The Late Great Planet Irked
The flight from New York to Los Angeles was delayed for three hours, a fact that upset Buck more than it really should have. It was good, he thought, to actually do some real journalism. He couldn't the last time he could recall doing any, now that he thought of it. Ever since the Rapture, he'd been bounced from coast to coast, country to country, covering and studiously avoiding covering anything his new boss—The Global Potentate and prime Antichrist suspect Nicolae Carpathia. He'd certainly gained from his position: A-2 level clearance, an unlimited credit card, and an excuse to travel anywhere in the world. Part of him thought he ought to be giving more back—not to Carpathia but to the real Potentate of the cosmos that had led him to this job.
Waiting for the plane just so he could wait another seven hours as he crossed the skyways just left him antsy and impatient. When he emerged from the terminal at LAX, he quickly scanned the crowds waiting, and holding signs. Nobody from the Global Community Weekly there, he thought, pushing and dodging his way through crowds and eventually merging outside. A local GCW news van idled by the curb. Not exactly the most lush accommodations, but it would do.
He opened the passenger side door of the van and started to push himself inside, suitcase in tow, when he was stopped by a loud shout of surprise and the presence of a body. The driver's seat was occupied as expected, but the passenger seat was also full: a young woman with a laptop open in her lap, plinking away at the keys.
"Oh, excuse me," he said, backing away.
"Cameron Williams?" the man in the driver's seat said. "Is that you?"
He was a wiry bronze-skinned boy in his early twenties, wearing a shiny new press badge. The woman was a bit older, a bit paler, and had multiple piercings in both ears as well as another in her nose.
"Tanya Devers," the woman said. Buck saw the flash of yet another piercing on her tongue. "Society and Entertainment reporter for the LA Global Weekly office."
"Global Community Weekly," the young man corrected.
"I'll call Nicky Alpine Ski Lodge's little alliance whatever the fuck I want," she said. "Maybe he can buy the business, but he can't buy me."
"Am I supposed to ride in a different vehicle," Buck said, trying to get the conversation back on track.
"Just get in the back," Tanya said. "Sorry we couldn't get a better ride for the Potentate's man."
"I'm nobody's man," Buck said. "Well, nobody but my wife." He opened the door and slipped into the seat by the audio-video console.
"Regardless, Plank specifically told us to get you a limo. Unfortunately it seems the only limo service we have an account with is booked all over with celebrities in town for some awards show."
"Splurging all over the place," Tanya said, chuckling bitterly and flashing the tongue piercing again. It made Buck cringe. "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow the world could blow the shit up."
"I heard Robert Downey Jr. locked himself in his basement and started tinkering with a box of scrap," Johnny said. "Like he thinks he's actually Tony Stark."
"I think we've all gone a little crazy since every kid on the planet went poof." Tanya sighed. "You mind if I smoke?"
Buck realized the question was directed at him. "Go ahead," he said, though tried to project a little hostility. Apparently Tanya didn't get the hint; she lit a cigarette and puffed it as they wound through the streets of LA. Normally navigation was difficult because of traffic, but there was little traffic now—just abandoned cars, shot-up cars, blown up cars, burnt out cars. The smog had cleared up so much compared to Buck's last visit that much of the skyline was visible, including the CollinsCorp Tower in down town Los Angeles, where the shimmering field of light separated the United North American States from the eight blocks of Maxwell Collins' 'protectorate' from the GC. Buck had heard rumors through the press grapevine that Maxwell was spreading propaganda about Carpathia, about his upbringing in Romania, suggesting that his fathers practiced Satanism and that Carpathia was a devil worshiper.
Buck had asked about looking into it, but every time Steve Plank had pressed his lips together into a thin slit and told him that they were not to dignify such mendacities with an effort to debunk. They compared it to the racist 'birther conspiracy' stories about the former US President Obama, and Buck agreed the idea that something so damning could not be covered up for so long or when Nicolae had gone so far. But then, if anyone could do it would be the future incarnation of the Devil himself.
"You have any thoughts on Collins' claims about Carpathia?" Buck ventured, cracking his window to vent the smoke.
"He was raised by gay Satanists or whatever?" Johnny said. "Sounds like the best the right wing nutjobs could come up with since he's not black."
"I don't care where Potentate Appalachia came from." Tanya took a drag from her cigarette. "His parents could be albino cyborgs from Romulus for all I care. Nobody consolidates so much power to himself unless he's up to no good."
"You're going to get in trouble if you don't keep your mouth shut," said Johnny. "Free speech has limits, especially when the whole world is a crowded theatre."
"Whatever. I'm not afraid to go to prison. Hell, I'm not even afraid to die. Not that I want to, but my sins are covered by the blood and my fridge is full of Vodka. Until either changes, I'm going to dig up the fuckin' truth whether it's politically correct or not."
Buck's eyes narrowed and he wondered if this was all some sort of elaborate game. Buck's faith wasn't a matter of public record, but with the Antichrist boning Hattie Durham, the very woman that had introduced him to his wife, suspicion was certain and any talk of dissent might simply be a trap. Surely the foul-mouthed, substance-abusing punk in the front seat wasn't a real, true Christian. Buck didn't speak up, simply waiting and watching.
"You and your religions," Johnny sighed. Buck could not help but notice the plural.
"Vodka's not a religion," Tanya protested. "It's a relationship."
Buck felt a surge of anger at the mockery and forced himself to turn around. He checked his phone and noticed a text from Chloe.
Buck. Donna went to pick up Bruce at airport w/ Loretta. Caught some bug on trip, now at hospital. Pray 4 him. –Chlo
Well that was great—his pastor and spiritual mentor was ill, possibly with some ungodly jungle virus, and here he was doing a stupid fluff piece on flying aliens. He texted back will do and returned his attention to the front. The van pulled up to the side of a ramen shop and the three of them piled out. Johnny got a camera from the back door and took it inside while Buck combed his hair and tried to look presentable. He wasn't used to broadcast journalism or to fluff pieces. He liked hard news with a bold, thick headline in a sans-serif font. He liked the 'by Cameron Williams' below it in Times New Roman.
Now he was covering fake space aliens. He half expected to watch a repeat of the broadcast later and find everything they said subtitled in Papyrus. He entered the noodle shop, where a small Asian man stood behind the counter, staring at the proceedings with a forced grin. Aids and technicians scuttled about the tiny shop, rigging up wires and pullies. Four people stood in the far corner: one of them was dressed as, no joke, Robin Batman's sidekick. Another had prosthetic Spock ears applied and green face paint, while a third wore a tight black leotard and a blue cloak.
The 'star' of the piece, though, was a woman in purple and lavender, her midriff bared, miniskirt, thigh-high boots, and every last inch of her exposed skin was painted orange. She also had a long blood-red wig on; she looked more like a cartoon character than an alien. There was a wiry man with an inscrutable accent started barking orders to the crew, and finally the cast ran into place.
Buck was shushed silent when he started to ask what was happening. The director shouted, "Action!"
The actors exchanged some meaningless babble while the shop keeper brought them their soup; the Robin actor shot up in mimed alarm, and then the pulleys lifted the alien up out of her seat. Green lights flashed, and finally the director shouted CUT. His accent was bizarre and inscrutable, and he approached the alien-actress in a huff.
"Why are you doing this to me?" he said. "You forgot your lines again, Lisa. Can't you see, you're tearing me apart, Lisa!"
The woman in the cloak grabbed the director by the shoulder and pushed him aside. "Shut up, Tommy. This is a stupid job, you prima-donna little fuck."
At this point, Tanya rolled her eyes and pushed buck aside, stomping forward to address the director. "If you're done with this recreation I'd like to do the interview now."
Buck and Tanya split off, Buck and Johnny talking to the shop owner and the actress playing the alien while Tanya took the director's camera operator to speak with the other three actors.
They started the interview introducing Buck Williams, and then he began talking to the man.
"And your name sir?"
"Ken Wantanabe," he said quickly. "Owner of this fine establishment."
Buck arched an eyebrow. "Ken?" he said. "I thought it was Frank. Funny you share the name with that Japanese actor."
The man laughed uncomfortably. "Well, yes. My name is actually Frankfort Kentucky Wantanabe," he said. "But most people just call me Ken. My parents were very eccentric!"
Buck could see Johnny face-palming behind the camera, so he decided not to press the name question. Something about Johnny felt off.
"And why did you and your, uh—" Buck motioned at the orange woman.
"Granddaughter," she supplied. "Lisa Nguyen."
"You and your granddaughter decide to do this?" Buck finished.
Though something nagged at him. Nguyen was a Vietnamese name, though this was a Japanese restaurant and Frank Wantanbe was supposedly a Japanese man. Perhaps it was her married name, he thought. Though she was not wearing a ring. Father's name?
"Well, it's easy to see, isn't it?" Frank said. "Business hasn't been so good ever since Maxwell Collins brought a war to LA. But when Lisa here came to me and wanted to shoot something for film school, I said, why not? Free publicity, right?"
"Has business picked up since the video went viral?"
"Unfortunately no, I can't say that it has. Hopefully this interview will change that."
"Well," Buck said, flashing a smile at the camera. "Why don't you count me as your first customer? I'd like a bowl of the Kyoto Accord."
Frank's face transformed, an uncharacteristic pallor draining his color and a frown forming on his face for the first time.
"Well, I don't think I can do that today," Frank said. "All my equipment is turned off, you see? It would take quite a while to start it back up."
Buck glanced from Frank, to Lisa, to Johnny; Frank looked relieved. Lisa looked disinterested. Johnny, though, was red-faced livid—and appeared to be directing his ire at Buck. Buck's first reaction was to be offended: Buck had always been a print journalist and had little experience interviewing people in front of a camera. Maybe in some parallel universe he could have been the anchor for GNN News Tonight, but for now Johnny had to work with what he had.
But then, Buck started to wonder: was Johnny expecting Buck to follow a different script? Had Buck asked the wrong questions?
Shortly after the interview concluded, Buck saw Tanya head outside, clutching a lighter. He followed her outside to talk: she may have been abrasive and blasphemous, but something about Johnny made him uncomfortable.
"Johnny sure is high-strung," Buck said.
"That he is," Tanya replied. She offered a cigarette. "Smoke?"
"No thanks. Coffee's my drug of choice." Buck yawned. "Could use some now actually."
"Too bad," Tanya said. "Starbucks was hit during the fighting. Fine Columbian slush for six blocks."
Buck cringed at the thought of drinking motor-oil laced coffee.
"Something isn't right here," Buck said after a moment. "I don't think they made the video that went on Youtube at all. I don't think that man in there has ever tasted Ramen, let alone sold it for a living."
"Interesting theory," Tanya said. "The other actors didn't exactly inspire me with confidence. They said they were characters from comic books, but only the one dressed like Robin seemed to know their name."
Tanya took a long drag on her cigarette. "Fuck. I'm going to go do some extracurricular investigating. If we're expected to cover this shit up, I want to know what we're covering up."
Buck nodded and waited for her to be gone, then checked his phone again. Text from Chloe that Bruce's condition was worse than she'd thought. He'd have to stay at the hospital a bit longer. Buck silently prayed for healing. When he opened his eyes again, Lisa was moving by him, her red wig off revealing short black hair. She smelled of make-up and chewing gum, and had her phone pressed up to her right ear.
"Yeah. I know, hon. I'm done here. Pick me up behind the Seven-Eleven. I don't want to walk around covered in this orange gunk any longer than I have to."
Buck watched her as she rounded the corner at the edge of the block. Buck slipped through a back alley, being careful to tread quietly. Finally he pressed his back against the wall of one building when he heard Lisa's voice around the corner.
"Yeah. It's done. Not a lot, dear. Yeah. Three-fifty, plus I get to keep the costume—big whoop. Still, it's food on the table until I can get a real job in this hell hole. You'd think with a third of the world's population just up and vanishing that it wouldn't be hard to find a job, but then that pig-fucking Romanian went and ruined the economy with his stupid one-world-everything nonsense."
After a moment, in which a female voice jabbered on the other end for a moment, Lisa snapped her phone shut.
Buck waited a moment and then rounded the corner.
"Excuse me," he said.
"—were you spying on me?" Lisa blurted. "God, is everyone in this town a total creep?"
"I just want to talk to you," Buck said. "Off the record."
"About what?" she demanded.
"You said you got paid to do this. By whom? Does that mean you've never been here before today?"
"You're going to get me in a lot of trouble," Lisa said. She moved towards the edge the alley, brushing by Buck. "And my fiancé is going to be here any minute and he's got a concealed carry-permit so—"
Buck gritted his teeth and grabbed Lisa by the arm, then shoved her back. His other hand latched onto her shoulder. Lisa screamed out.
"You're hurting my arm, asshole."
"I'm sorry, but this is important." he said. "Listen to me. I only want the truth. I was sent here by that Romanian pig-blanker to debunk the viral video. But if you're just an actor, if this debunking is bunk, that means there's something seriously worth looking into here."
"Look fine," she finally said. "I wasn't part of the original video. I just needed the money. I'm a stuntwoman, that's all. I don't know anything about a government cover up. Now let go of me before I kick you in the balls."
Buck let go and backed off. He felt guilty that he'd let the old nature get the best of him, but this was huge: if this stupid viral video scared Plank and Carpathia enough to extend their propaganda arm, then maybe there was something to it. But what? Angels? Space aliens? Did his theology even allow for that? Buck was skeptical of aliens even before he was saved, but seeing the clock of the world tick down like this had cemented his unbelief on that particular matter.
But who was to say? God made a big universe, why not other inhabited planets?
But then, if they were actual aliens… why were they parading around dressed as superheroes?
It didn't make a lick of sense to Buck, but for some reason, that made it all the more intriguing. He was so eager to get back and tell Tanya about what he'd found that he didn't see Johnny rounding the back of the van, camera in hand, until he was crashing into him.
Johnny swore over Buck's apology, but even that seemed inadequate an exchange of words when the camera hit the ground with a hard CLAT and bounced into the street. Buck started for it when a pick-up truck blazed by, swerving left to miss Buck and managing to crush the camera beneath its oversized tires.
Buck felt at least twelve different profanities forming on the tip of his tongue, and yet none of them seemed adequate.
"You fucking moron!" Johnny thundered behind him, picking himself off the ground. "You clumsy idiot. Do you know how much those cost?"
"Forget the cost of the camera," Buck said. "I can pay for it. What about the footage?"
Johnny paled. "If that footage is lost we'll have to shoot the interview again. I just hope the cloud sync was finished before you—"
"Williams!" The interrupting voice came from Tanya, who waved him over from the Ramen shop.
Johnny had already boarded the van and was desperately checking the computer to see if the footage had made it online. Buck took the opportunity to slip away and see what Tanya wanted.
"Boy howdy were you right," Tanya said. "That's an acceptable expression for you, right, scout? Not too R-Rated."
"Get on with it," Buck snapped.
"Touchy. Anyway, I looked in the back of the kitchen. There's nothing left here. All the food's been taken away. This sure as hell wasn't a publicity stunt. I found this in the walk-in cooler."
Tanya handed buck an eight-by-eleven sheet of paper, on which was scrawled a note:
Any food you find here is food I have left for the hungry. I loaded all my truck could carry and took it to the hospital. Business is dead in this part of Los Angeles, and the specter of war worries me greatly. I may go back to Japan, if I can scrounge up the money. May you be blessed by whatever gods you believe in.
Franklin J. Wantanabe
It was dated the same day the video went viral, the day after the footage was captured by his security cam.
"Ho boy," Buck said. "This is rich. I guess it's a good thing I smashed Johnny's camera."
"You did what?" Tanya said, struggling to restrain a laugh.
"It was an accident." Buck glanced back at the van where he could hear Johnny arguing with someone over the phone.
"There are no accident's when it comes to the Global Community," Tanya said. "That was Providence. Fucking delicious Providence."
Buck frowned at the swear, but couldn't help but agree with the sentiment. After a moment, Johnny stomped out of the van. Tanya snatched the note from the real Frank out of his hand and shoved it in her pocket.
"Good news and bad news," he said. "We're not shooting the interview again."
"What's the bad news?" Buck said.
"That is the bad news you moron."
It was all Buck could do not to punch him.
"The good news is that a low-res version of the video was recoverable so this wasn't a total wash. I hate to be a pain, but Cameron Williams, you are not cut out for TV. You don't grill a man on a fluff piece."
"I asked him why he used his middle name and then offered to buy a bowl of noodles," Buck said. "If that's grilling him I'd love to see your idea of softball."
"Whatever," Johnny said. "I guess we're taking you back to your hotel. Because of your fuck-up they want you to write a companion piece to print in the Weekly."
"I didn't bring a computer," Buck said, grimacing. "I general handwrite stories and get a temp to type them up."
"Don't worry," Tanya said. "My wife is a huge nerd. Plenty of spare laptops you could borrow."
"Wife?" Buck said, glancing over at her.
"Yes, believe it or not, boisterous abrasive malcontents sometimes do tie themselves down to a spouse."
"It's just you said wife," Buck began.
"Yes. Female spouse. Old lady. Partner in Holy Matrimony? You have one too, don't you?" Tanya strapped herself in the passenger seat of the van as Buck sat in the back again.
Buck pressed his lips together. Fantastic. The one apparent ally he had against Carpathia in this town was a foul-mouthed lesbian who thought paying lip service to the divine was enough to cover up the abomination of her lifestyle choices. Still, an apparent ally was better than a clearly hostile GC brownnoser like Johnny.
"Who knew the great Cameron Williams was a homophobe," Johnny said at last. "Especially working alongside Verna Zee."
Buck goggled. Verna Zee was a lesbian? That wasn't possible. How could he have missed that? And if she was out enough for someone in LA to know then how did she even have a career?
"Knock it off," Tanya said. "Last thing I need is you coming to my rescue. If Buck doesn't want to borrow a laptop from me because of gay cooties then I guess we'll let him have yours."
Johnny scowled at Tanya. "Or he could just buy one with his Carpathia-One Gold Card."
"Spend the devil's money too freely and you end up doing the devil's work," Tanya said. "Michelle and me make our living honest: taking the devil's money to do the Lord's work."
"Homophobes behind me, seditionists to my right," Johnny said. "I should just move to New York to get away from all the crazies."
"Actually, I live in New York," Buck said. "I would be honor bound to print reams of libel about you if you moved there."
Johnny muttered something under his breath and kept on driving.
Raven sat on the roof of her hotel, a small cheap dive on the outskirts of town, meditating, reaching out with her empathic senses. She couldn't feel the powers and principalities—the enemy forces whatever they were—attacking and suppressing the critical thinking centers of the planet's brains. But she could feel the damage those forces had done, the touch of complacency and credulity that kept them from seeing through the magnanimous words of this Global Community and its leader.
Nicolae Carpathia. The name seemed foreign and familiar at the same time. His story was remarkable, more than anything, for how little sense it made. Born and raised in Romania, Carpathia had become the president of that country; he wooed the world with his widely-praised public speaking skills, and yet in the videos she'd watched, Carpathia was an awful speaker. His voice was soothing and laced with magic, but the words were ill-chosen, stilted, and gave no indication that Carpathia could measure the mood of his listeners. Though he fluently spoke many languages, he seemed to have mastered the art of rhetoric in none of them. Yet people gobbled up his words and ideas by the droves.
And then, he became the secretary general of the UN as though through magic, and used the powers granted to him from the panic of the Event to reorganize the whole world under U.N. governance. How was it that such a massive psychic suppression field could envelop the planet, yet not leave a trace?
She thought about Cyborg—maybe his computer systems could have detected something her magic couldn't. Or perhaps her lover, Noel, could have used his powers to interface directly with the minds of others and help her find the source. But Cyborg hadn't been brought with them to this dimension and Noel… poor Noel, manipulated by a wicked man and now committed to a mental hospital.
"Raven," crackled the voice of Robin through the communicator. "You're needed down here. You're going to want to see this."
Raven didn't acknowledge verbally, but sent Robin an empathic pulse of affirmation, then summoned her strength. She still wasn't up to reliably hovering, but she could subsume her body inside her Soul Self for long enough to phase down through the roof.
In the Titans' Room, Beast Boy looked up from the Gamestation he was playing and Starfire stopped her examination of the defective hologram rings.
Robin was hunched over a laptop managing numerous browser tabs, and, Raven suspected, hacking programs. The laptop they had found at an abandoned electronics store, way in the back in a safe that Starfire had made short work of—really they'd only been looking for money. Either way it pricked Robin's conscience to be a thief, even of abandoned belongings.
"What have you found?" Raven said.
"In this world," he said. "Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman—every trace of superheroes and metahumans really—don't exist. DC Comics in our world publishes fictionalized accounts of real heroes. In this world, Batman never existed—in fact, he and Superman have been continuously published since the thirties with a sort of sliding timeline like you'd see in a Spider-man comic."
"And Robin is also a fictional character," Raven ventured.
"Yes, but the weird thing is that I'm not. None of us are, actually. Dick was Robin for decades, founded a team called Young Justice, became Nightwing… but after Jason Todd died, the Spoiler took up the mantle of Robin and that lasted for eight years or so until this new kid shows up named Damian."
"I bet he's totally evil," Beast Boy said. "Nobody names their kid Damian unless they're evil."
"It's the child of Batman and Talia al Ghul," Robin said non-committally. "Otherwise, Garfield Logan is a 28 year old man who lives off the royalties from his role on SpaceQuest 2424 as a teenager, Tim Drake owns a small software company in Jersey City, and Angela Roth is a Ph.D. from San Francisco who never had children. Nobody's ever heard of a Princess Koriand'r, and as far as I can tell, aliens have never visited this world."
Raven pondered this. Angela Roth was her mother's birth name, before she'd been the victim of a powerful demon. After that demon, Raven's father, had sired her, Angela had fled to a mystical city called Azarath and taken the name Arella. It occurred to Raven that if they, the Teen Titans, were fictional in this universe, then their absence—the void around which those they knew had rearranged themselves—may have been a sort of defense mechanism of the mulitverse. To prevent a paradox, they had been forcibly defictionalized, recontextualized to fit this new world. What that meant for the Titans future chances in this universe—for them home, Raven couldn't fathom.
"What about Terra and the others?" Raven said. "Cyborg? Gauntlet?"
She paused a moment.
"Cyborg is on the Justice League in the comics, and Terra is on the Outsiders," said Robin. "Gauntlet is on Young Justice. And Savior…"
Robin switched to a different tab on his browser, then set the video thereon to full screen.
The man depicted was Noel—unmistakably, absolutely. Raven's heart flooded with a concoction of mixed emotions. The boyfriend, the partner who had been so cruelly taken away from her. He didn't have the white and blue costume, nor the physique, or the absurd shock of white hair, but the face and voice were unmistakably his. CEO, CollinsCorp Chicago.
"He runs CollinsCorp?" Raven spat. Only after it was out did she realize how full of disgust her voice was. His father, Maxwell, was like the human mirror of Raven's own demonic sire.
"His mother Crystal still died in the same way," Robin said. "He still ran and fled to New York. But the chemical trucks that caused his mutations weren't there. He was eventually found and taken home. If it makes you feel any better, his branch in Chicago has the support of every ethical standards bureau the LA branch doesn't. He's trying to change the company from within. And that got a lot easier after what Maxwell did."
Raven eyed Robin. She'd seen the CollinsCorp tower on their way to the hotel—saw the shimmering force field around it, but the logo was different and she was too far away to make out the writing. She'd wanted to believe—hoped—it was just a similar building in this parallel world.
She looked down at Robin. "What did Maxwell do?"
Maxwell Collins had no regrets. True, many had died in the fighting, a costly miscalculation. True, he was now public enemy number one outside the Bubble—that was what he called it, the barrier that separated him and his faithful from Carpathia's abominable global government. Maxwell had found that beneficence and mercy came easy to him—easy when it was a weapon to be used against the great and incomprehensible threat of that hypnotic Romanian bastard.
But mercy as a weapon? It could only be used on people that were at his mercy. To strike back at Carpathia, he'd need a new weapon, a different weapon. Bread and circuses could keep the masses in order, but it couldn't topple a king.
The video that now played itself on his computer screen, and on every huge screen throughout his office… that may have been the weapon he needed. Buck Williams, the tool Carpathia had put in charge of the Global Weekly, was on TV that very moment, showing how the viral video had been faked. And it was a lie. Maxwell knew Frank Wantanbe. One of the few people he might have called a friend if Maxwell were the type to indulge in such things; he knew Frank's voice, more to the point. Knew what he looked like. The actor on TV was not him.
His best experts had gone over the original security footage time and time again. They could find no manipulation. No explanation that covered every effect, ever technique used to produce such a video. The Global Community reproduction was remarkably close, identical even, to the naked eye. But not the same in the important details.
Maxwell had ruined downtown LA in a bid to keep Carpathia out of his business. The people who supported him, fought and died for him—they deserved better than to be trapped in a little bubble. They deserved champions, freedom fighters.
They deserved heroes.