dripping coffee onto his jeans. "His name is Basil Chesterton. I checked his messages and then I called his home and placed a few choice ones on his answering machine. I told him that if he left now, he might have a chance to erase them before his wife returned."

"That's a pretty good, trick. Too bad you've got to do all that funny stuff. It ruins your pretty face." Casper was impressed.

"You mean the eyes in the head and bad dial up noises," Blythe asked. "I just did that to mess with him. Thank you for the compliment, though. Unfortunately, I still can't go to dinner with you tonight. I'm proud of you for trying, though. Good job."

Blythe finished putting her equipment into her shoulder bag and merrily waved goodbye to Casper Gent. She walked out of the café, leaving him to the comfort of his Sumatra, and into the electric afternoon of Metropolis. It was one of the few American cities that could match the ozone pop power of Tokyo. A digital heartbeat pulsed beneath the concrete, vinyl and neon forcing dreams and aspirations through the arteries of this seemingly perfect 21st century city. Blythe thought there could be no better home for Superman, or perhaps for her.

She was surprised to see Werner a half hour early, already waiting for her at the intersection. Two years ago, she would never have imagined a royal romance. It was a fairy tale, and a latchkey electric daughter from Manhattan didn't have time for fairy tales. She only had time for the pain, or so she thought. Though his mood was laconic, his eyes flared when he saw her. She went to him and he met her halfway with a kiss.

"How was your interview?" he asked. He wanted Blythe's voice to carry his bitter thoughts into the east wind, over the bay, and into the ocean where they would sink. He had no interest in her books but her voice always made his thoughts seem happier.

"Not the worst interview," she said, "but not the best. Blackguard isn't too eloquent but he was kind of cute when he hit on me."

"I recall Blackguard. Powered armor, able to generate weapons made out of hard light. He was almost recruited into the Suicide Squad, but they thought he was an unreliable buffoon; a remarkably rare moment of prescience on the government's part."

"Suicide Squad? You never tell me about those days. I bet they'd make a great book."

"Death wishes, murder, backstabbing, New Gods, illegal use of tax payer money, unrequited love - I'm sure it would be a blockbuster. Unfortunately, I'm bound by a gag order, and I'm sure I would be assassinated if I ever gave up the goods, as it were. They'd probably send Lawton."

Vertigo felt his shoulder tug as Blythe stopped, their love suspended between them by the fragile grasp of their hands. "They'd send Deadshot? You're joking, right?"

Deadshot was the world's most expert marksmen, a killer for hire to the highest buyer. Currently, that was the United States government. He and Werner were bitter acquaintances from the Suicide Squad.

"But of course. Am I not known far and wide for my sly wit?" He drew her to him, placing a hand upon the small of her back.

Chapter 3: Family Members Make The Worst Criminal Partners

Barney Bonner was not what you would call a successful supervillain. It all seemed to happen so fast, ten years of running around digital pathways in an absurd costume, stealing information and identities. It had seemed bold and manly at the time, no coincidence since Barney had rarely felt empowered back home, but his mask had done nothing to heal the emotional wounds left by his family. Trolling through the Internet had left him a nowhere man. He had missed grunge music, literally. Instead of crowd surfing with his peers, he had spent much of the 90s either in jail or hidden in an underground bunker in Saskatoon with only a T1 line as his connection to the outside world. It seemed like a natural evolution from his youth: birth - neglect; boyhood - latchkey; teen - abused; adult - alone.

The prescription on his glasses was a year out of date.

The restaurant - Little Lady by the Lake - was located in Metropolis' Little Vlatava, a thriving community of East European refugees. The walls were lined with rustic paintings, guarded by crèches containing statuary of the Virgin Mary. Combined with the exotic aroma, it was alien from anything found in Applebee's or Burger King, Barney's typical kitchens. One of the statues had palms splayed out, as if awaiting a theological football, and Barney had a momentary epiphany and he realized where the term Hail Mary play had come from.

Growing up, he had never had much time for sports and his divorced parents had never bothered with church. Computers had always been the most dependable retreat, a place he could build his own angels, with gossamer seraphim replaced by plastic wiring. He received better results from those epistles.

Barney Bonner sat at the restaurant table nervously ticking off the time watching the waitresses walk by in their stretch polyester/lycra pants. The smell of spiced sauces intoxicated him. He thought the restaurant would make a great video game. Maybe it would fit in a good dungeon crawl adventure or, better yet, the setting for an attack by virally mutated zombies. Yes, he liked the image of zombies standing beside the Virgin Mary perhaps with her holding a head like an undead football. He would have to make time after he was finished with this job. It all depended on whether Vertigo gave his permission. They had met briefly after the epidemic last year and he reminded Barney of the snooty, fashionable teens from high school, only Vertigo didn't wear Gap or Abercrombie and Fitch. He wore Hugo Boss and made it look good. Barney would need to be careful with Vertigo if he wanted to get permission. Luckily, he had a secret crowbar - his sister. She had abandoned Barney for Vertigo and her writing career, but they were still family.

Barney chuckled to himself. Family: like they really knew what that meant.

Blythe and Werner were right on time, and Barney watched as an elderly woman, the owner he suspected, greeted his sister with a motherly kiss. She grabbed a hand between Blythe and Werner, energetically pumping them in the air to accent some point, and then pointed to the table where Barney sat. He waved his fingers. His sister moved in swiftly and hugged her brother. It felt unusually sincere; his sister had emotionally abused Barney when they were teens, a skill learned from their mother. She was genuinely happy to see him, and Werner, he just moved through the crowd like he was contemplating a crime.

"Barney," she said, "couldn't you at least wear a nice shirt. Like, that t-shirt is older than the Flintstones." Now that was the sister Barney remembered. Werner turned to the older lady and ordered a round of drinks and an appetizer. He didn't comment on Barney's clothes but he had casual indignation on his face.

"Your sister tells me that you have a proposition for me?"

Barney squirreled up his confidence. Concentrate on the specifics, he thought. He reminded himself what his partner had told him - "Conversation is a code. Break it down to its binary, because that's your strength. Code is your home." And then he looked at his sister and knew she would be repelled if she knew the identity of his partner. She'd hate her brother.

"Yes, I'm trying to start a business," Barney said. He paused and added for no good reason - "a legitimate business. After the Vile Virus epidemic I tried finding work in the technology business. Most times I wouldn't get past the front door, even before they found out about my criminal record. It's baloney anyway you taste it though. I'd just be stealing some dude's job anyway, and I don't blame a guy for protecting his job. About three months ago I ran into another guy interested in developing an Internet Service Provider that could offer premium domain privileges to unique customers. Something like a Swiss Bank for data or websites."

The waitress placed a pitcher of water on the table and a dish of bread and vegetables. Barney kept his eyes fixed upon Werner, knowing enough to keep his mouth shut around outsiders. He didn't even take a free look at her chest. Werner poured himself a glass of water and used it to swallow a pair of pills. Barney resumed his explanation. "There are a bunch of cyper-geeks trying to create a data haven in a place called Sealand, an old British gun post in the Atlantic that thinks it's a country. The sovereignty allows them to operate outside of traditional laws and regulations. Unfortunately, the owners, rulers - whatever - of Sealand are in a legal fight with Great Britain, so who know's if they'll ever get off the ground. We think that we can beat them if you give us the constitutional leeway. And the opportunity to build around Lake Sofia."

"Barney," Blythe said; the name hung in the air like a curse. "Like, you have got to cancel your subscription to WIRED. Put down the GAME BOY, sweetie, because it sounds like you're getting lost in cyper-geekdom."

"I confess to being unschooled in the Digital Underground, but judging people is one thing I am good at. Who is this partner and how do you know that he is to be trusted? I'm not about to take your word for it. I barely know you," Werner said.

Beethoven's Fur Elise softly broke the tension. Werner checked his cell phone and saw the call was from the most despicable woman in the world. "Excuse me, this is a rather important call."

Werner entered the men's room and made sure that no one was in the tiny cubicle. He could do without the Magistrate popping out of the toilet. Sure that he was alone and the door locked, he answered the cell phone - "Hello, Amanda. I heard that you have the Suicide Squad up and running again. Please don't suggest a reunion."

Amanda Waller was a member of President Lex Luthor's cabinet, Secretary of Metahuman Affairs. Growing up in the urban jungle, she was shaped by the merciless surgery of ghetto life. Inner-city cannibalism had removed her son and husband from the living. It had devoured something in Waller too; Vertigo would have said it was her heart, but a heart did exist. Instead, it is more aptly said that America's ghetto had eaten her dreams of domesticity, and the thing that replaced it was an iron-clad desire for civilization. She had wanted to be a mother, but now she was a political matriarch. Her attention was on Vertigo.

"Don't get prissy with me, Eurotrash," she replied. "I'm returning your call. Besides, you're positively too high class for the gents in charge of the new squad. I hope you're enjoying your lunch at the Little Lady. I imagine you'll be washing dishes in a few days to cover your bills. Or is it true that you're giving up Vlatava to the World Bank?"

Barney tipped his head to the table. Blythe was more than a tad upset with her brother; he was trying to ignore her. Out beyond the edges of her perception, she could hear the lambent rustle of electronic stalkers, digital breaths held tight spying upon cellular transmissions. She was intimately familiar with the practice. With easy effort, Blythe shed her five senses and entered the digital. She found her brother tapping into Werner's conversation. Angrily, she cut him off. "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?" she sent.

A stiff wind could blow Barney over in the real world, but amongst the digital signals Barney's stamina was a clear, powerful transmission. He pushed past his sister's presence and tapped into the cell phone broadcast again. Briefly, the deep rhythm of Amanda Waller slipped into the ether - "I hope you're enjoying the wine and roses while you can."

Blythe opened her eyes. There was an easier way. She grabbed the pitcher and doused him. Barney lurched back to the real world, his lips sputtering and spitting. He looked down upon his shirt and saw the stains fade into the moisture. "Why did you do that!"

"Because you were being rude," she said.

"Well, what do you call this?" he exclaimed. He stretched out the t-shirt, which clutched his shape with wet fingers. "Look, I'm just checking to make sure that he isn't squealing my ideas. The last thing I need is someone ruining my business."

"What you need is keep out of other people's business," she said. "Otherwise, it'll get you killed one day."

The thought of giving Vlatava to anyone, even a piece of it, repulsed Werner to his core. He could tell that others - Keroauc, Waller, perhaps the Magistrate - felt that there was little left of Vlatava to lose. In truth, the loss of Vlatava was near complete; there were no trees, no animals, no people, and no culture. Three silent companions were the only beings keeping it alive: its phantom debt, the illusory lines of border, and most importantly the hope of the Vlatavan refugees. But Werner was chary to give up his dreams for his homeland, and if it meant negotiating with a political hag like Waller, then so be it. "You were never much of a banker, Amanda. You never knew the true cost of human life so I will spare you a pedantic lecture. Tell me, did you find anything about this Magistrate?"

"You must be dealing with a nasty ghost, Eurotrash," Waller said. "You need Majestic Clearance to access his file. I couldn't get to it. I know that President Luthor brought him in to work with the intelligence agencies. He's a friend of Senator Bob Graham, who's on the Select Committee On Intelligence. This Magistrate has got a name that makes people clam up when you drop it in a conversation. In other words, that's all I've got."

Werner was furious. "You're useless, old woman. This tells me nothing."

"My job is worth a lot more to me than whatever I owe you."

"Don't play games with me, Amanda. I know where the bodies are buried."

"And I'll gladly make you one of them, Eurotrash. I'm not playing games with my own neck. I'll tell you what though. I feel real bad for you, really weepy. I'll give you a freebie. I know that the Intelligence boys don't want a country. Look what happened in Iran and Afghanistan; they ran those places into the ground. On top of that, we're a little too busy up here on the Hill setting the barbecue for terrorists. So, they must want something in Vlatava. What did they want?"

"They wanted resources: coal, copper, uranium. We have uranium deposits along the Carpathian Mountain range in the south! Uranium has many uses that could appeal to them?"

A scoffing laugh racked across the phone. "Boy, if they wanted uranium they could just walk into a State-side processing plant and take what they want. Or they could just buy a bomb off the black market. They'd have to waste a lot of money digging it up out of those mountains to get at uranium."

Werner furiously scanned his thoughts. The Magistrate loomed deep over them, standing in the way of Kerouac's propositions and conversation. He cursed himself for his own hate, which had burned such an indelible impression that it blocked out all else. Werner felt sweat creep along his hairline. I must never become frantic, he thought. Never lose control. He popped another pill into his mouth and swallowed it dry. He felt it stick in the back of his throat, and wished for a glass of water. He turned a faucet and drank a handful. "Water," he said into the phone. "They wanted water. I'm sure of it."

Who else wanted water, Werner thought. He turned and looked towards the direction of Barney Bonner. "Sounds fishy to me," Waller replied. "That ain't a joke. Vlatava isn't like POLAND SPRING, everybody knows where to find it. Christ, you've got the bloody DaNube flowing along the border. It must be something else. Get a clue, Count Sherlock."

"Thank you, Amanda," Werner said as he closed his cell phone. "You've been serendipitous." Her brief cussing was cut short by the soft clatch of the phone. He took another handful of water and splashed his face. He dropped a towel to the floor, its dry paper surface far too hard on his Slavic skin, and dried himself with his cotton handkerchief instead. The three pills took a firm hold on his psyche, pharmaceutical confidence married with the meager slice of wisdom he had acquired in the interchange with Waller. Sufficiently bolstered, he went to deal with Barney Bonner.

Barney was drying himself off with a kitchen towel as Werner approached the table. Blythe concealed a secret behind her ruby smile. Werner guessed that it was a family squabble of some sort. Blythe had told several stories of her awful girlhood; torturing her little brother, embarrassing her father, attempting to murder her mother. Good. Perhaps this meant Blythe wasn't siding with her brother.

"Tell me again about this data haven," he asked Barney. "Who is going to use it?"

"Well," he muttered. "We're focusing on niche clients: smaller nations and select entertainment providers in need of infrastructure and data security."

"Entertainment providers?" Werner was intrigued.

"He means digital pimps and bookies," Blythe explained; she didn't need to spy on Barney's electronic thoughts to know the truth. "The biggest money maker on the Internet is pornography. I think it accounts for 80% of the revenue generated each year. Like, it's the same reason why video made it big - pornography."

Barney jumped at his sister's statements, surprised by his own courage. "Yes, some our clients will include CRT sex dealers and gambling: people who prefer to keep a planetary orbit away from law enforcement. But these people are willing to pay a lot of money for good service. And we're willing to give Vlatava a percentage of that revenue for whatever it needs: 30% off the gross."

"Do you imagine that I'm willing to build my country on smut?" Werner asked. "Does the notion give you lurid pleasure?"

"It doesn't give me lurid anything," Barney retorted. "It's just a business offer. I'm also prepared to give you a $15 million advance if we can have permission to start building around Lake Sofia now. You can have it as cash, a check or an endowment. I don't like my clients either but it's just business. A legitimate business."

"Do you like your work?"

"Computers and programming are my life, but I've got to pay the bills somehow. If I have to cater to gamblers, spies, or what have you, then I don't care, just so long as I stay out of jail."

"If I were you, I'd slit my wrists."

"That's not saying much," Blythe added.

"My point being that why should I want my mortuary to read - 'He built a nation on vice because it paid well.' My country is not a whore. Why should I settle for something ignoble and debase. Life is too short and too cheap already. I realize now that I haven't branded the new Vlatava. Let me make it clear - my country will have nonnegotiable standards."

Barney sent Blythe a beeper message via his thoughts - HELP ME. His eyes, timorous with fear birthed by past abuses, pleaded for something more, hoping to bear witness to true familial love. Blythe could see Barney's memories in QuickTime; jumpy and jagged like a bad modem connection, replaying every insult laden by her. He even kept a database on the number and nature of each abuse. Had she really hit him 15 times? It only seemed like one unforgivable incident.

"Maybe we can help Barney in other ways," Blythe said. "Can't we find a position like webmaster or something? Like, you can work for me, Barney. I need an assistant for my writing. You can help me with my interviews and research. You should have a job with Batman, you're so good with research. You'd be Night Bug or Bat Bug."

"I don't want to be your assistant, Blythe," Barney said. "I want to start my own legit business. I want my geek millions! Now, this is a win-win situation for everyone. I win, your boyfriend wins - non game zero. Tell him that it doesn't matter who my clients are."

Blythe turned to Werner, grasping his pedicure hand. "Blythe, why has your brother not mentioned his partner? Who has such deep pockets? And I'm very curious why he wants property around Lake Sofia?"

Barney shot out of his chair, almost tipping the table over. "I don't have to take these questions. You treat me like an inferior and my sister is still treating me like a boy. Forget it. I have other ways to get what I want. I just thought that - 'Like, my sister had changed."

Blythe rose to stop him, but Werner squeezed her hand tightly. Barney was gone by the time her hand was loose. She cursed herself.

The limousine ride back to the consulate was anything but quiet, with Werner barking orders about crafting a new image for Vlatava. Someone had a crazy idea to offer $1,000 awards to Vlatavans who came up with good business plans for the new country; maybe it was Riina; it sure sounded like one of her collegiate ideas. Blythe didn't really pay attention, her thoughts lost in memories of her brother, wondering why she didn't learn how to be a sister when she learned how to be a woman.

"Lyuben," Werner said. "Do you recall anything special about Vlatava's lakes and rivers? We need to find out why these provocateurs are interested in our country's water. Could something be hidden beneath the waves?"

Lyuben rubbed his balding plate, ruining his comb over. "Why, no, Count. Lake Sofia and its sisters are rather plain as far as lakes go. I recall catching a fabulous trout once in Sofia. I fed it to the Soviet Kommissar and he choked on a bone. It was a good thing I was blackmailing his replacement at the time. Of course, all the fishes are gone now."

"I think we should consider sending a covert group to enter Vlatava and investigate." The force of her own suggestion surprised Riina. "Bonner's mysterious partner could be this Magistrate character. Better to cut them off before they try to steal what is rightfully ours."

Lyuben shook his finger. "I don't recommend that action at all. If we tip our hand, we could jeopardize the re-entry plans. Besides, the United Nations is already patrolling the borders. We need to concentrate on accelerating our ownership of Vlatava and not worry about these spy games. The Cold War of East versus West is over."

"I'll go," Blythe said.

"No," Werner responded. "I need you here. You are too important to me. You need to let your brother grow up, that is if he considers international crime maturing." Werner caught the fervor in his voice, toning it down into a soft bass. "You tried, Blythe."

"Like Hell I did!" She slapped Werner. "Look at me - so self important now that I'm a writer. La de da - I'm the 21st century digital girl with the blue-blooded, drop dead hunky boyfriend. But watch out, cause I suck when it comes to being a big sister. You don't need me, not like Barney does. You've got Lyuben and Riina to advise you. I don't even have a college education!"

The smell of ozone filled the limousine, building to a crescendo that ended with the sudden jarring halt of the engine. The power locks automatically opened and Blythe jumped out. Werner followed and Riina was close behind.

"Don't be childish Blythe," Werner said. "You're more to me that an advisor. You know that. Don't make me say it." Around Blythe, his manic depressive episodes had diminished, not that he would admit it in public, certainly not in front of Riina. Werner came to respect their relationship as a gift from God: two lovers trying to rebuild their lives in love. What better metaphor was there for his countrymen? "How will you even get there?" he softly chided her.

"I'm not being childish, Werner. I'm being an adult, and maybe for the first time. I may think I'm a better person but how can that be true when I haven't confronted my own sins? Vlatava burned for its sins, but I think I've got to save Barney to absolve mine. I've got to treat him better than I have before."

The pavement suddenly tilted towards her and her vision bumbled and twirled. She was shocked that Werner would use his powers on her, but not as shocked as Werner when she sent electricity streaming in the air. Werner felt a hundred pins shoot through his body as his muscles seized. Riina caught him before he fell.

The pair followed Blythe into a shop off the street. It was a computer café and several boys played war games on its terminals. A small number were jabbering and pointing to a CRT billowing smoke. Blythe was gone. Her clothes lay burning on the floor. She had dived into the Internet and soon she would be across the globe. But Werner knew something that Blythe barely realized: Vlatava had no electricity or computer terminals. She might end up in Eastern Europe, but it would be naked, penniless, and friendless. Even if she could get across the border, her powers would quickly dwindle outside civilization's electricity. Werner couldn't let this happen.

"Riina," he said. "Contact Blackhawk Express. I need to charter a flight to Yugoslavia."

Lyuben stood on the sidewalk, watching Riina and Werner set in motion their covert plans. He casually took out his cell phone and dialed. "I hope this isn't a problem but the Bonner girl is probably headed to Vlatava," he said. "I imagine Werner will be following her shortly."

"No problem at all," the Magistrate replied. "I'll sketch you a portrait before I kill her."

End of Part 1

Continued in two months in Part 2: Sorry, sis, but I sold your mind!

is an aspiring writer with a wife, child and dog. He is a closet libertine and thinks he can sing like Marvin Gaye...on his good days. Wishes he could write like Nelson Algren. He is also a contributor to our first comic book, "Fanzing Presents: Job Wanted", which can be purchased at Too Many!

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