Too Many Long Boxes!
   
    THIS ISSUE:
  • Table of Contents
  • Bottle City of Candor
  • Letter Column
  • The Elongated and Winding Road
  • Midway City
  • Vlatava: Jewel of the Valley
  • Off The Road
  • Something of a Stretch
  • Comic Book Movies
  • Never Discuss Politics
  • Elastic Wars
  • Dixonverse Annual
  • Farewell to Dannell
  • Trivia Quiz
  • Art Challenge
  • Writing Challenge Results
  • Musee de Bivolo
  • Long Stretch
  • The Evil Stepmother's Manifesto
  • Burning Over
  • The Case Of The Really Dead Waiter
  • Half Empty Bowl, Half Full, Part 3
  • Echoes
  • Deconstruction of a Tragedy
  • Oracle's Files
  • From the Bookshelf
  • The Mount
  • If I Ran DC
  • Scattershot
  • Back Cover
  • Best of Fandom Award
  • Farewell


  • End of Summer
     

    Half Empty Bowl, Half Full Part 3

    by David J. LoTempio

    A 2nd Helping of Chicken Soup For The Supervillain Soul

    Dedicated to David R. Black for reasons

    What has gone before -

    Werner Vertigo, aka the super-criminal Count Vertigo, has discovered an international plot somehow involving his nigh-destroyed homeland of Vlatava. The lead agent of these forces is a man known only as the Magistrate who wants Werner to sign away the Vlatavan natural resources, including the water rights to Lake Sofia, the country's largest fresh water lake. Barney Bonner, the brother of his girlfriend Blythe Bonner, who is the writer of the successful Chicken Soup for the Supervillain Soul, also approached Werner for permission to develop a business around Lake Sofia. Vertigo denies permission and sets into a motion a sibling battle. In their previous vocation as digital thieves, Blythe had emotionally abused her brother and these unresolved issues explode. Blythe decides to abandon Werner, heads to Vlatava and attempts to retrieve her brother from his life of crime.

    Unfortunately, Blythe is unprepared for the neo-virgin Vlatava, where no electrical lines exist to support her powers. The land is rife with militiamen from the dictatorship of Pokolistan, which also desires Vlatava's unused resources. She encounters a group of vicious American villains known as the Suicide Squad who serve the Magistrate. Narrowly escaping with her life, she finds that her brother is now working alongside the villain who raped her mind, Prometheus. Despite her brother's hurtful words and actions, she perseveres to save him but is killed by Prometheus for her bravery.

    Werner Vertigo follows Blythe to his homeland with Riina and Lyuben, his political advisors, in tow. He leaves them to investigate Vlatava alone. While he discovers the involvement of Pokolistan, Riina and Lyuben disobey his orders and recruit assistance from Muslim Vlatavans living in the southern mountains.

    Meanwhile, the Magistrate draws in his pawns for a final confrontation...

    Chapters 1 & 2 are available in Fanzing #46 and Fanzing #49


    Much water goeth by the mill,

    That the miller knoweth not of.

    - John Heywood


    Chapter 7: Bad Super Villain Names: Bug-eyed Bandit, The Calculator, & Major Disaster

    In 1389, the Ottoman Empire, flushed from their capture of Kosovo, drove their armies and siege engines up through the Balkans Mountains and into the fertile valleys of Vlatava. Sultan Mohammed's janissary squatted among the gentle pines, which formed a furry spine along the Balkans, and planned their bloody conquest of Eastern Europe. The smell of civilized Prague and Vienna called to them with promises of gold, luxury, and, perhaps as the viziers whispered, the secrets of the Jewish mystics. Once they had full control of the East, it was only a matter of time till the Holy Roman Empire fell into their purse and then the whole of Christendom, from Spain to Persia, would be ruled beneath their tanned fist.

    They relaxed amid the fields and streams and imagined that they would own the world from horizon to horizon. They were not the only ones to have conjured these dreams, and the errata of history dotting the Vlatavan landscape reminded them of their long dead peers: the Greeks, the Romans and the Northern barbarians. They camped in the haunted remnants of Roman forts; their bricks surviving the centuries better than their ambitions. The Ottomans saw these fragments and thought -"The sun may have set upon them but the future is ours to carve."

    When the moon rose and cast its perfidious aura across ruddy Vlatava, they slept and thought only of the victorious stories told by their bald giant commander. He spoke of horses burying the cries of the Czechs beneath their marching. He used the embers of their bonfires to paint dazzling cruciform of battling troops in the night sky. They would own this land, but they would not be the last.

    The overgrown Roman fort, Scipio's Sentry, had served the Pokolistan Shadow troops well in their clandestine occupation of Vlatava. Their leader, General Zod, had promised to make their country the envy of the West. Pokolistan had suffered for too long beneath the military heel of the Soviets or the capitalist manipulations of America. Pokolistan would grow and bring its success to its neighbors, whether they wanted it or not. And so they ventured into Vlatava to prevent other nations, particularly the Western puppet, the United Nations, from claiming its resources for their own.

    They had already shot down a black helicopter, but the occupants, Western aggressors, had escaped and engaged them through the countryside. Their orders were to keep these intruders away from Lake Sofia while their mission leader, the terrorist known only as Prometheus, plumbed the treasures hidden beneath it. From their vantage, the Lake was only a few meters away. In the daylight, it had appeared serene and beautiful, but now the crepuscular light made it look bloated like a well-sated toad. Its edges had crept far onto the land and the ancient dirt floor of the post had become muddy. Rivulets of water streamed from the many cracks in the walls.

    Georgi Purvanov, corporal in General Zod's shadow troop 23, felt the Lake's damp fingers inch up his legs as he and his comrades waited for the enemy. They had received a report not 15 minutes earlier from forward that the Americans had been engaged. The report had been abruptly cut short, which did not bode well for Georgi's friends. He was lucky to have been sent back to deliver the woman Blythe Bonner to her brother Barney who was assisting their forces. The Americans were using superhuman forces that could kill with frost or earthquakes. They were nothing compared to General Zod and his vassals who had made even Superman tremble, but still, the ferocity of these Americans was deadly. The troop had only delayed their advance upon Lake Sofia.

    Something hit the trip wire 100 meters to Georgi's left sending a flare into the sky. Bumbling through the brush was a man clad in a garish purple outfit. He dashed towards the concealment of a young poplar where he tripped over another wire. A shower of bullets ripped through the air. The enemy was crawling into a muddy warren as one or two bullets cut into his body. "We have this one, brothers," Georgi yelled.

    "Drop the Hi-ex," another replied.

    Sasha Kavaldzhiev, an old friend of Georgi's, brought up his grenade rifle and loaded it. The target was splashing in the warren in an attempt to keep his head within the slim meniscus between water and bullets. The grenade would soon make it a useless effort.

    Georgi was surprised to see Sasha fall back against the old Roman wall. He turned and reached out, thinking that Sasha had slipped on the slippery floor. Sasha dropped his rifle into the mud. His neck began to spout blood. A bullet had been placed expertly between the protective folds of Sasha's body armor - a feat superhuman in its skill. Georgi dropped below the ledge of the sentry's window as another sniper bullet slammed into the wall behind him. Georgi grabbed the grenade rifle and fired it with a high arch through the open stone casement.

    Fire and mud flew through the air. Georgi grabbed Sasha's weapon satchel and loaded another grenade. A quick glance revealed that a wall of ice had grown between the troop and their target. There was an ice witch among the Americans, but even her powers could not halt a grenade's touch. Georgi aimed at the wall.

    He felt something cold slice through the air from behind him. He turned to see a giant of a man who held a knife covered with blood. Georgi aimed the rifle at him, but the blade slashed across his wrist. The rifle fell into a soup of mud and blood. Georgi swallowed in shock. A great pain swelled in his throat. He touched it and a wave of blood streamed out. Satisfied with his kill, the Magistrate left Georgi to die in the ancient barracks.

    The Magistrate removed a cotton handkerchief from his breast pocket. Its corners were embroidered with a pair of maroon swords that darkened blood red as he mopped his sweaty brow. He surveyed the handiwork of his Suicide Squad and was moderately pleased. A dozen Pokolistan Shadow troops had been killed in as many minutes. It took longer than the Magistrate expected to kill them, but then the mission's expectations had died when their helicopter was shot out of the sky. It had been a deadly struggle towards Lake Sofia and its hidden treasure and, with the fields still rife with Shadow troops, it would be deadlier still to leave.

    The Magistrate paused by one of the dead Pokolistan troopers. His face had blackened and fallen away from severe frostbite. Killer Frost had kissed this one. The Magistrate reverently laid his handkerchief over the man's face.

    "I'm surprised it bothers you. I thought you were more professional." Deadshot, the expert marksman, reloaded his wrist rifles while observing the Magistrate. He had the longest tenure with the Suicide Squad, even having served alongside Count Werner Vertigo, the ersatz ruler of this dead country Vlatava. The Magistrate had wondered if old allegiances would prevent Deadshot from undertaking this mission, but Lawton had made it clear that he intended to honor his deals with Vertigo. This satisfied the Magistrate for he knew of what Deadshot referred: an infamous agreement made by Vertigo that Deadshot would kill him when the ache of living became too much for the suicidal Count. If anything, Deadshot was always a professional and his word was his bond.

    "Oh. I'm not bothered. Poor boy was obviously disgusted with all of this blood and guts and decided to take a sit down. No sense in offending him. Why, it is common courtesy that separates us from the savages. Common courtesy! I may have killed him but that's no reason to be uncivil." He expectorated a wad of black mucous upon the dead trooper. He grabbed Deadshot by the shoulder. "C'mon. I wanna talk with Disaster."

    The Suicide Squad was a brutally efficient concept: a United States black operations manned by expendable super-powered criminals. It proved to be useful under several administrations, as well as politically damaging if not handled sedulously. It existed at the largesse of the president and unfortunate events had conspired against them drawing unwanted attention to the deadly brinkmanship practiced by the Squad. The President was considering whether to cancel their black charter, since their leadership had disappeared into the shadows of the Pentagon, and so the Magistrate's mission was a final opportunity to prove their worth.

    This version of the Squad consisted of only four members: Deadshot, Major Disaster, the villainess Killer Frost, and the ex-mobster called Blackguard. The latter was the newest member, but Major Disaster was the most eager to finish the job since he hoped his stint completed his reformation from villain to hero. He had turned his aspirations to finer dreams, which now focused on his health.

    "Am I keeping the arm?" he yelled to Killer Frost. "Jesus! There is no way I'm losing a body part on my last mission. I was hoping to join the Justice League, but they don't take you with one arm. Have you ever seen a cripple on the Justice League? No way. Now, I'm probably stuck with the Outsiders or some other second-rate team."

    "They call it the Suicide Squad for a reason," Deadshot said.

    Killer Frost used her thermal control powers to create a sling made out of ice that both supported his arm and numbed the pain. "Don't goad him," she said. "He just enjoys the attention. Besides, maybe he has the right idea switching over to the side of the goodies. He wasn't much of a criminal."

    Blackguard stepped back and took a good look at Killer Frost's figure. For a woman who hated men, she didn't make much effort to escape objectification with her low rider pants and a v-neck halter that barely laced in front. She was a feast for libidinous eyes, of which Blackguard had two. The wintery blush upon her cheeks and her locks of icicle-like hair aroused him. He didn't stand a chance with her but the heat of combat allowed stranger compacts. He could hope and watch. Besides, he was really here to try and get in the good graces of Blythe Bonner, to whom he was attracted. Saving her estranged brother might do the trick.

    "We're never going to survive with this lunatic on the mission. Deadshot let them shoot me. I could have cleared this whole area if only he'd warned me how close we were to the position of those troopers." Disaster turned to Deadshot. "Suicide means you kill yourself, not let others die. That's just murder. We're not called the Murder Squad."

    The Magistrate swung the butt of his rifle into Disaster's mangled arm, knocking him to the ground. Pain swelled in him and his head filled with panic at the unprovoked attack. The Magistrate held out his hand. "Get up," he said.

    Disaster took his hand and was gently lifted from the ground. But the Magistrate did not release his grip. He spun Disaster, choking him with his own arm. "I don't like whiners," the Magistrate said. "I like hypocrites less, although I find them both useful in my kind of work. How many people will die because of your clumsy actions, Disaster? I asked you to use your powers to flush out the Pokolistan forces. I expected a localized earthquake; the Turkish fault isn't that far away after all. Perhaps a 4.5 on the Richter scale."

    The Magistrate shook him like a Christmas present. Disaster gagged for air as sparkles started to blink in his vision. "Instead, your powers created massive flooding throughout Eastern Europe. Prague is going to be underwater for days! I hear half of Dresden is swamped. That doesn't help me, son. Lake Sofia and its tributaries are backing up because of the flooding on the Danube. That doesn't help me either. Your incompetence means hundreds of people are going to die. But not the people that I want dead, son! I'm starting to want you dead. Think about that." He released Disaster's hand.

    "I noticed some gunfire from the south," Blackguard cautioned. Wisps of cloud still drifted in the air above the remnants of a road that exited from Bogomil's Way, the ruined highway system between Vlatavograd and Sofia, capital city of Yugoslavia. Blackguard was beginning to feel like a literal fifth wheel since he had no personal connection with any of the other Squad members. He hoped to ingratiate himself with his tactical observations. "Wasn't any of us. Got me a little worried that there are more troops."

    The Magistrate gave Blackguard a brotherly smile that made him feel more comfortable. "I wouldn't worry about it, Blackguard. I made arrangements for support before our injection. Some of my other associates know how to reach my expectations." He stared at Major Disaster. "The attention of the Pokolistan forces will be divided for a short time. We'll try to slip in around. Avoid the creeks and streams. If they're not swollen, then they'll be guarded. I'll slip in and take control of the Lake. If anyone finds Count Vertigo, Barney Bonner or the terrorist Prometheus don't bother saving them for me. Just kill them."

     

    Chapter 8: Sometimes I Wish My Life Were Like A Raving, Improvisational, Speed-rap, Proselytizing, Evil-Genius Master Plan

    Beneath the surface of Lake Sofia, Prometheus the master villain pistol-whipped his Pokolistan henchman with his steel nightstick, which was ruthlessly designed with 11 preset levels of destruction. He reserved #11 for people like Superman since it could reduce reinforced steel beams into particulates that made asbestos seem as safe as snow. Level 5 was Ontological Despair and, after they were knocked into next Sunday by it, most superheroes began to seriously doubt the truth of their secret origins, eventually leading to a complete mental breakdown. That was a favorite setting. Currently, he had the stick turned all the way down to #1, leaving it just a hunk of steel, but one that allowed Prometheus to practice the bombastic art of the beat down. He could break a rib with but a touch, shatter an arm with a simple caress, or kill with a single ferrous kiss.

    The soldier had the hubris to actually question one of Prometheus' plans, breaking one of the first of Prometheus demands to the Pokolistan government - there were to be no questions. Their militant leader, General Zod, was so full of himself, surrounded by fawning and sycophantic aides, it nearly made Prometheus vomit so he made as many idiosyncratic requests as possible: 20 crates of knock-off Levi Jeans, the Pokolistan bikini team, a living chess board. Zod wanted a world arranged in crisp, military rows with its gut sucked in, chest stuck out, and a gun on every shoulder. His uniforms were washed in the blood of nonconformists, and starched in their ground bones. He was a little too much law and order for Prometheus tastes which ranged towards the systemic destruction of social law and justice. The pair was fated to clash but anarchy made strange beds, as well as strange fellows, and for now General Zod had the men and Prometheus had the means. Eventually, the General would get what was coming to him, but until then this soldier made a lovely proxy.

    The soldier backed against a computer workstation; the room was rife with electronics and the air hummed with the sound of fans trying to cool the hundreds of Digitronix central processing units that were analyzing enormous amounts of data. His jaw burned from Prometheus' assault. He looked up in time to see the nightstick arc overhead. His rifle buckled in two as it briefly repelled the attack.

    "Just take it," Prometheus said. "We'll both be finished in no time. I beat Batman twice Polka-boy. You couldn't beat me in Tekken even if I played with my tongue." Truth be told, Prometheus enjoyed torture and was having trouble choosing the best method to cripple the soldier. He'd been locked in this technological bunker for days. It was a relief to beat something to a pulp.

    He swung his arm back with the nightstick but his strength seemed unbalanced, as if gravity had sharply dropped. A tingling sensation crept from his fingers and up his spine. Nothing was clear as the space between him and the soldier stretched far away into the distance, while his vision crawled like a snail across the surrounding walls. He didn't need his cybernetic spinal attachments to tell him that he was experiencing vertigo, a particularly powerful variety that came on too sudden. A blow struck his feet, although he barely felt it, which knocked him prone. The fall was leisurely delightful. When he finally reached his destination - a cold, concrete floor - the vertigo began to subside. His vision cleared and he saw the soldier standing above him with his steel nightstick.

    The soldier removed his mask to reveal the face of Werner Vertigo, otherwise known as the super-villain and sole-remnant of Vlatavan royalty Count Vertigo. Prometheus had anticipated his involvement, what with his country and girlfriend's brother involved, but he was surprised to see Vertigo utilizing duplicity; it was out of character. "My apologies, Count," he coughed. "I thought you were someone else."

    "You thought I was a cheap Pokolistani hood," Werner said. "A life cheaply paid. Pray continue speaking. It seems you've been an industrious beaver, building this technological den, and I'm eager to discover who else is involved in this cabal to undermine my revival of Vlatava."

    Prometheus cleared his throat. Bile and mucous had collected there giving a frog-like taste to his voice. His fingers still felt numbed making it difficult to trigger the pharmacological drugs in his belt that would arrest the vertigo. He needed time; something the Count seemed willing to give him. "I didn't build this place, Count. These childish block frames and beige colors denote minds with a dependence upon simple structure and social order. I prefer non-Euclidean geometry. Staircases that lead nowhere. Disorder."

    "You must be a very small person inside that helmet to constantly need to sound so amusing. Let's stick with the details about the Byzantine plot."

    Prometheus wagged his finger at Vertigo. "Small...hah hah...touché. I'll give you that one for free." He paused and spit. "I like Byzantine too; it's a good word. Such a small person like myself has an affinity for big words and one of my favorites is echelon. Do you know what it means?"

    The boy, Werner couldn't bring himself to consider the young anarchist a man, pursed his lips into a childish wiggle that infuriated Vertigo. Werner appreciated the boy's sarcasm like an affliction. It was reminiscent of the Magistrate, that scabrous provocateur who prodded Werner like a Soviet Kommisar. If they were going to be indignant, then like can be returned with like. "Isn't that the ship from Star Trek?"

    Prometheus lightly guffawed. "I thought we were dispensing with witty repartee. Voulez vous coucher avec moi ce soir? Y'know, I just realized that we have something in common. We both have cybernetic enhancements."

    Werner lightly tapped Prometheus' helmet with the nightstick and then tickled his perceptions again with a disorientating wave. It took a heroic force of will to keep his stomach inside. Prometheus continued once the nausea had past.

    "Echelon is not just a word, it's also a term for a trans-national electronic surveillance project created by the United States and the United Kingdom. It's a combination of orbital and land-based spying set up to tap, ingest, analyze and categorize all communication around the planet."

    "And this facility was built in secret to monitor the world's databases?"

    "Part of the world, everything as far northeast as the Urals and as far southeast as India. Her majesty's General Communications Headquarters ran it before I liberated it. I've burned quite a collection of Bollywood DVDs. Pardon me for changing the topic but have you ever read Christopher Dewdney? He has this great book called LAST FLESH that talks all about transhumanism."

    "Yes, yes. Save the book club for the talking heads. Am I to assume that Pokolistan is interested in this installation because it will reveal what..? General Zod's address book, his recipe index, perhaps his Everquest game..."

    "..his attack scenarios for the invasion of Central Europe, from Vlatava down to Turkey, schedules for conquest of Russia and Western Europe, vulnerability analyses of American infrastructure, plans to destabilize oil production, terrorist targets, etc., etc., etc. You can't keep track of all that information in a Hello Kitty notebook. It's all on computers. It allows Zod to concentrate on other things, like polishing his armor and coveting the West. Like I was saying, technology allows us to multi-task. These artificial organs free us from the tedious activities of life."

    Werner sent another wave at Prometheus to silence him. Regardless of Prometheus' piffle, his story was beginning to take a proper form. The natural resources of Vlatava were a lucrative front to gain control of this installation. No nation likes to have a peeping tom looking through their private files, particularly Pokolistan. Why was it abandoned though? A sheet of dust covered the walls and equipment in sections of the facility indicating that Prometheus' invasion was the most recent activity here. "This was built before the Civil War, wasn't it," he asked Prometheus. "Built during the Cold War, as a way to monitor the Soviet Union. And then the original spies burned with Vlatava leaving the station unmanned but still hidden. All this time, a hidden river was flowing through Vlatava."

    "Yes, NATO was able to sneak in and tap the Soviets communication line with the assistance of the Internal Minister at the time."

    "Lyuben? He knew about this installation? Lyuben is an agent for the West!"

    "West, East, South, North. Lyuben's little pointer is sensitized to money and fine living."

    "Lyuben told you of this place?"

    "No, I met Lyuben back in 92. I was a member of a criminal organization called SKULL and we were trying to retrieve an artifact from your St. Stanislaw Church. The little pack rat smuggled us in. I stumbled across the facility on my way East to find a place called Shamballa. It's Old World politics with a 21st century pop sensibility. Streaming control that only needs a Real Media Player to experience it, which I think is a bit of a drag because I prefer Quicktime. Think different, I say. Maybe Apple will put me on a poster someday after I surgically install an iPod into my auditory canal?"

    Werner felt an absurd disdain color his thoughts. No matter how many times the world turned, humanity replayed the same struggles over and over again, not unlike teenagers who play a video game until they are satisfied with the outcome. Vlatava, both physically and spiritually, seemed forever caught between the titanic forces of national politics, whether it was the Hapsburgs versus the Ottomans or the United States against the Soviets. Ideology lost all relevance to Werner if Vlatava was cursed to live in a world where one choice was no better than the other. One man saw the division between Christianity and Islam. Another traced the division to deeper ancestral lines. Werner was sick of it.

    "And what is your interest in this gerrymandering," he asked Prometheus.

    "I get the opportunity to stare back at the enemy: the National Security Agency, the CIA, and the CGH. Barney Bonner has slipped past those digital voyeurs and is stealing data, leaving Trojan horses, and creating backdoors into the most sensitive servers run by the American and British intelligence agencies. We're going to implant files corrosive to their monitoring systems. I can steal their wallets and then make them think I'm a charity. I get to pursue the cause of anarchy. Y'know I really do feel a certain affinity between us. Both of our parents were abused by the system."

    "What are you talking about? What do you know about my family?"

    "The Soviets kept many files that I took the opportunity to steal. You were admitted to the hospital four times while you were in college: once for friction burns around your neck and three times for lacerations on your arms. You needed 110 stitches. Wouldn't have anything to do with your parents would it? I could see how their extra-curricular activities could traumatize you."

    Werner slapped Prometheus.

    "Your mother arraigned for your passport to Eaton College by sleeping with commissars and DKV. Now that's the house that funk built! You know what I'm talking about."

    Werner kicked him.

    "Your father was pretty too. Most people would call him handsome but the files call him pretty. Could that have anything to do with his licentious activities among the Soviet Mens Club? He was a featured attraction. You couldn't bear the price he paid to keep your family safe. Is that why you're a mass murderer, Werner? You should change your name to Pervertigo."

    The nightstick swung against Prometheus. "Shut up before you need an electronic mouth."

    "Now that'd be cool transhuman transplant - an electric mouth. I'd never have to worry about cavities again. Isn't it nifty to have these weird organs? You've got your little vertigo device implanted in your brain. I have total physical and mental control over my body and can do stuff like implant new skills or record the abilities of Batman or say counteract the neurological affects of vertigo."

    "What," Vertigo gasped just before Prometheus knocked the air out of his lungs. He bent over and grasped for breath. Nimble, strong fingers held his waist and turned them. Prometheus landed two quick blows to his kidneys, forcing Vertigo to the ground.

    Vertigo pointed to Barneys chair to try and distract the anarchist. Prometheus turned. He saw that Blythe's cord had been installed into Barneys chair. She was not dead. Instead she had followed Barneys path.

    "Son of a B..."


    Blythe Bonner felt the familiar lightning flow through her veins as she entered the Internet. The cacophony of information pulled at her with muscular currents as it eddied and flowed around the world. Like the ocean, it was a strange and wonderful place, and one that human arrogance thought it knew too well because human minds had built it. Architecture is but a reflection of our psyches and time has long recorded that the human soul has deep, hidden shoals that contain unnamed beasts. Blythe had tread within those depths for much of her adult life and it was there she returned to find her brother Barney, because it was those places where a person could commit deeds best left secret. She changed her file type to MP3 and appeared to be a low-grade copy of Straight to Hell by The Clash.

    Information lingers in this electrical world allowing the trained hunter to follow her prey. Blythe had spent the better part of the past decade plying a criminal craft that had honed her into a digital jaegermeister. Barney's passage had left a soupcon of cookies for Blythe to follow.

    She found part of him, a remnant left to guard his exit, outside the entrance to the NSAs firewall. From her own experience, she knew that he would have left his lower functions behind, those vestigial lizard-like reactions genetically programmed into us millions of years ago, while his higher analytic functions that allowed him to make swift cognitive decisions were inside the NSA servers, performing Barneys evil ministrations. This bifurcation gave her a modicum of an advantage since his exterior node had responses that were simple: be silent and vigilant. If she surprised Barney within the NSA server, she ran the risk of assault by both Barney and the NSA, but if she could draw him out then he would exit quietly and then confront her at a more advantageous location. Such places were never far in the Internet.

    She crafted an email message based on FBI protocols, something Barney's guard functions would be sure to monitor, and sent it with simple executable file notifying Barney that his sister was in the neighborhood and would like to do lunch. After sending the message, she entered a Blog and waited for her brother. Barneys Blog message appeared 30 seconds later - WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING HERE!

    LIKE I WASN'T FINISHED WITH YOU BARNEY, she replied. YOU'VE GOT ANOTHER THING COMING IF YOU THINK YOU CAN WALK ALL OVER ME, Y'KNOW, MAKING THOSE DISGUSTING MOVIES WITH MY MIND, AND THINK I'M GOING TO ROLL OVER AND TAKE IT. WELL, I'M A WOMAN BARNEY, AND LIKE HELL HATH NO FURIOUSNESS!

    Barney began to see the possibilities and liked what he saw. If he wanted to really leave Blythe's shadow, he'd have to do more than pick at her pride. He had to demolish her. He thought about all the times that she'd demeaned him, hit him, and just left him in the dust while she went and lived her princess lifestyle. He stoked his fury with those thoughts, prodding the flames from licks into long, red fingers, until he was almost totally consumed with rage-filled courage. He did have some good memories that cooled his hat, familial snapshots of decency and sincerity, and he was surprised to see them surface now, but they were easily thrown onto his fire.

    YOU'VE GONE TOO FAR NOW, he replied. TRAVELLING TO VLATAVA TO RECONCILE WAS REASONABLE, IN A PATHETIC SORT OF WAY, BUT THIS CROSSES OVER INTO DEEPLY STUPID. YOU'VE A LOT OF TALENT, BLYTHE, BUT MY WEBFU WAS ALWAYS BETTER THAN YOURS. IF YOU WANT TO TANGLE WITH THE BULL, YOU HAVE TO DEAL WITH THE HORNS. Barney accessed the shortcut to his bootleg copy of GRAND VICE AUTO and called up a taxi cab outfitted with a spiked cattle catcher on its front grill.

    WHATEVER. YOU'RE MASCULINE FANTASY IMAGE CAN'T WITHSTAND A GOOD DOSE OF OPRAH AND I'M THE GRADE A, HIGH TEST STUDENT OF DR. PHIL, DONT Y'KNOW. I'LL HAVE YOU SOBBING ON MY SHOULDER IN TWO SHAKES OF A PUPPY DOG'S TAIL. NEVER MIND YOUR WEBFU.

    Barney drove his cab directly at Blythe hoping to grind her signal beneath his wheels. It didn't take much for Blythe to open an old Mario Bros. program and access the jump protocols. She leapt clear out of the Blog and dashed through other sites. She lost her brother after visiting the Brookings Institute and hiding in their case studies section.

    A dozen blue meteors soared above her trailing long turquoise exhausts that diffused into clouds of indigo as the data streams caught them. The phenomenon was unknown to Blythe and, like atmospheric portents of old, she interpreted them as a foreboding color. It was easy enough to avoid them since their path ran parallel to hers. She could feel Barney coming nearer so she flexed her valences and propelled herself deeper into the Net. She hid in a fan site dedicated to Firestorm, and took the opportunity to upgrade the entries for herself and Barney.

    As she left the server, another flock of cobalt objects hurtled near her. They were irregularly shaped with either a cylindrical or rectangular shape. The cylinders tapered off into a smooth, curved point. The others were circled by raised edges that descended into a valley-like depress. There were unlike any iconic image she had ever seen and Blythe stopped to watch them pass. They made quick 90-degree turns, like a school of fish, looking for something in the data's flow.

    An alarm from her parietal lobes, the area that coordinated spatial dimensions, told her that the pair of blue flyers was coming towards her. At this distance, she could see the faint wireless signal emitted by the objects. She could also distinguish the nature of these objects; they were teeth. She sent a disruptive surge against the pair, causing one to dissolve in an inky blue mess. The other darted around her, its signal humming, until it dug its incisor into her.

    Immediately, Blythe felt a loss of self. The sapphire tooth was leaking her signal across a wireless cloud - "This is Radio Paradise on Shoutcast...Breaking News...Brazilian or Regular Wax..." Her ego broadcast dropped, causing her to feel a slight, blissful sensation, a momentary oneness with all. This thing was a parasitic weapon, cunningly designed to cause a diminished state of consciousness to mask its attack, not unlike a leech that secretes a soporific to disguise its bite. She grabbed the tooth and dissolved it.

    The sky filled with a series of blue streaks 28 in all that converged on Blythe's position. They were a great, multi-angled jaw that was biting down upon her. Barney had dismantled his own mouth and converted its parts into a fleet of hunter/seeker drones. One had weakened her but 28 would surely cause her death. PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER BARNEY. She said. BEFORE I GIVE YOU ANY MORE CAVITIES.

    Again, she felt a brief loss of self as three teeth clasped onto her. The memory of her first soccer goal, its elation and vigor was lost forevermore, along with her embarrassing first date and a good chunk of Laura Ingall books that she had read till their covers fell off. Good riddance to the later, she thought before she shook off the tooth-induced relief that swept through her. She wildly shifted her wavelength, making her essence elusive and slippery, so that the teeth lost their grip.

    She dissolved two more but the remaining 26 oscillated wildly until their frequencies embedded in her signal again. The notes from her new book dissipated across the Berkely campus. Everything was being stripped from her. It reminded Barney of one of those stop motion movies where a squirrel advances from dying to desiccation in a matter of minutes. Blythe had accumulated 30 years worth of memories and now they were gone in less than 30 minutes. All that was left of Blythe was a little box. Barney picked it up. A picture of a cloaked lady stood up from the box. A logo proclaimed her to be the Oracle of WiFi. Curious, he opened the box to find a note that said, "I'm inside you Barney. I'm making you better."

    Barney barely had time to exclaim - "You wi..."


    "...itch," was all Prometheus could say. The electrical power flickered for a moment as its flow spiked. The villain leapt to his main workstation to discover that the data stream had stopped, something had happened to Barney. His disappointment was followed by amazement as two pair of ghostly arms reached out from the workstation. They stank of ozone, and scintillated with pale blue veins along their lengths. Prometheus was lifted into the air with his arms and legs held out so that leverage was impossible. Barney's face appeared on the workstation screen.

    "I can tear you apart like a Boston Market chicken," he taunted. "Give it up." While he might be cocky, Prometheus was no fool and knew when to re-assess his situation. He went limp in surrender.

    Werner was tempted to bat at the villain like a piñata with his own nightstick. He heard his name called in shock. It was Blythe, of course. She was hastily putting on her mismatched clothes. He dropped the nightstick and went to her. They had exchanged harsh words in Metropolis but the animosity disappeared with Blythe's happy face. It was a relief to find love amidst the danger and paranoia surrounding them and they drew strength from each other as they kissed. "You do realize that I saved your life, my dear," Werner said. "Prometheus attempted to distribute your electrons across the Lake."

    "Be quiet." She kissed him again. The security he offered by his mere presence was great comfort to her. She didn't need to be told that he saved her; it was something he did every day.

    Barney waved at the pair from his chair. He still controlled the arms holding Prometheus but he had sent his consciousness back to his real body. "Pleasure to see you again, your highness," he said to Vertigo.

    "What happened to the surly, sodden sibling Barney that I met in Metropolis?"

    "He switched to Apple," Blythe replied.

    Werner was happy to hear snappy patter return to Blythe. "Honestly. What did you do to him?"

    "I rewrote his memory. Like, it's the total post-modern construction. I took his old memories and identities and tweaked them a bit. Well, more than a bit. Like a lot. Y'know I just threw in all the virtues and habits I thought were worthy of my brother. Presto - new Barney."

    "It reminds me of something Borges might have written."

    "Borges? Never heard of him. I stole the idea from a manga comic...GHOST SHELL or something. You can get a lot of cool ideas from comic books."

    "We better leave quickly," Barney urged. "The Pokolistan Shadow troops are reporting that the American sedition team has broken through their lines; it's a tough crew called the SUICIDE SQUAD. Sounds like the Squad is made up of Deadshot, Killer Frost, Major Disaster and, ain't this a kick in the head, Blackguard."

    "Casper," Blythe exclaimed. "Poor Casper must have gotten nabbed again. I wouldn't worry too much about him. He's sweet on me."

    "Be that as it may," Werner consoled, "he may have no choice in the matter. The Americans probably had us under surveillance since we began re-building Vlatava. If so, Blythe's interviews with other villains may have provided them with fodder for their Suicide Squad."

    "Those bastards! Geez, now I wish I had let Barney sabotage the NSA's servers."

    "What are you talking about, Blythe. I would never do a thing like that. Ever!"

    "Of course, Barney. I meant '8arn-E,' the Norwegian rave hacker. Slip of the tongue."

    "Who is their leader, Barney? Not a single one of those you've mentioned offers decent guidance. They would have selected someone with cunning."

    "Some bald guy that's like a human terminator."

    "That's a coincidence. Werner just met someone like that. Do you think that's bad karma?"

    "The Magistrate," Prometheus offered as an answer. "He's interested in regaining control of this Echelon facility."

    "Look, we better get the heck out of here." Barney pulled at the cables attached to his costume. "That is if we want to leave without incident, Count Vertigo. There is only one exit out of the facility and the Squad will be coming through it soon enough!"

    "Like, we could scram via the Internet, Barney."

    Barney looked cross at his sister. "How could you abandon the Count? We all leave together."

    "Just testing," Blythe smiled.

    "What do you know of the man, Prometheus?"

    The anarchist knew quite a bit but considered how much he should reveal. Withholding information might be the best form of revenge. "The FBI, MI-6, Interpol and every other major law enforcement agency in the world have files on him a mile long. He has membership with half of them. He's a double agent that's worked with SKULL, Kobra, DKV, CIA, SMERSH, MI-6, and the Black Crucible. He's been seen at the table with kings and presidents but everyone denies ever having met him. Brothers become enemies after receiving his advice. Most people fear him, others admire him, but he's my Sexy Sadie, my dark guru that took a cheap hoodlum and showed him how to be this charming terrorist."

    "An interesting mentor program," Werner mused. "A pity he couldn't have just chosen the Peace Corps as his chance to give back to the children. So he's a scoundrel, as much could be said of me. He wanted to purchase Vlatava's natural resources, presumably to regain control of this installation. Now I seem to hold the cards. Why don't we wait and see if we can barter?"

    "Why barter when he can just take it," Prometheus countered. "Don't let your pride delude you. He'll just kill you and take what he wants. It's what I would do."

    "Let's just leave, Werner," Blythe advised, her tone was strong to hide her growing unease. "Let him do whatever he wants to do. What does it matter in the long run? You'll just kick him out with your army of loyal Vlatavans. We'll sic Lyuben on him! There's no reason for us to get caught between Pokolistan and the United States."

    "I can't allow Vlatava to be comprised by the West or Pokolistan. It can not be soiled again."

    Prometheus was disgusted by Werner's faux-nobility. "To quote the philosopher Nelson Muntz - ha ha! What a hypocrite!"

    The human spine has 31 pairs of spinal nerves that feed sensory impulses into it. Prometheus has each centimeter of these nerves lined with diodes, bolstered by a chemical laboratory that pumps serotonin into his cerebral cortex. Collectively, these improvements allow him to reach reaction times 50 times faster than any other human. Blythe dug into those digital nerves with a hundred electric nails. She relaxed his bladder control causing Prometheus to soil himself. "I should kill you right now for all the sick, twisted things you've done to me and everyone else."

    "What happened to the new age Blythe Bonner," he asked. "I think your harmonics have cracked your serenity crystals. I'm a licensed reflexologist and in my professional opinion, you're giving off a lot of negative feedback. Such a bad example for your brother. Barney, I think you should have a talk with your sister and straighten her out."

    "C'mon Blythe. Ease up on him. Like, sticks and stones."

    "Y'know Pervertigo, I'm starting to see where your girlfriend gets all of her sickening sweet platitudes that she laces in her writing."

    "What else do you know about the Magistrate," Werner asked.

    "You won't have much chance against him mano-a-mano. I don't think he's human."

    "What is he?"

    "He's hunted scalps along the American/Mexican border and there's a daguerreotype from 1872 to prove it. I've seen him endure enough physical punishment to bring down an elephant. The last time I saw him was eleven years ago when I was in Vlatava. He'd double-crossed my crew so I had Muslim mortar crews bring St. Stanislaw's Cathedral down around his head. He survived that somehow. He'll cut you in two if you give him the chance."

     

    Chapter 9 - I'll Give You Something To Cry About

    Riina Trelinka, aide to Count Vertigo and the former Vlatavan Ambassador to the United States, trudged through her homeland looking for someone to evict. Against Vertigo's direct orders, she and Lyuben Zhotev, Vlatavan Foreign Minister, had remained in country and enlisted a crew of ex-Muslim separatists to aid them in liberating Vlatava from a group of foreign insurgents. This wasn't a duty that she enjoyed. She was a peace-loving woman at heart and organized several peace movements during her college years. She had escaped much of the violence during the Vlatavan Civil War, if in truth anyone was separated from it, for every family had at least one parent or sibling whose life was taken by the infectious killing. It was perhaps better to say that her values and humanity had survived largely intact. Innocence is the first thing sacrificed in any war, and Vlatava had seen much of its virtues tossed upon the fires of racial hatred. Somehow, Riina had stood amidst those flames unmolested, which she took as a sign that she had been selected to safeguard all that was good and noble in her homeland until it could return. Her country had other designs for her though.

    Riina and Lyuben had traveled north from the Stara Planina with two jeeps filled with men, part of the Muslim enclave sequestered in the hills, who were working off their sins by carving cliff-side chapels to God. Lyuben was slightly disappointed at the turn out, having expected to recruit the full 20 men living there, but he had not anticipated the influence of Aleksander Hafza, former General of the Vlatavan Muslim separatists. Aleksander made it clear that he and his followers had foresworn violence after God's wrath had razed Vlatava to the ground. Yet a vile tremor lurked within the eyes of the men that leapt at the sound of certain words like guns, liberation, invaders, and battle. Those men in whom the words of war was strongest stepped forward, compelled to join the pulsation that throbbed in time with their old habits. Hafza did not seem too disappointed in these deserters; Lyuben's rally offered him an opportunity to cull the herd.

    A mile and half from Lake Sofia, they turned off the former Bogomil's Way and lost a jeep and three men to a land mine. The concussive force reached beneath Riina's jeep and tipped it forward. Riina felt herself carried over Lyuben and Ali, who were strapped into the front seats. She rudely landed on the hood, followed by another Muslim companion, who had been sitting beside her. His weight pressed down upon her head, scrapping it across the rust scarred metal. They rolled to the side and to the ground where the back wheels came down, narrowly missing Riina's face. The world turned insane as tiny willow o-wisps flared around the road, dazzling her while she struggled to regain her breath.

    Her companion grabbed Riina by her jacket and lifted her to her feet. They needed to get off of the road away from the sparks and lights. Ali, Lyuben and two others laid down suppressive fire with their weapons as the pair rushed into the cover of young poplar trees. Her companion forced something into her hand and then joined the others as they fired upon their ambushers. Riina looked down to find she was holding a hand grenade. The scene took on a cinematic tint, as if she had stepped into role whose actions were scripted with the certainty of a Hollywood trope. She pulled the pin and tossed the grenade in one well-memorized motion. The explosion killed the two Pokolistan Shadow troops.

    Her companion grunted in appreciation. "I always say that Vlatavan women are deadlier than the men. Well done."

    Lyuben bounced over to check Riina's condition. She stood stunned as he looked at her scrapes with great concern. "You are lucky that you didn't listen to me when I told you to ride in the other jeep. Yes, one lucky girl, and one with a deadly aim."

    "I used to..." Riina started and paused. "In college, we would fill balloons with pig's blood and then throw them at the Western diplomats. I was the best. I hit the German ambassador in the head twice - once when he arrived in Vlatava and then when he left."

    "Well, all of that practice prepared you for the real thing."

    "The real thing? My college protests seemed more real than this...whatever you call this thing."

    "This was a negative mobility resource, otherwise known as an ambush. They appear to be Pokolistan troops."

    "Pokolistan? I thought they had offered to aid our defense of Vlatava."

    "They had. I can only guess that they took the initiative." Lyuben bit his palm in anguish. "Do you think they've double-crossed us? They are...how do the Americans say it...Indian givers."

    Ali and his men surveyed the road. They shook their heads in commiseration that the road was far too dangerous to remain on. Ali directed his Muslim comrades to gather the bodies, or whatever remnants they could find, and arrange them by the side of the road. Under better circumstances, they would have buried them and performed a prayer but such civility is impossible in a potential war zone. They would honor the dead if they returned victorious and, if they didn't, it wouldn't matter much to their enemies. Lyuben rooted among the Pokolistan corpses while Riina tried to figure out just where she stepped over from peacemaker to killer.

    Ali pulled the jeep up to Riina. "Get in. We're going to take some trails and stay off the main road. It will be very wet. I don't remember when the Lake was last so high. Very strange."

    "Was killing a man supposed to feel like nothing?" she asked Ali.

    "My mother's love tasted like warm bread and my girlfriend's was like soda pop. I don't imagine we feel everything the same. I wonder if we would have had a civil war if we did?"

    "C'mon Riina," Lyuben said as he climbed into the back of the jeep. He carried two new rifles and handed them to the men. They were quite impressed. There were four other men already squeezed in the back and two others were eyeing the passenger seat. "Count Vertigo is waiting for us. You can ride in the front seat this time."

    Riina sat down beside Ali who directed the remaining two soldiers to grab the rocket launchers left by the Pokolistan troops and then set up a position towards Scipio's Sentry, where they had seen some other signs of fighting. The men grumbled as they marched off. Ali knocked the jeep into gear and they lurched off into the brush that greeted them with soft fingers. In the distance, they could make out two men standing near the swollen lake.

     

    Chapter 10: It's Not The Message, Beware The Messenger

    Werner and Prometheus stood outside by the edges of the old foundation that lead to the abandoned Echelon sub-station beneath Lake Sofia. A few feet of water had begun to cover the dirt floor making it a slippery business to navigate. Werner flew above it, carrying Blythe, and left Prometheus to slough through the mess. The anarchist didn't seem to mind.

    "Do you think the Magistrate is responsible for the Lake overflowing?" Werner asked. "Seems like poor strategy if they wanted to preserve their telecommunication investment."

    Prometheus tooled with his nightstick. It could inflict 11 levels of intense pain, but by adding a small attachment he was able to crank it to 12. He had been saving it for a certain special someone. "That installation was built to ride out earthquakes and has an extensive series of pumps; it'll be fine Prevertigo. I noticed some German news reports saying that there has been massive flooding in Dresden and Prague. Every waterway linked to the Danube is either swelling or backed up. I detect Major Disaster's inept fingerprints on it."

    Werner kissed Blythe again. Her brother had already ventured into the woods, and now he was sending her off to confront their enemies on her own. "The battle may be arduous. Are you as confident as your brother?"

    She felt cocky with Werner and Barney on her side, despite the presence of Prometheus. "I've taken care of myself for a long time. Don't worry. I'll put the fright into Killer Frost." She slipped into the woods with nary a backwards glance.

    "I approve of your tactical suggestions," he said to Prometheus.

    "I think you're crazy to even try to bargain with the Magistrate. He'll just turn any deal against you, unless you have some serious leverage."

    "That's why you're still alive, isn't it?"

    They waited some time. Werner marked the steady rise of Lake Sofia onto the shore. It had risen 10 to 15 feet above its usual levels and showed no immediate signs of cresting. He wondered how many more disasters the land could endure before he didn't bother caring. Prometheus tapped his arm. A figure had disengaged from the woods near Scipio's Sentry. It swaggered across the open shoreline indifferent to any potential threat that might lurk around it. The face was obscured but between the walk and the shine on the skull both Prometheus and Werner knew that the Magistrate had answered their challenge.

    "Good to see you again Count," he said. "You don't mind if I shake your hand if there's a little blood on 'em? You're used to it, right." The Magistrate struck out his hand.

    "It's the stains that don't show which bother me." Werner nodded towards Prometheus. "I believe you know this gentlemen. He's led me to believe you two have a previous relationship."

    "Oh. Me and the little titan here have bruised our knuckles once or twice. Hope you're not listening too closely. The boy can make a dog think it's a cat."

    "He has told me some astounding things. For instance, he informs me that Vlatava has been the center of a massive Western surveillance project. Pretty far-fetched but not when compared with some of claims he's made about you. That you hunted American Indians in the old west or that you should be buried beneath tons of glass and rubble, but then what stories can you trust to fully describe a secret agent?"

    The Magistrate tapped his feet in the soil made membranous by the Lake's waters. He teased its surface, splashing the muck with a boyish impatience, until Werner's pants were mottled. "Y'know, we could have continued this conversation back in Metropolis. At least ya got a little cologne, breath mint, or spit and polish when you walked out of water closet. I feel like someone's backed up the toilet standing here. Were you boys too busy holding hands to flush properly?"

    "If you want Vlatava so much, then we can continue our conversation right here. Except now I have the advantage of knowing my enemy's game and what cards have been dealt. I also happen to have a playing partner."

    A bee-like hum painted the night air with menace as Prometheus stoked the power in his nightstick. Its alien furnace murmured the mantras of the evil priests of Shamballa.

    "Besides, floods can be propitious. God cleansed the world of evil for Noah and his children."

    "And look what happened to Noah's descendents. Grandpa Noah did a pretty poor job of parenting his offspring what with all the misery and vice still in the world. You're hardly a shepherd of virtues, Count. I see you as the Pharoah whose first born is killed by the Angel of Death."

    Werner could feel a turgid humour burble through his soul. It was a strange confluence of rage and sacredness aroused by the Magistrate's barbs. Werner had received a mark from God's wrath after it burned Vlatava, since no man has ever been unchanged after witnessing God's work. It was a piece of the inferno sewn into his soul that would burn anew as Werner approached another precipice of disaster. It warned him now that this creature was kindling his war lust. "Your desire for Vlatava's resources was a pretense to regain ownership of your own precious Echelon installation. Vlatava may have been the sauce for the meat, but I happen to control the dinner. Your masters will have to pay my price if they want to eat. You can have the installation back on a few conditions: first, all debt owed by Vlatava is absolved; second, you have the United States officially recognize the reborn state of Vlatava; third, you and your Squad leave immediately. I will safeguard the facility until diplomatic relations are established."

    "Very interesting offers. Looks like you've got my bottom on your knee. I wonder which of your parents enjoyed that kind of treatment? It's a good thing that I'm the type of man who likes to plan ahead and makes options for himself. I'm a big believer in the choices offered by capitalism."

    Gunfire broke out with staccato beats along the brushline, from which the Magistrate exited mere minutes before. Glittering fangs of ice that extended up from the forest floor answered the percussive attacks. Pokolistan and Muslim defenders alike were held captive in their frozen shafts. The Magistrate pointed to them in a friendly manner. "See here's my counter offer. You both disappear right now, leaving me the installation, and I won't have you killed by friendly fire. Your old buddy Hafza has dubbed this place La Siwa Hu - 'where there is none but Allah.' I arranged for a small detachment of Muslim Vlatavans to come here, and they are suitably vengeful against certain Pokolistan invaders who are despoiling their holy land. Once they find out that you've allied with their leader and betrayed their land you'll have a civil dispute on your hands. Whoever is left alive won't be in much shape to defend themselves against my Suicide Squad."

    A squad of Muslim fighters broke from the trees towards Werner's position. A pair of rockets screamed out of their former position and into the brush surrounding the Roman sentry point. The scene reminded Werner of the lapsarian paintings by Hieronymus Bosch or Goya's pictorial reflections on the human grotesque with men flailing amidst ruins built by their own fraility. Again, the gift left by God's Wrath called out to scold Werner. The violence was calling to old habits. He risked too much if he gave into them. Werner ignored it. "Prometheus, you have my permission to cripple this provocateur."

    Prometheus ground his foot into the wet ground, as if he were squashing a cigarette. He repeated the motion with his other foot. He looked a sight with his legs wide apart and arms high above him holding his deadly weapon. Werner thought he was attempting some dance maneuver. Yes, it was a dance! He thought it was the Mashed Potato. "The little titan versus the Militant Maharishi Round 2," Prometheus announced. "You have just received a gift membership into my 12-step program of self-reflection. We shall begin with adoration of the nightstick and end with flagellation."

    The shores of Lake Sofia became a chaotic conflagration as the factions descended upon each other. Ali launched his last missile into the ranks of the Pokolistan Shadow troops as they sought to retake control of the Roman sentry point. The flames recoiled off of a shiny surface that stepped out of the shadows. Ali was taken aback and implored Riina and Lyuben to confirm the sight. Blackguard of the Suicide Squad had charged out of the woods and into the midst of the invaders like a Crusader of old with his armor and light weapons casting a halo of light in the twilight. His mace carried a Shadow trooper into a high arch that deposited the soldier in a shallow pool of mud. The Pokolistan men turned their weapons upon him but their bullets only halted his advance and could not pierce his super armor. Ali began to fire upon the invaders with his rifle. He was only able to unleash two rounds when Riina grabbed him and dragged him behind a tree. A wall of ice covered the ground where he had stood mere moments before.

    Lyuben hid beneath sheltering branches as the ice witch Killer Frost cackled gleefully in the night sky. Riina and Ali ran for cover but their feet found no purchase upon a sheet of frost covering the ground. Suddenly they were prone and vulnerable.

    "Don't worry, dear," Killer Frost consoled Riina. "I'll kill the man first and you can watch." A stream of moisture froze Ali's right leg to the marrow. He writhed along the ice and dragged his nails into the surface until they cracked.

    "You give feminism a bad name, Frost," Blythe said as she stepped out from behind a tree.

    "If it isn't the Bonner sister who thinks she's too good to mingle with the other criminals. Don't bother bluffing me. Use your electrical powers against my ice and I'll just defuse it. Your powers won't work too well with all of this water around us."

    "Prometheus told me something interesting about moisture. Did you know that plants regulate their flow of water by stimulating their capillaries with electricity? They use it to draw in and expel moisture for their circulatory system. Now, remember you're in the middle of a forest with someone who controls electricity and then ask yourself if it doesn't feel drier all of a sudden."

    Werner flew towards the detachment of Muslim fighters. If his plans went well then perhaps they would be spared. Their misdirection was but the slightest example of the manipulations that the Magistrate used to arrange war. The Muslims fired their rifles into the air, but, without lights or tracers, Werner offered a poor target in the pitch sky. Waves of sound performed their subtle sorcery on the basilar membranes of the Muslims until their sense of direction gagged. Unlike the Pokolistan troopers, Werner did not kill them with his powers and instead forced them into nausea-induced incapacity. Unconsciousness would quickly follow after they exhausted themselves.

    A hand grenade exploded 200 meters away from Werner. He could just make out Blackguard's shape in the brilliant destruction. The blast had knocked him against a stone that had once been a look out point for the Lake's fishermen. His fantastic shield and mace, which had saved him from the worst of the attack, faded away as Blackguard struggled with consciousness. Werner could not get there in time to save the man from the Shadow troops but perhaps the need had already been met.

    Blackguard's shield returned in time to repel the bullets of the Shadow troopers, yet the enforcer remained insensible. A trooper attempted to toss another grenade when the shield, crafted by science from light, arranged itself into a thimble that covered the trooper's hand. The blast disintegrated the soldier's right side. The thimble split into five clubs that pummeled the remaining Shadow troopers into helplessness. From behind the stone emerged Barney Bonner, who knelt beside Blackguard to gently slap him awake. "Caspar, wake up. A battlefield is not the place to take a nap."

    Blackguard opened his eyes to find the blurry visage of Barney, whose odd costume made him appear as a large bug. Still, he recognized the voice of his former friend even through the haze. "Barney, you look like a Mugwump. Why do I feel like a bad martini?"

    "You're just a little shell-shocked from the hand grenade. Don't worry, I was able to infiltrate your software and activate the light manipulation controls. You missed my homage to Green Lantern. It was cool, although I feel really guilty about blowing off that one guy's arm."

    Using the rock to steady himself, Blackguard carefully stood up. "I wouldn't worry too much over that. I'd perfected his lungs...I mean perforated. Or I would have. Still feel a bit woozy. Anyway, you'd better get out of here Barney cause if my boss sees me with you we're both in trouble. I'm supposed to take you out for treason."

    "I would never do something like that in my life," Barney recoiled in shock. Why must everyone keep implying his involvement with illegal activities? The very notion was libel. "I came to Vlatava to save this country and apprehend Prometheus. He's the only traitor here! Your boss is selling you a line cause he wants to bump off Count Vertigo so that his political and business allies can take control of Vlatava's resources. They illegally installed a communications facility to spy on the East and now they need it and this country so that they can outmaneuver Pokolistan."

    "Sounds bad, but I think I'm deaf in one ear now so I might have missed something there. If Blythe's here then I feel a little conflicted. Is she still with Vertigo?"

    "Were you expecting something else? Nevermind, she and Vertigo want you to either concentrate on the Pokolistan troopers or ignore the rest of the battle. This way you keep to the letter of your mission without violating the spirit."

    "I may be shellacked but ain't it the other way around? I keep the spirit of the mission and not the letter cause they told me that you, Vertigo and Prometheus needed to be killed to keep Vlatava free and if I..."

    "Whatever Casper! Can you do it?"

    "Well...I was already fighting those Polka dudes so I don't see why I can't concentrate on that for awhile. You'd probably just disable my armor if I attacked you. Besides it sounds like I ain't going to get what I came for."

    Barny smiled. He had taken another potential enemy out of the fight. His sister was confronting Killer Frost and Werner had safely knocked out the Muslims. The only remaining enemies were Deadshot, the Magistrate and whatever Pokolistan Shadow troopers were still around. He expected victory shortly.

    Prometheus might have been a former student of the Magistrate, but his personal accomplishments since then had demonstrated that he had evolved far beyond being a mere apprentice. He had acquired the secret alien technology of the Shamballa monks, which in turn had physically and mentally modified his body to a new transhuman existence. He had fought Martians, plastic men, speedsters, and even bested the king of the forest himself, Batman - twice! He made his former self appear feeble-minded. Eleven years ago, he had battled the Magistrate to a stand still and so he thought, and not without good cause, that a return bout would weigh in his favor. The contest was not going as expected. Despite being amped to its highest setting, his nightstick couldn't demolish the short blade wielded by the Magistrate. It was made from exquisite metal far to strong for its own good. It was probably magical and would not be easy to destroy.

    He had crafted a special CD categorizing the moves of some the greatest martial artists in the world - Batman, Bronze Tiger, Lady Shiva - with the rhythms of James Brown and Wilson Pickett. He called it Strangle Tales: glamorous stories of the asphyxiated, and it was designed to unleash an unexpected combination of dance hall and kung fu. It proved to be the one edge he had against the Magstrate, who was familiar with even the esoteric martial art moves, like flail of sorrows to petals of steel. He countered each move with a supple, practiced grace that forced Prometheus to use imaginative, lethal variants of the Mashed Potato, the Handjive, the Camel Walk, and of course, the most dreaded dance move of all, the Watusi. Only these unorthodox ripostes allowed Prometheus to break through the Magistrate's defenses. A swift combination of The Freddie and the Roach knocked the blade from the Magistrate's grip.

    "You've got a lot of talent boy, but you fail to see one thing; you paid for yours while I got mine for free." The Magistrate drew a device from a short scabbard lashed to his thigh. A pair of scissor-like blades spread out with a simple twist of his wrist.

    "Interesting weapon," Prometheus said. "Isn't that an ancient Persian design?"

    "I like beautiful things. I think I picked this up in some market somewhere. It's so old that you're not familiar with its fighting style." Prometheus felt his nightstick become suddenly caught between the two blades. The Magistrate wrenched it out of his grip.

    "I have to give you some credit. I've seen and used many weapons in my time, but this nightstick is more elegant than it deserves to be. The nightstick isn't a hunter's weapon. It's a crude weapon usually reserved for the mob or tyrants. Yet, I can hear faint chanting coming from its internal engine. It seems to have broadcast capabilities. Only problem is that someone with serious emotional inadequacies like you shouldn't use a long, blunt club as his signature weapon. People talk." He took the nightstick over his knee and bent it with a cruel groan.

    The Magistrate had taught his apprentice well though and, like his mentor, Prometheus kept more than one weapon in his repartee. Beneath his arm guards were a pair of Wrist Aggression Delivery Systems, WADS for short, which could eject a series of chemical or explosive projectiles.

    "How do you thank someone who has taken you from crayons to perfume? It ain't easy but I'll show you." He fired his WADS. Each rocket needed to perform five rotations before it became armed. They had completed four circuits before they were shot out of the air by a pair of bullets. Deadshot, the marksman of the Suicide Squad, moved closer to defend his ersatz leader. He unleashed a volley of bullets against the anarchist forcing Prometheus to activate his Wonder Woman template, allowing him to knock the bullets away with his wrist guards.

    "I spent a whole summer studying Wonder Woman's Amazon sisters practice Bullets and Bracelets in the nude. I can keep this up all night long if I have too."

    The Magistrate and Deadshot were willing to give it a try though. If anything, the Magistrate relished the challenge, secretly proud that his apprentice had joined a short list of adversarial peers: Bhina, Arjuna, D'Tarangan, Ra's Al Ghul. He could respect Prometheus unlike that royal fakir, Count Vertigo, who tried to hide his immorality behind aristocratic gestures. He tried to bleach his sins with virtuous affectations like rebuilding his lost country, preserving his family's honor, or taking a ragamuffin thief and masquerading her as silk. The hypocrisy was ghastly, but it also meant he had something to lose and that made him vulnerable.

    Werner interceded between the adversaries. Riina, Lyuben, and the Bonners surrounded the Magistrate, Deadshot and the Prometheus. "Surrender now, Magistrate. Vlatava will not be a pawn for either Pokolistan or the West."

    "I can understand your convictions," the Magistrate said in his most conciliatory tone. "You want to end the history of blood, but you've got the most gruesome naiveté. Vlatava stands at the midpoint of bisecting worlds where the hot breath of the East collides against the cold civilization of the West. No national identity can hang its flag in that tempest. This is a time for war and you are a fool if you think that you can forge a country free of the divisions separating the forces raging around you. You might win this fight, but you can't survive the war without friends. I know people who can be good friends."

    "Spare me the condescending tripe. You've been using my country for decades for spying. Your superiors are no better than the Soviets or the other conquerors before them. What do you represent other than the foolish notion that the world should follow your imperial notions of democracy and capitalism? That the second, third, and fourth worlds should follow the first's directions?"

    "You see, Count, you've made a common mistake and assumed that I share the same aspirations as the people for whom I work. They're just conveniences. I don't want what they want. I represent something far different. Still, maybe I've misjudged you as well. Maybe you haven't deluded yourself into thinking that you can unify the Catholic and Muslim factions of old Vlatava. Maybe you just don't want to be beholden to someone else, since they might salt the mix as it were. But no country was ever forged without sin on someone's hands. Who's to be the martyr for Vlatava, because I don't think you have what it takes."

    A wave of vertigo swept over both Deadshot and the Magistrate bringing them both to their knees. Their heads lost all proportion with no control over mass or direction. A slight turn of the head propelled them 360 degrees at 100 miles per hour. Blythe and Barney chuckled as the pair stumbled through the muck like drunken sailors until they fell to the ground in submission.

    From the muck, the Magistrate saw that Vertigo and his retinue of Lyuben, Riina, Blythe and Barney surrounded him and Deadshot. Electricity crackled between the Bonner siblings as they stood atop a boulder that kept them above the soggy ground. Lyuben looked frantically at the Magistrate like a dog anxious for it's Master commands. Riina shook with fear, but the Magistrate could not be sure whether it was over potentially killing a man or surviving the encounter.

    "You have to be one of the most loathsome opponents that I have ever faced in my time," Vertigo said. "I derive great pleasure in seeing you grovel at my feet since I can tell that you are a man who does not kneel before anyone. Why do you not have fear in your eyes, though? I have defeated or negated your Suicide Squad. Your duplicity has been stripped away. I'm half tempted to turn you over to Pokolistan as a gift to keep them off our property. What do you say to that?"

    He waited for the Magistrate's response and then the world tilted.

     

    Chapter 11: Can't stop thinking about my baby

    Major Disaster was feeling miserable. The ice sling made by Killer Frost had numbed the pain in his arm but it begun to leach his internal heat making him feel dreadfully cold. It was hard enough to find a dry spot to hide, much less one that was warm. He thought it would be his luck to die of hypothermia instead of bullet wounds, and just when his prospects of joining the Justice League of America had gotten better. He had been approached by Batman just before this mission as a potential replacement if the League were suddenly called away. It was a sweet deal - access to teleporters, headquarters on the Moon, ogling Wonder Woman during monitor duties - that would cinch his reformation, if he survived long enough to enjoy it.

    A nervous racket of rifles startled Disaster's misery. He hobbled over to the stone balustrade, cursing his injuries, and was delighted to see Blackguard pummeling six shadow troopers who had crept like panthers up to the Roman sentry. The super-powered enforcer had a sudden ferocity about him that surprised Disaster. It puzzled him since the thug seemed to have a disaffected attitude about him before. Still, he was happy that Blackguard had come along otherwise the Pokolistan troopers might have labeled him an "unlawful combatant" or some other unpleasant appellation.

    Blackguard began to look winded and so, concerned about the thug's stamina, Disaster lent a hand. The Romans had dug latrines throughout the area and they conveniently became sinkholes that swallowed several troopers beneath a deadly sluice. They were followed by a pair who were knocked into the largest hole by Blackguard's shield. The remaining troopers ran into the woods, more afraid of these super-criminals,than their distant General. Blackguard took a look around and then entered the stone structure once he was satisfied that the area was momentarily clear.

    "Nice job, Casper." Disaster slapped him on the shoulder. "I was lost in my own little world and those soldiers would have walked right past. Can't blame me too much, can you. What with my arm and all, right?"

    "Yeah," Blackguard responded forlornly. "You can relax. I don't think we've much to worry about now. The fight's just about over with."

    "What's the matter? You look like your shorts are rusting. Did we lose or something?"

    "I suppose. Y'know, I'm not a guy who bothers with politics, unless you need someone to discourage voters, but I'm not dumb. I understand that negotiations, diplomacy, territory and those things all occur in real life. Like when you want a dame to be interested in you. It's a production. Right?"

    "Casper, I haven't the foggiest notion about what you're talking about. What woman are you referring to? We're stuck in no man's land with a well-armed enemy force gunning for us and you're harping about dating. Why don't you watch BlindDate?"

    "Sorry, I guess my head's still in pieces. I took a grenade to the noggin earlier." Casper looked out towards Lake Sofia. His armor's low-light vision could just make out Vertigo's crew standing over the Magistrate and Deadshot. He felt impotent knowing that if he ran out there and tried to clobber Vertigo that Barney, Blythe or even Prometheus would just shut his armor down. He had no value except as a combat janitor cleaning up the leftover enemies. Blythe burned him. Vertigo burned him. It was a rotten day and he'd like to take it back. Just once he'd like to feel real power, like he was influencing the world."

    "Hey Disaster," he said. "I want you to do something for me..."


    Lake Sofia began to throb with an occult menace that called out with a rhythm that made the trees and rocks dance. Sparks launched from stone grinding against stone until Vertigo felt he had stumbled upon Satan's sabbat, where the elements catered to the depraved whims of witches. He could hear Lyuben imploring the Mother Mary to intercede on a sinner's behalf. An earthquake had been summoned from Mother Vlatava and it threatened to devour them all.

    Soil parted with a deep sucking sound to form an irregular fissure extending from the Lake onto the shore where it swallowed the rock upon which the Bonners were standing. The rush of effluent dragged down Blythe. She struggled to keep her head above water but her nails slipped in the soft clay. Riina slid to the lip and grabbed Blythe's flailing arms. Barney barely noticed Riina falling into the crevice with her legs swinging in the air. He slipped twice among the mud as he ran to her. Riina's slacks were held securely by a drawstring, which dug into her waist as Barney halted her fall. He began to yell at the women to push or pull their way back up.

    Riina dug her knees into a root that was exposed by the rushing water giving her the opportunity to twist and clutch it. "Don't let me die," Blythe said as she held Riina's one free arm. Riina couldn't muster words and only shook her head in response. Barney leaned over the rim and grabber his sister's other arm and between him and Riina they were able to drag Blythe out of the hole. The three lay together like a litter of newborns, exhausted from the exertion and obviously to the threats of the world. Blythe began to laugh hesitantly into her brother's tired eyes. He had saved her life, and Riina's, but those actions were confirmation of Barney's deeper change. His eyes reflected a love that she had never expected to see and for the first time in years, she began to feel a true familial bond. "That's the second time I almost died today."

    The ground moved beneath Werner's feet of it own volition, as if a it were a dog, who upon awakening from a long slumber, shook its coat of trees, ferns and bushes. His head struck a rock as he was thrown to the ground and the white pain obscured his sight. The world was mad beneath him. He fought to clear his eyes but he only saw memories of the Civil War. He knew it was only an illusion but the pain and madness made it seem too real. Nearby, there was a sad whimpering that spoke of unwilling submission, the supplication of a solider to death. Werner eyes told him it was a boy, no more than 16, whose legs had been blown away by a land mine during the Civil War, but such a thing could not be true because he had seen the boy bleed out with his own eyes seven years ago and thirty miles away to the West. Werner rubbed his eyes and, whether due to the mud, his own force of will or the grace of God, the vision dissolved to reveal the Magistrate plunging his blade into Prometheus' back. Three or four times the blade plunged until Werner made a frantic lunge into the Magistrate, whose muscular frame barely budged.

    The Magistrate tossed Werner into the mire with a swing of his arm. He brandished the strange scissor blade and paused thinking better of it. He had already made plans to deal with Count Vertigo and there was no reason not to change them.

    Werner lifted his head to concentrate his power on the Magistrate when a stout boot landed against his jaw. Again, a white pain obscured his vision and thoughts, but he felt a pair of strong arms toss him into the air. The landing knocked the breath from him

    "Deadshot," the Magistrate called. "You once had a deal with Vertigo to put him out of his suicidal misery. I think it's time to fulfill the compact." He tossed a Pokolistan rifle to Deadshot.

    Werner lifted himself to his knees and with barely a lungful of air he croaked "My answer is yes. Do you hear me Lawton? Yes!"

    Deadshot switched the rifle to full auto and emptied the entire clip of bullets into the Magistrate. The immovable muscles of his body twitched in rhythm with the percussion of the bullets as they punctured his body. His arm fell at bizarre angle as his shoulder was perforated into soft cheese that separated with ease. The body fell back into the mire and still Deadshot fired upon it, concentrating first on the chest and then on the head, until the clip was exhausted and the body was a mass of chopped meat. He tossed the rifle into the Lake.

    "Remember to put my million dollar fee into the Swiss Bank account and not the American one," Deadshot said. "I don't want President Luthor to suspect too much and lose him as a customer. He pays well."

    "Don't worry Lawton. I've already made the arrangements."

    "What...what just happened?" Riina was dumbfounded, as were the Bonners who were too exhausted to respond. Lybuen was incredulous. "I thought Deadshot was working with the Magistrate."

    "Lawton is a professional who has a price for any assassination," Werner said. "Thankfully, he has few scruples. My sources in the American intelligentsia told me that the Magistrate might use the Suicide Squad to foil my return to Vlatava so on the way here I contacted Deadshot and inquired about how much it would cost to kill the Magistrate. I had hoped to barter a better resolution about of the prig but perhaps it's better that he's dead."

    "Riina, please see to Prometheus. Blythe and Barney - dry yourselves off so that you can use your powers to charter us a flight out of Vlatava.

    While clearing his guns of mud, Deadshot noticed something writhing in the muck where the Magistrate's body lay dead. It was too late in the Fall season for snakes. He activated the telescopic lens in his mask and discovered that, instead of blood, a pitch-black substance oozed from the Magistrate's wounds, its surface frilled with worm-like hairs. There wasn't any fee earned investigating toxic life forms so Deadshot attached a rack of bullets laced with phosphorous that even water wouldn't extinguish. It would be the nadir of professionalism if he let a target walk or squirm away.

    Riina was shocked to find that Prometheus' wounds had already begun to close. The Magistrate had punctured his lungs and abdomen, and severed his spine with his unusual blade. Prometheus costume was a thick pliable substance that looked like leather but was actually a complex polymer with enhanced conductivity and built to absorb and convert kinetic energy into power. She marveled at its sophistication, having never seen its like even in Metropolis, the city of urban technology. The edges of the wounds were frantic with excitement as tiny machines diligently worked to repair the damage. They tickled her fingertips when she placed her hands upon the cuts. He seemed to need comfort and safety more than immediate medical care and so Riina tried to cradle his body in her lap. His head stammered a palsied cadence in response.

    She leaned into his face, trying to catch the tiny words escaping his breathless lips. "What is it?" His warning came just in time for Riina to see Deadshot engulfed by a vaguely man-shaped figure of ebony ichor: the Magistrate had risen!

    Deadshot's body began to seizure as the Magistrate's blood rewired his brain. The muscles along his arms, which controlled the triggers of his weapons, bubbled with spasms that sent cascades of tracer shells through the air. Some landed on the lake and some on trees, and their burning cast a neon green aura around the area. Werner, the Bonners, and Riina were stunned to see this devil rise up covered in blood that moved of its own volition. The Magistrate spit Deadshot's body away from himself, revealing that his mutilations had begun to reverse themselves. A bloody architecture had already reconnected his severed arm. Each link pulsed with liquid life. Some wounds could be seen sucking in the excess blood and closing the bullet holes behind them. His face was still largely a fearsome cauldron of bubbling juice but the mouth had taken shape. "Well," it said, "I do believe you caught me without my Sunday-go-to-meetings clothes. You're a lot more wily than Amanda Waller led me to believe, Count, but maybe she was just pulling one over on me. She was none too happy when I requisitioned her precious Suicide Squad."

    "Amanda is a better judge of character than I expected. I warn you that I happen to have a jug of hydrogen peroxide handy."

    "You can't sterilize what I spread boy. Don't worry you won't be afflicted very long. I can't let too many people live after seeing me like this, might affect my working relationships." He charged Werner. How he could run without eyes was a mystery to Vertigo, who soared into the air to escape the deadly lunge. The Magistrate swung his fist hitting nothing but air. "I don't need to hit you to hurt you, Vertigo."

    Blythe scrambled towards a tree to get out of the water so that she could cast lightning against this monster but her fingers were still covered by slick clay. She could find little purchase in the bark. Barney looked around for a weapon and found the rifle that Riina had discarded. He pointed it towards the Magistrate but different gunfire sang through the air, peppering Barney with several bullets. His body slumped limp as his sister slid down into the mud in shock. "Barney?"

    Across from them, on the other side of the crevice, Lyuben reloaded his rifle while Werner hovered in the air, unsure of what to do. Barney lay grievously wounded, possibly dying, Lyuben had finally dispensed with his duplicity, and the true threat, the Magistrate, was stalking Blythe and Riina, immune to Werner's powers while his head rebuilt itself. Lyuben was not, and it was a simple matter to addle him with a sensory flux. This was just the tip of Lyuben's amercement, and Werner contemplated killing the traitor right there, and would have, if not for the menace of the Magistrate, who threatened Blythe. Her attention was focused on her brother as she bolstered his weakening strength with her own electrical power, although being wet weakened them. Werner fired Lyuben's own rifle at the Magistrate but either the bullets passed through his outer covering of skin or they sank behind his adventitia. Only a bolt of lightning from Blythe, a brief, desperate defense, gave him pause, and that at some expense to the Bonners for Blythe scalded herself and drained energy from her brother. She dragged Barney to a short stonewall uncovered by the earthquake, somewhat damp but drier than the ground, it provided a less dangerous position for her to use her powers.

    Two liquid stalks emerged from the raw stump that once was the Magistrate's head. These vitreous humors gelled to form a crude pair of eyes that turned to glower at Werner. "That's much better, Vertigo. Don't bother with the rifle. You could keep shooting until the cows came home and it wouldn't do much to me. They've broken canes on my back. Charlemagne's armies covered me in arrows while the Persians trampled me with their chargers. You can't kill war with bullets. It's like fighting the ocean with a fire hose."

    A blanket of white fire exploded across the Magistrate's back searing his ichor into a noxious cloud that formed into a mass of clawed arms, which evaporated one limb at a time. "You're going to wish you had a hose in another minute," Prometheus said. His alien machines had been quite efficient, repairing the damage to his lungs and internal organs, but he still lay partially paralyzed. Even this condition wouldn't deter his vengeance. He had convinced Riina to prop and aim his WADS so that he could unleash his wrath. Another rocket launched from his wrist, which tore a chunk of the Magistrate's torso, whose fetid blood tightened into cords that caught his disparate chunks. The funicular tubes drew the pieces together with each baleful pulse.

    Werner could see that whatever the Magistrate actually was it was not something that could be destroyed by any earthy means. His savagery was elemental in nature. It could only be contained. Werner unhooked a bandolier of grenades that he had stolen from the Muslim Vlatavan nationalists. They wouldn't kill the Magistrate but they held enough force to bury him if Werner could separate him from the combat. The strategy might require the sacrifice of his own life, but that was a fair enough exchange for the lifetime of blood and hatred he had created. Better that he be the martyr than Blythe or Riina who held the powers that could actually transition the new Vlatava from artifice to reality.

    He waved to Riina, indicating that she should halt her barrage of rockets, and took to the air. Like a hawk, he swooped upon his prey and snatched the Magistrate whose blood fluttered with anxiety. A million little cilia squirmed or poked beneath Werner's coat trying to enter him so that they could insert their emotions. The angel in his soul cried out for speed for the terror was now gripping Vertigo and the longer he kept their embrace then the greater corruption. And so Werner stoked the fires of his pride to create a pressure that propelled him faster. He thought of his parents and how they sacrificed their honor to manipulators like the Magistrate. They were not the first to submit because the royal family had existed at the largesse of others for many centuries. First it was the Romans, then the Huns, and the Hapsburgs, and Nazis and Russians and the list continued like a soldier's bars that counted every battle and engagement. Vertigo's family had never been anything other than the property of others, much like the country itself, and the friction between servitude and civility had produced an unearthly rage in Werner that demanded resolution.

    It would be so easy to pull a grenade pin now, he thought. He wondered if the blast would be good enough for both he and the Magistrate? But he shook the suicidal thoughts from his head as the entrance to the Echelon bunker loomed before them. The sunken foundation was now hip deep in water that poured over the sides in torrents. Werner deposited the Magistrate at the far end of the sodden cellar, and then flew to the bunker's door. He quickly entered the electronic combination into the door, which pushed open with ease. The rushing water nearly knocked his feet out from under him but a series of steel gratings caught his heels, providing the necessary grip to keep him standing. Werner ran through the corridor towards the command center.

    He was surprised to find the center remarkably dry. Moist cracks and fissures had appeared in the walls due to the earthquake but they didn't appear to threaten the delicate electronics in the room. Massive pumps rumbled to life as the water from the entrance began to fill hidden basins and reservoirs. Werner was shocked at the security and craft that had obviously gone into building the facility. He would like to have kept it, as a bargaining chip or perhaps as financial resource, but using it as a coffin appealed to his sense of irony. The metal staircase groaned above Werner telling him that the Magistrate had caught up.

    "Look, I'm not going to apologize for my derogatory comments. We must obey our natures. Like the old story, only the frog is surprised when the scorpion stings. But there is no need for this tête-à-tête to end in destruction. This is the commercial age where the buzzwords are efficiency, productivity, usefulness, and this facility could be very useful." He entered the main control room by the time he finished his little speech. His head was half formed.

    Werner guffawed. "You're brazen! Shall we cut our palms and become blood brothers then? That's how you sealed deals between the cowboys and Indians isn't it? Those deals ended when you heard the price for their scalps. As you can see, I'm familiar with your type of deals."

    "They call them Native American Indians now, and not Indians. Native American. It's an important distinction that tries to correct a gross generalization applied by your snotty, inbred European forbearers. I could tell you the names of every tribe I decimated, if I thought you cared, but I doubt your perspective reaches farther than the mountains surrounding this country. What matters is Vlatava, but what the heck is Vlatava if there ain't any people in it? If you don't want your countrymen to become like those gorgeous Native Americans, then you need to rally the Vlatavan tribe. You need some kind of cohesion."

    "I very much doubt you know the meaning of the term, much less its application."

    "Oh, I know." The Magistrate breathed a long nostalgic sigh. "I know. Once, my sons and I held the reigns of an empire that stretched from Southeast Asia to Persia. I lost it to the trickery of my cousins but that's a long, long story. Civilization has matured since then but its motivations have not. You're not going to attract any serious Vlatavans with some Thomas More Utopia. Their memories won't accept it. Prejudice has been bred into to them after centuries of servitude. What do you call the Muslim Vlatavans - pomaks? It means 'collaborators' because their Christian ancestors converted to Islam under the Ottomans."

    "We all have our demons to wrestle."

    "Yes, but sometimes the demon eats you. In 1994, I shot down the Presidents of Burundi and Rwanda and the people didn't use that as an opportunity to dissolve borders. The Hutus drove the Tutsis out and those that didn't find the exits early enough were killed or mutilated. I know. I saw. You can't keep Vlatava pristine, because good intentions can't take the place of control. God might have wiped your country clean of sin but he didn't dandify its people. If you want to build a country, I can show you how to do it. You just need to get your hands wet with blood." He rubbed his callused palms together for emphasis.

    "You had a good plan to get me here and maybe bury me or maybe both of us; you're suicidal enough for the latter. It didn't occur to me that you'd actually try to physically engage me. Picking me up and flying me here was smart. Except, touching me, touching my blood wasn't so smart."

    Werner's heart quickened as the Magistrate spoke. His pulse was racing as if in preparation for battle. Yes, it reminded him of those days when the scream of rockets was the only music and blood was cologne. His tongue stuck to the roof of his dry mouth and his senses tingled with attention. A transformation threw Werner into a dizzying rapture that altered all proportions, both physical and emotional, until visions began to swim before his eyes. They were memories from the five inhuman years of civil war: St. Stanislaw in ruins, whole families of corpses left in the woods for wolves, children cut down by landmines, and the invigoration of killing the enemy. Werner did his best to fight the alteration but part of him enjoyed it.

    "You look a little pale, Werner. Maybe you're experiencing a little vertigo? Now you know how it feels, eh. Don't worry. That's one of the minor side affects of my blood. You could have been laid up by a grand mal seizure like Lawton, but most of the time you feel pretty good. When I spent some time with the Celts, they called it warping. The Vikings had a recipe for wild mushroom soup that did an adequate job of recreating the effect. They used to drink it before entering into battle because it would pump up their adrenalin. I got the recipe as a favor from a god and gave it to them. Why don't you sit down and let the blood speak to you."

    "Virtue will prevail," Werner stammered.

    "Don't try the Summer of Love bit with me. I saw 1967 from a rice paddy in Vietnam. Doesn't it burn you that just as Vlavata is ready for independence, after centuries of submission, Pokolistan's imperialism intends to absorb it. General Zod is a Lenin for the 21st century. He's going to take anachronisms like royalty out behind the woodshed after he comes rolling into town. You'd preach peace when your soul craves war. Give into the blood, Vertigo! Don't fight it. Just let your mind drift into the drumbeats. Just listen to the soldiers chanting my name. Why don't you say it?"

    The salty taste of defiance dripped down his face and began to evaporate beneath the Magistrate's infernal glower. "Say it!"

    "...war..." The word sent Werner deeper into the vision.

    Thirty-six seasons of gory nostalgia rolled past his bipolar halves, playing emotions against each other in the grand tradition of blockbuster movie drama. The Magistrate's blood was stoking his primal passions like dangling raw meat before a hungry crocodile. The sensation assuaged his ego until the fragile thread of his soul was a stout cord upon which he climbed. At the apex, he stood upon the Stara Planina looking down upon Vlatava and the capital. Black smoke clouds boiled to the north indicating that the plains were alit. An army of red soldiers, bearing the royal Vertigo crest, ran ahead of the vapors in every direction. Werner thrilled to their conquest of the valley and gave them directions for from the mountain he could see where each insurgent was hiding, whether it was whole families or simple children. The soldiers put the flames to all of them. When they were finished, once the whole of Vlatava burned once more, Werner commanded them to climb the mountains so that he could lead them to greater conquest. Soon enough, he could feel their fire singe his cheeks. His blond locks burned to their roots to leave a crown of ash circling his brow.

    With them by his side, he looked north towards Romania and laid out his blitzkrieg of Pokolistan. Who could stop this machine of fire and bone? Who would step forward to say the words that could end it? Werner salivated at the sight of Pokolistan's fields that perched at the horizon. He brandished his good sword Svyatogor, named after the giant too heavy for the world, its pommel still cool from the well where it was hidden. The blade sliced the air into a dazzle of colors meant to rally his troops, but instead the soldiers lifted their helmets to reveal ghostly faces. Each was identical with piercing dagger eyes swimming in a sea of dark. These specters surrounded him and summoned a member from their rank, who wore only a simple robe. He towered over Werner; who thought that this man would be his right hand. Vertigo peered into the hood to discern the soldier's identity. It was Aleksander Hafza, the leader of the Muslim separatists - a pomak. He spoke tenderly into Werner's ear and the words made him slack so that he dropped the sword. "I forgive you," was all Hafza said.

    Werner's vision cleared as the words sent a cool wave through him. The Magistrate had moved closer; his face leered down upon Werner in expectation of hearing his surrender to war. That damnable bald face had reformed with scars that overlapped to form the alphabet of warfare. But the face was back, which meant he was vulnerable to Werner's powers.

    The Magistrate was unprepared for Werner's attack that spiked his senses with vertigo. It was the strongest, most potent bolt Werner could muster, yet still the Magistrate stood. He staggered about the room, coughing up great gobs of acrid pitch that stung the concrete floor. Werner smashed a computer tower upon the Magistrate's head, knocking him to the floor, and turned to fly when the Magistrate clutched his foot. The strength was hideous; it swung Werner into Barney's chair.

    "You're going nowhere." The words squeezed between coughs. "If you're not with me, you're against me, which makes you expendable. There's no room for independence in this man's army."

    The Magistrate felt something tug at his left leg. It was an amazing blue arm that cracked with electrical life. He reached down to remove it but was stopped by two more arms that held his shoulders. The room filled with an unnatural blue light that glowed from the monitors surrounding the room.

    "Thank you Bernard," Werner said. "Magistrate, you misanthropic troglodyte, this facility was built to mine secrets, but, by royal decree, in this year of our lord, 2002, I hereby declare it to be your grave. May God forget your soul."

    Werner fingered the pin on one of the hand grenades as he flew up towards the corridor leading to the surface. He was relieved to hear the explosion behind him, but, as he neared the entrance, a blast of compressed air launched up the corridor, accelerating his speed until he shot out of the doorway like a bullet. Tumbling through the air, he lost all comprehension. A wide bed of mud served as an adequate if messy landing. A series of massive explosions pierced the Lake and surrounding shore, unleashing a deluge of rock and water into the Echelon facility that would serve as the Magistrate's final prison. If I were a lucky man, Werner thought, the Magistrate will drown. He didn't put much faith in that hope, but the pragmatist in him was satisfied. If Vlatava needed to make a covenant with its history of war, then let this be the first restitution.

     

    Chapter 12: "I Heard He Was Dead" - or a final helping of soup

    Weary and bruised, he walked back to find Lyuben tying Prometheus up and Blythe crying over the still form of her brother. Barney had died. Blythe had kept him alive far longer than his wounds allowed. As the Echelon generators were destroyed, both she and Barney lost their artificial reservoirs of power and at that point Barney's decline was offered no opportunity for goodbyes. Werner kneeled beside Blythe and said a prayer of intercession to St. Isidore of Seville, patron saint of the Internet.

    Everything that Blythe had endured, everything that she had fought for over the past two days, every aspiration and value seemed to dissolve into a vacuum. She became a boiling tempest. She took Werner's blade and stalked towards Lyuben. "You little spider..."

    Werner grabbed her. "Blythe, don't do it. Don't put blood on your hands. You'll betray yourself and Barney."

    "Yes!" Lyuben pleaded, his knees sinking into the mud. "Yes. You are a good and saintly woman, Blythe. And I am just a broken soul like your brother. Mercy should drip from your fingertips. I deserve better and was never given it. I am a spider and deserve to be crushed but...but...spiders can be helpful too. Oh yes, I can be very helpful. I can do your dirty work, Count. I have no qualms. Let me take on the sin so that Blythe and Vlatava can remain pure."

    "You deserve to die! Barney is dead! My brother is dead!" She writhed in Werner's arms and he could barely hold her.

    "I do deserve it. I do, I do, I do, but please, I beg you Count, take pity on poor Lyuben. Take pity! And evil man has his uses!"

    The gunshot struck Lyuben in the forehead knocking his glasses off into the brush. Riina stepped up to the body, put two more bullets into his chest and then held the weapon up to examine it. Blythe was too shocked and Werner too confused to guess her intent. She just looked at it as if it were a family photograph that you study to reconstruct forgotten memories. To this day, she does not talk of that moment or of those thoughts, but anyone dealing with her, whether businessman, diplomat or president, could tell that this was a woman who had killed and did not bluff. She tossed the gun into the crevice, where it sank beneath the gathering effluent.

    "Sweet Jesus," Prometheus said, breaking the moment. "I think I'm in love."

    Riina stared laconically at Lyuben's body and Blythe fell into tears. Killer Frost and Deadshot lay incapacitated, Blackguard and Major Disaster were still alive and Muslim and Pokolistan troops possibly still roamed the woods. Werner needed help so he cut Prometheus' bonds, whose wounds had almost repaired themselves. "Y'know, I almost killed you in there," he asked.

    "You mean earlier in the Echelon facility?"

    "Just a minute ago. As soon as my fingers were working, I activated explosives that I'd rigged through the substation. I thought I'd get both of you. I don't think you want to trust me."

    "Don't mistake me for a simple-minded hero, little titan. You are in my debt twice today: first for sparing your life and second for dealing with your mentor. Furthermore, you're mission here is ruined and I doubt you will find General Zod and his troops very forgiving. I dub you the Vlatavan Minister of Misrule. Now wake up Deadshot and Killer Frost so that I can properly deport them. And while you're at it, use your satellite phone to contact Blackhawk Express for a pickup. Put it on the Vlatavan charge account. I doubt I have to tell you my account number."

    Prometheus smiled. Misrule sounded lovely.

    The plane arrived two hours later. With the help of Prometheus and Riina, Werner loaded Ali, the Suicide Squad and the other injured Muslim defenders into Blackhawk Express. Only Major Disaster seemed happy about the ride home and was doubly glad to find a proper cast and warm jacket among the plane's supplies. Blackguard was quiet and conspicuously avoided Blythe. Werner wasn't sure what to make of the behavior but then it didn't matter. Killer Frost made some furtive threats about removing Vertigo from power, when Riina silenced her bluster by informing her that she could just as easily wind up like Lyuben or find herself delivered to Pokolistan. Werner was disturbed by the bellicose change in Riina. This debacle had changed her, perhaps seasoned her, in the best sense of the word, but the Magistrate had shown him that any confrontational nature could step over into tyranny. Ali said a prayer for her as she loaded him into the hold.

    Riina told Werner that she would not be returning immediately to the States. She had arranged for Prometheus to escort her to the mountains in hopes of reaching a compact between Vertigo and Hafza's contingent. It was in the best interest of both factions to extend an olive branch, or so she said. That was only partially the truth. "I saw some things today that I don't understand, and I think General Hafza has some answers. Don't worry. I won't let him talk me into anything."

    Prometheus gave Werner a salute as he and Riina left.

    They had dug a grave for Barney among the stone foundations of Scipio's Sentry, where Blythe reflected on her own culpability in her brother's end. Werner told the Blackhawk crew to take off and that he would follow them later with his own powers. They left Werner and Blythe in their lonely place.

    Blythe strolled along the soul's strange mine where she drew silent tears from the silver ore of her memories. "Like, I've decided that old saying is true," she said.

    "Which old saying?"

    "Two wrongs do not make a right."

    "And what wrongs are those?"

    She wiped her nose. "Jesus, like everything I do. I mean, like, god, first I abuse Barney, some sister I am, and ignore him. Then, when he gets me mad, I just, y'know, rewrite his mind the way I want it. Maybe, if I'd just left him alone, maybe he'd still be alive."

    "What about the Magistrate or Prometheus? Surely, they are culpable too? Or Lyuben? You didn't hold the gun that killed your brother. Don't wash his sin with your guilt."

    "Like, guilt is all I own right now! This is it! You see these tears. Look at this, I have Barney's blood on my hands. And you...you held me back. You held me back, damn you!" She slammed herself into Werner. "The truth is that I didn't want him to be a coward anymore so I took away his mind. I killed him before they did."

    "I spit on the truth, Blythe. People parade it around like it is some great power of the universe. 'The truth shall make you free.' As if it some how makes life better by its mere acknowledgement. The truth is too tiny a thing for the decisions that we must make in this life. Perhaps you do have sins on your soul, Blythe, but dare to look in my eyes and you will see the horror of a true sinner. Everyone thinks that I am rebuilding Vlatava as absolution for my guilt. That I want to be remembered as a great man. I encourage it among people like Riina, poor Riina. Yes, I know that I've played with her affections, but she wasn't unwilling."

    "What are you talking about, Werner? What was all this about if you didn't care about Vlatava?"

    "I don't need Vlatava, Blythe. Many of my countrymen are perfectly happy in their exile. I would have been happy to die and to receive my hell, but then I met you. There is something about you, Blythe. Others can see it also. You radiate a surety of direction, a sense of purpose that is almost holy, and I know that you have changed from your old self. You are that which I wish I was. You have a chance to overcome your past. You need money and resources to erase the past and building a new country could provide them. But I needed to be cogent if I had to play the part of political leader so I entered therapy to maintain my composure. This was all for you, Blythe. I don't care about myself. I don't even care about Vlatava or my countrymen. This country was to be your chrysalis, and I planned to defend it until you were born with wings of transcendent colors. I suppose it's all soiled now."

    Werner drew his knife and laid its edge across his throat. It was a familiar sensation. So much of his life could be analogous to that sensation of metal against vein, where the difference between life and death was a simple turn of the wrist. For once it felt right, as if the proper moment had finally arrived to do the deed that would become the epitaph for the Vertigo family line. How better to go beside the woman he loved. The Bard would have approved.

    Blythe moved her hands up to grip the blade. She expected a struggle, but Werner allowed her to take it. "You stupid idiot," she said. "Like, I'm sick of death. Just hold me. Hold me until the sun comes up, you idiot."

    And so they waited till the break of day; when the world is made new in the merconium light. The Lake had grown fat upon the land and somewhere beneath those waters was interned a monster. Blythe wondered whether their battles really mattered to this country. A family of ducks paddled along the Lake's surface. A deer cautiously bounded over the rift in the shoreline. Vlatava had quickly closed the gap left by the chaos of war. Even total devastation by God's fire had not stopped nature from repairing the damage. These woods were proof of that. It didn't seem to care who ruled it. It reminded Blythe of something she'd read once, but the thought slipped from her as quickly as it came.

    She looked at Werner who leaned upon her. Would he forgive her if she left? That was what she wanted more than anything else - to be forgiven. That was her true goal with Barney. She needed to hear the word forgive so that she could move on with her life. But now that goal was impossible to obtain because Barney was dead. And if she left, Werner might die too. And the dreams of so many others suddenly depended on her strength to continue.

    "Werner," she said. "Promise me you won't allow Pokolistan or anyone else to spoil this land."

    "I promise," he replied.

    "Then let's fly away. I'm tired of catching teardrops in my hands."

    Werner lifted Blythe into his arms and took to the air. They both looked back at Barney's grave, where Werner's blade lay unwanted. Blythe brushed her tears from her face for one final time. Some landed on treetops and others on the land. Others melted into Lake Sofia where they began a frantic journey from the Plovdiv River to the Danube. They traveled many muddy miles across Bulgaria where more tears were shed for loved ones lost in the floods. Finally, they drifted into the Black Sea and joined that great-unbroken chain of water that circles the world, where all of our sadness eventually ends. It is across this endless sea that each of us must traverse. And the destination of the journey is determined by our answer to the question: is it half empty of sadness or half full?

    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 Longboxes.com!

     
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