There's a New World Coming
"Not if I can help it," whispered Nicolae Carpathia. He rolled over in bed, reached into the drawer of his night stand and pulled out a thin black phone. This world was his, damn it. There would be no new world. There would be no heroes on his planet. He dialed a number, being careful not to wake the slumbering Hattie Durham, his secretary and sexual conquest.
"Mr. Carpathia?" the tinny voice of a spineless aid annoyed him, even as the subservience pleased him.
"Mr. Danvers, I need you to retrieve someone for me. Send me Suhail Akbar."
"We have a planet to liberate," said Robin. "If you have any other suggestions then I'd like to hear them."
"Well, I don't," said Beast Boy. "But I mean, come on! You want to accept help from Maxwell Collins? He's like the baddest dude you can be without being Hitler or Darkseid. Tell him, Rae. You know Maxwell better than anyone here."
Raven took a deep breath, and tried to measure her words. "Whatever his coded messages promised, you know that he is using us. We won't be his champions, but his tools. As soon as we're no longer useful, he'll toss us to the wolves."
"I'm aware of all that," said Robin. "But we can't fight this Global Community without hardware."
"Perhaps we should not fight this Community of the Globe," said Starfire, hovering just above the bed. "Our primary objective should be to get home rather than disrupt the timeline of a parallel universe."
"What she said!" Beast Boy added.
"It's not that simple," Robin said. "We don't know that this IS a parallel universe. What if something Warp did in that fight changed our universe? Or Warps powers simply shielded us from changes someone else made to the timeline."
Robin put his hand down on the desk. "Think about it. Noel exists, even though every other Teen Titan that isn't one of us four is fictional. That must be significant."
Starfire winced. Raven felt a pang of fear from her—she had thought of that possibility and retreated from it, most likely for what it might mean for her home planet Tamaran.
"Shall we take a vote?" Starfire said. "I say we seek Maxwell's help, even knowing the risk."
"Agreed," said Robin. "We know him. We know he can't be trusted. But we have an advantage: he doesn't know us."
"Well I say we should find someone else with lots of money and technology," Beast Boy said. "And with Rae that makes us deadlocked, so fat lot of good voting did."
"Actually," said Raven. "I agree with Robin and Starfire. Maxwell is the lesser of two evils in this case. He will use us and he won't hesitate to kill us if we become an obstacle. But unlike him, we know exactly who we're dealing with."
"Of course," Beast Boy said, flopping back onto a bed. "We always gotta do things in the most risky way possible."
"If you didn't want danger you shouldn't have signed up to be a superhero," said Robin.
The discussion was interrupted by a knock at the door, a short series of pecks that had Beast Boy springing to his feet—or rather paws, as he was now a huge Doberman—while Starfire and Raven both summoned weakened versions of their respective energies to their hands.
Robin motioned for them to hold back and slipped over to the door, peaked through the glass, then opened it.
"Delivery for Timothy Drake?" the voice on the other side said. "Sign here please."
A moment later, Robin wheeled in a couple of heavy looking boxes on a hand truck.
"What's all that?" Beast Boy said.
"Makeup and other supplies for our disguises," Robin said. "If Maxwell thinks Starfire's actually an alien then she's liable to wind up on a dissection table."
"Or the slagged remains of one," Starfire said grimly.
"But we just voted to get Maxwell's help! You couldn't have known—"
"Better to have it and not need it," Robin said cutting open a box with the sharp blade of a batarang, "than to need it and not have it."
Buck plucked away on the keyboard of the laptop Tanya had loaned him, composing the propaganda fluff piece with the right amount of weasel words and mealy-mouthed clarifications to make his Wikipedia-editing pre-teen self weep in despair. As soon as he filled the minimum word count, he quickly emailed it to Tanya. He was exhausted and it was nearly 3AM—6AM by his internal clock, keyed to New York as it was. He didn't trust himself to proof-read or edit anything, and probably couldn't have remembered the GCW password anyway.
He crashed into his hotel bed without even removing his belt, let alone the rest of his duds.
He heard a snoring that he would, hours later, later realize was his own, just as a triplet of knocks rattled the door to his hotel room. Fearing a chainsaw killer or Carpathia hit-squad, he immediately checked the peep hole. On the other side stood a slightly tubby red-haired woman with heavy, sky-blue eye shadow. She stood on her tiptoes, Buck guessed, by the way she seemed to be leaning on the door.
"Mr. Williams? Is that you? Cameron Williams?"
"He likes to be called Buck," Tanya said derisively. As the other woman stepped back, Buck was able to see Tanya over her shoulder. "Buck, you gonna let us in? Or at least come out of hibernation?"
Buck frowned and opened the door, feeling a bit self-conscious about his body odor and scratching at his belly where his belt buckle had pressed into it.
"What time is it?" he said.
"Nearly eleven." Tanya popped her shoulders. "Buck, this is Michelle, Michelle, Buck. Glad we know each other."
Through the glass, Buck had perceived the other woman as young, maybe the same age as Chloe, but now he realized that she was older than that, closer to his and Tanya's age. Her outfit—Lord, her outfit—gave Buck a start. A black tube top covered little more than her breasts, and beneath that a fishnet undershirt. Her jeans were mismatched, with bright neon patches down one leg and various shades of blue denim down the other.
Buck extended Michelle a hand, tentatively, and she pumped it with both of hers.
"So what's going on?" Buck said.
"Well if nothing else, I want my computer back," Tanya said.
"Our computer, honey." Michelle pushed past Buck and practically trotted across to the desk.
"Only by California law," said Tanya. "Unless you've picked up a love for violent macho action games that I don't know about."
"Tanya, I put a three terabyte harddrive in this thing. It's big enough for the both of us." Michelle scooped up the computer and its cables and stuffed it in a bag, then stomped back out into the hall.
"Did you get the article up?" Buck said, turning to Tanya.
"I did indeed." Tanya yawned and stretched her arms. "Now the question is, do you have any plans for the day?"
"You mean other than catching a flight back to New York to see my wife and run… what was you called it? The propaganda arm of the Global Community?"
"Something like that," Tanya said. "Or you could join me and my wife and we could blow the crock of shit cover-up all to hell with some real reporting. Come on, you can't be getting cold feet here. You were the one who saw through the scam to begin with."
"I have a hard enough time getting stories about low-level Global Community corruption into print. I may be the boss, but I have to fight the Carpathia-faithful on every single story. I'm amazed that they occasionally actually print what I tell them to."
"How could I ever get something like this out the door of the Weekly office?"
"Print? This is the 21st Century. We don't need printers, or underlings. We have 5G mobile hotspots and proxy tunnels like pretzels, me and Tanya. There are entire corporations that went under after the Rapture because their markets no longer exist, with buildings full of servers sitting unused after their domain names expired. All you need is a little imagination and a crowbar to break into places."
Buck nodded dumbly, unable to think of a good counter point yet liking neither Michelle's lifestyle choices, nor her casual admission to breaking and entering. But more than that, he felt the throb of a bruised ego. He'd often thought of himself as tech savvy. He'd had an email address since he was thirteen and defragmented his parents' computer every other week. It grieved him that Michelle, though perhaps five years his junior, could talk circles around him on the matter of information technology.
"Okay, well," he said after a moment. "We'll need disguises. All the proxys in the world won't help if someone recognizes us and traces us back to our families."
Michelle nodded. "We'll scramble the voices in post, and I think Tanya has something to cover the rest."
Buck looked her way. She frowned, glared at Michelle, then rolled her eyes, swinging her shoulder bag around. She unzipped it and pulled out three white masks, the smiling pale face of Guy Fawkes.
"Remember, remember," she said dryly.
Buck tried to think of a way to make the poem work with the Fourteenth of October, but in his exhaustion, drew a blank.
"I feel like a potato that needs to be peeled," Beast Boy announced, stomping out of the restroom.
His arms, all the way up to his shoulders, and his face and neck, were covered in a pale Caucasian body paint. It had taken three layers to fully cover the green, and the red hair dye was botched, making the shapeshifter's hair a dull brown. Across the room, Starfire now had the appearance of an African American women, complete with fake eyebrows, while Raven had gone with an Indian look to complement the jewel placed at her Ajna chakra, bronzing her skin and dying her hair black. Robin, the only Titan present without an unusual skin color, didn't bother with make-up.
"You'll have to hold off on that," Robin said. "Now I don't have to tell any of you that Maxwell is treacherous. Do not let him or his staff touch you, spray you, or inject you with anything. Do not let your guard down, and do not reveal any more than you have to for this mission to work."
"Agreed," Raven said. "I'll do my best to maintain an empathic link between us, but check your emotions. With my powers dampened in this world, sudden panic might make me drop the link."
"Great," Beast Boy said. "Now how do we get Maxwell Collins' attention?"
"I managed to listen in on some Global Community communications traffic earlier," said Robin. "They're sending in a raiding party through an underground tunnel tonight. I may have tipped the security guards off about it, but I think we had better intervene to make sure nobody gets hurt."
"Seems like a strange place to say Titans Go," Beast Boy said sadly. "Not a heroic legacy to carry on in sight."
Robin put a hand towards the group. "Titans Together, then."
The Titans' performed a communal fist bump.
"Together Forever," said Starfire.
Robin didn't think Raven had started the empathic link yet, but he still swore he could feel her wince.
It was bonkers. Buck Williams, internationally famous journalist, publisher of the Global Community Weekly—the most widely read news magazine in the world—now found himself sneaking through the dark alleys of Los Angeles. This wasn't how journalism was done. This was more like… espionage.
Buck was all for espionage against the GC, but it wasn't his thing. His thing was informational sabotage—trying to keep his news mag from censoring negative news about Carpathia, for instance.
This was tricky. Buck didn't have the skills for it. And he didn't like that this carried the risk of being shot at.
He stared up at the bright moon, half blanketed in the darkness of space.
If the Rapture had any benefits for the Los Angelans Left Behind, it was the reduction in the size and density of the smog cloud that hovered over the city. But it came at a stark cost, even without the CollinsCorp tower and the two blocks around it in every direction being cut off and deemed a nation apart by one corporate fatcat. Abandoned cars, subsequently rendered scrap by the fighting, lined the streets, making vehicular travel impossible. But being out on foot, at night, in these abandoned streets, was conspicuous. Even the most judicious of routes could lead them into an encounter with a desperate, gun-toting junkie. Or worse.
Buck held his breath as the lesbians led him through a part of the city where fighting had been the most intense. The smell of gunpowder, sewage from burst lines, and worse was overwhelming. Tanya held up a hand and Michelle stopped dead. Buck didn't see anything, so he started to press on past, until Tanya grabbed him by the shoulder and jerked him back.
"Stay still," she whispered. "Look."
Buck followed the line of her finger out to a spot several blocks away. Figures, clad in Global Community blue, stood in the road in front of a gutted tanning salon. Despite the darkness, they had no flash lights. Night vision goggles, perhaps. A stealth mission. They opened up a utility panel and dropped down into it, one by one, until only one remand standing guard. Perhaps the electrical grid had a tunnel that would lead them all the way into Maxwell's basement. Or maybe it wasn't a utility at all, but an escape tunnel made to look line one. Buck had heard things—he didn't doubt that Maxwell would abandon the entire town
"Reese was right," said Michelle. "GC Troops."
She pulled out a small spyglass, and looked down it. "Got some heavy hardware too. Assault rifles and explosives."
"How is this related to the supposed flying woman?" said Buck.
"If there's anything weird going on in LA these days, it's probably coming from Collins Corp," Tanya reasoned aloud. She didn't sound too sure of herself, and that didn't boost Buck's confidence at all.
"And they're breaking into Collins Corp?" Michelle said. "That must be it. Shutting down his little rebellion would be great PR for Nicky Erebor."
"Nicky Erebor?" Buck said.
Tanya scowled. "Nerd joke. Forget it. Williams, you have high clearance. We may need it. But plan A is not to get caught."
"Caught doing what?" Michelle said. "You're not seriously suggesting we follow them."
"You damn well know I am," Tanya said. "Either we get into Collins' building and get the scoop on these superheroes, or we go home and waste more time while Carpathia brainwashes the rest of the planet."
"Keep your voices down, ladies," Buck said. He could see, now that Tanya had him looking in the right direction, that the remaining GC soldier had begun stalking towards them. He reached out his hand to Michelle.
She put it in his hand, and Buck brought it to his eye. The broken city looked surreal in the green night vision, and the preternatural light cast by the CollinsCorp force barrier made Buck wonder what sort of strange radiation it was bombarding the city with. Sure enough, though, the GC lookout was heading their way. Unlike the others, he was dressed as a standard security guard, and did not have any unusual headgear or weaponry.
"I think he heard you," Buck said.
"Shit," breathed Tanya. "We'll have to circle around—"
When she trailed off, Buck looked back towards the guard and was surprised to see him lying face down on the pavement, squirming as if he couldn't move. Buck thought he saw a glimpse of a human figure disappearing inot the same utility tunnel that the troops had stormed.
"I think we found our 'superheroes'," said Tanya. She pulled the Guy Fawkes mask down from inside the hood of her sweat shirt. Buck, grimacing, did the same. Michelle followed closely behind, lugging a large bag full of electronic equipment.
"What's in there?" Buck said. "Rocks?"
"My computer, high-powered transmitters, and a graphene fiberoptic cord. I'm going to venture a guess that regular 5G service doesn't get great reception down in the utility tunnels."
As the three passed the guard, Buck realized what the squirming was about: a steel cable was coiled tightly around the guard's body, preventing any movement. Though he grunted and groaned, his mouth seemed sealed shut somehow. Buck was tempted to do something—help him up, preach Jesus at him while he was a literally-captive audience—but Tanya and Michelle ignored him, and in light of the bound guard being aligned with the embodiment of evil, Buck decided it was best to follow suit.
They reached the entrance and waited by the tunnel for a few minutes, listening, when finally Tanya inhaled sharply and climbed down into the darkness. Buck and Michelle followed, and he handed Tanya the spyglass. Buck turned on his mic within his helmet while Michelle set up her transmitter, hooked the cable to it, and began manipulating the tablet screen.
"This is Guy Fawkes," Buck said. "Coming to you from downtown Los Angeles. What you are about to see is the truth—not the made up Global Community lies you see on TV."
Tanya tapped the button on her camera and began recording. Buck just hoped this all wasn't a wild goose chase—and even more, that it wasn't some sort of elaborate trap engineered by the Antichrist.
Suhail Akbar had never been a cautious man, but he had been careful, if that made any sense. He took care to please God. He took care to keep his body and mind pure and strong. He took care of his family. But caution was not a strong suit. How many times had he nearly been shot or detained by IDF forces as a teenager? Tossing rocks, usually. Small stuff. But occasionally, he'd just do something reckless: theft, vandalism, assault… not because he didn't care, but because he believed God was on his side. Because he believed the IDF was impotent as long as God was with him.
And then, Chaim Rosenwig came up with his discovery. That God would bless Israel with something that made them even MORE economically powerful seemed like a slap in the face, but then there was the attack. Russia and its allies, whose motivations were as esoteric as God's often seemed, tried to bomb Israel into submission, to demand that the miracle formula be theirs or nobody's.
And God saved them. Saved Israel when he couldn't spare a thought to save the people of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, wouldn't intervene to stop six million Jewish deaths at the hands of Adolf Hitler. Or stopped the bombings that had claimed friends and neighbors, bombings performed by the very country in whose skies the miracle unfolded—after it had expanded, even, taking the West Bank and Gaza, gobbling up parts of Jordan.
Everything he thought he knew stopped making sense that day. Actually, it had stopped making sense long before that. It probably never made sense, this life. But the holy salvation of Israel that day had awoke him to that fact and sent him into a spiral of doubt and depression. He had sneaked his way into a Jewish wedding celebration that night and filled his belly with alcohol. The next morning, he awoke to a beguiling, perplexing feeling, the serenity of the damned.
If nothing made sense, then nothing was right or wrong. There was only power and pleasure. Akbar dedicated his life to pursuing both, and found it as hollow and empty as anything else he'd done in life. Except this was hollow, empty fun instead of hollow, empty drudgery.
And apparently, Carpathia, a living embodiment of Nordic perfection, decided that he, thug, security guard, violent, and according to Carpathia "brilliant" Suhail Akbar would lead the new Peacekeeper squadron on their first mission: eliminate Maxwell Collins, bring down his force field, and recover every last bit of data from his computers, anything that Carpathia could take and add to his own arsenal. It sounded like a good plan.
"We're approaching the defensive position," he said softly. "Cling to the walls."
Up ahead, bathed in the night-vision green, Akbar saw two figures standing idly, carelessly holding small weapons, perhaps single barrel shotguns. He actually felt a twinge of disappointment. It wouldn't be much of a fight.
The hallway abruptly narrowed about twenty meters before the guard station, though the ceiling was higher in that section. Akbar raised his gun—though gun was too small a word for this killing machine—and activated the alternative fire: two small anti-personnel rockets. He pressed his back to the wall, and manipulated the end of the gun to bend to the left. It couldn't fire bullets this way, but it let him target Collins' goons from the gun's built-in view screen without making himself a target.
He waited until the rockets each locked onto one guard a piece, then took a steadying breath. He squeezed the trigger, once, twice. The rockets flared to life and blazed towards the two guards, who immediately sprang into action with startled shouts. If they had any training, they forgot it, because they made no move to even call the attack in.
The rockets slammed into the barricades, a brilliant flash flooding the night-vision screen on the weapon. The sounds of wending metal and shattering glass accompanied the blast of the rockets. He gave the rest of the squad the order to open fire. Dozens of heavily silenced assault weapons lit up the corridor, and though he knew it was absurd, he could have sworn he saw a figure, a human figure moving in his peripheral vision, only appearing for a few brief instants of strobe lighting belching from the barrels of the rifles.
"Move ahead, keep shooting," Akbar called, hoping to reach the two hapless guards and either confirm the kills or finish them off before any more guards could respond.
As they neared the end of the corridor, Akbar saw that he'd made a miscalculation: a nearly-invisible sheet of reinforced glass stood between them and the guards, and that had taken the actual brunt of the rocket blasts. Both guards were still in one piece—mostly. The guard on the left began crawling away, and Akbar quickly put two quick shots through his arms, drawing cries of pain and ending his movement. Akbar was about to ask why half of his squad had stopped firing, but as he was turning his head, his eye caught something.
The other guard lay flat on his back.
No. The barrel of his weapon was glowing. He was holding in the trigger—charging it up. But—
Akbar barely had time to react when the 'dead' guard sat up, aiming his weapon wildly. A beam of crackling white burst out of the barrel, Akbar slamming his back into a wall, even as the beam bore directly through the Peacekeeper to his right, the smell of charred flesh accompanied by a hiss and an ineffable gasp as the soldier collapsed.
Akbar wasted no time morning the dead as he raised his side arm and put two rounds through the guard's head.
Or at least, tried to. The bullets only grazed their target, cutting gashes into his cheek and forehead. Akbar's aim, even with his left hand, was better than that.
And then he noticed something else in his peripheral vision. The three Peacekeepers who had taken up the rear of the squad were gone—vanished into the darkness.
Akbar shouted to the Peacekeepers still standing.
"It's a trap!"
That was the last thing he got out before a world-rocking blow hit his jaw, slamming his head into the stone corridor wall. The strobe of his squad's rifles merged with the flash of his concussion. Only darkness followed.
"This Peacekeeper is dead, Blackbird," Robin said. "Get to the guards."
The Peacekeepers that he and the other Titans had stealthily waylaid lay in a pile several yards back. Raven flew passed the dead man as Robin administered some medication for the squad leader—to both take care of his concussion and keep him from waking up any time inconveniently soon.
By the time he was done, he looked up to see Raven kneeling over the guard who'd taken the brunt of the attack, whispering her mantra.
Her telekinetic powers were still not attuned to this universe, leaving her out of range to stop the first several volleys of bullets. When she finally got close enough, she was only able to slow and divert the two pistol shots—enough to limit the other man's wounds to facial lacerations, but not enough to stop the bullets altogether.
"Redbird, healing him is going to hurt me a lot more than normal. Both his arms are shattered and some glass is imbedded in his leg."
Robin nodded. "Share the pain with us if you have to."
Raven clenched her teeth placing her hands on the man's wounds. "Zinthos."
The word escaped her mouth as a hiss and the wounded guard seized up. Raven's eyes began to water, her muscles tightened beneath the bronze cosmetic make-up, and in the thinnest places sweat beaded on her forehead. Raven began to relax her muscles, but as she did Robin felt sharp pains, the agony of shattering bone, excruciating even though they were phantom. He felt retroactively guilty for every time he had asked Raven to heal himself or anyone else in the past.
As the empathic touch subsided, so did the pain, though the ache lingered.
"Empyrean, grab the heavier guard and carry him with us. I'll get the lighter one. Twilight, take point; Blackbird, cover the rear. It's another five hundred yards to the basement of the Tower, and we don't know what else might be waiting for us."
"That was unbelievable," Buck said, his face beaded with sweat inside the cheap plastic Guy Fawkes mask. There were other words coming to mind, words he might have used when he was still unsaved. Tanya used one of those words just then.
"Holy fuck," she breathed. "Did that just happen?"
Michelle wrapped her in an embrace from behind, their masks clanking together. "It did. It totally did. You got that, right? Tell me you got that."
"I got flashing lights and sounds," she said. "Not sure how much is actually visible."
Buck motioned forward. "Even if the fight itself is a mess, there's a pile of dead Peacekeepers right there. Start recording again."
Buck darted a head, shining the light of his cell phone screen onto the bodies. No, wait—not bodies. They were still alive, breathing slowly. Taken down nonlethally—like Superheroes would. He shivered, some nameless anxiety twisting through his spine. He quickly got back into character, though, putting on the affected Guy Fawkes voice—which sounded more like a wheezy Brooklynite than an English revolutionary—and began narrating.
"I'm standing over the unconscious forms of seven Global Community Peacekeepers. Another lies dead several yards away, killed by a high tech CollinsCorp weapon hitherto unreleased to public or military availability. But these unconscious men, these survivors led by—"
Buck knelt in front of the commander, who slept so soundly despite Buck's presence that he must have been drugged. He found a Peacekeeper identity badge clipped to the man's belt.
"Suhail Akbar." He motioned for Tanya to point the camera down the hall, towards the corpse, the shouldering wreckage.
"You saw the same things we saw. Two men, two women. One of the women flew. I know I heard them refer to each other as Redbird and Blackbird—undoubtedly the Robin-look alike and his blue-clocked friend from the Ramen shop video. Still believe Buck Williams' hackjob now?"
Buck couldn't see Tanya and Michelle's faces, but from their body language, he got the distinct impression they were both laughing at him.