When I was born, airplanes were made of wood and cloth, and superpowers were something for movie serials and cheap pulp novels. I've watched a man land on the Moon, and covered the presidencies of Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and now Nixon as a reporter… I saw Galactus with my own eyes. If I had to sum up my life in one sentence, it would be "I was there for the trial of Peter Parker."
I remember when he took the stand. The prosecutor was sure his moment had come, that he would make his case for the state and secure his victory. He launched into a tirade that drew numerous objections from Matthew Murdock, Parker's lawyer. His question was ultimately boiled down to a simple one. What gives you the right? Who decided that you, Peter Parker, are above the law?
Peter looked at him, looked right at him and gave his answer. He never looked at the jury once.
"I've been Spider-Man since I was fourteen years old. When I first discovered my powers, the first thing I did was go out and try to make a quick buck. I had a chance to a stop a criminal- not a mastermind in a robot suit or an alien, just a man with a ski mask and a gun. I did nothing. It wasn't my problem.
"Because I didn't stop that man, he later met and shot my uncle. He was the first person to die because of me, because I made the wrong choice, or because I wasn't fast enough or smart enough. He wasn't the last. My uncle lived a simple life of clear principles, and it wasn't until he was gone that I realized what he was trying to teach me, not through speeches or rhetoric, but the way he lived his life. A man has responsibilities. With power comes responsibility.
"I don't have the right, sir. No one made me put on a mask, no one paid me or trained me. I did what I did because I could, because one more pair of eyes and hands out there might save some lives.
"There hasn't been a night of my life since Gwen Stacy died that I haven't wished that spider never came near me."
Peter Parker tried to teach us his uncle's lesson, by living. I only wish we'd listened. I know I didn't. Not until it was too late. I spent ten year of my life calling this man a criminal, a thief and worse. While I was accusing him of crimes he didn't commit, he was out saving people. He risked his life, his health, and his own future every night. From 1962 to 1973, Spider-Man saved over five thousand people from certain death, more than one per day, not counting the numerous times he participated in saving the entire city, even the world.
That one fourteen year old boy had more responsibility than an army of politicians and generals and great leaders. We need more Peter Parkers, not less.
-J. Jonah Jameson, The Trial of Peter Parker, 1975
Had they wished to give chase, truly they would have needed only the blood. His sandals broke down after a mile of running through the valley between the outcroppings, and propelled by his faith he ran until his feet bled and there was a trail of crimson tracks drying to iron that lay behind him, marking his way. Clutched under one arm was an earthen jar more valuable than all the gold in the world, for within it laid the secrets of God.
Every breath was a lance through his chest; every step sent a jolt of sharp pain up his legs. He ran without heed, for the body was illusion. The truth was known to a very few, who understood that all men were luminous beings, not the shells of crude matter they inhabited, and it was to the great mother, the true godhead they would return at the end of days. His name meant "Who is like God?" in the way of Hebrew neighbors, but he and his kin knew the truth. The answer was everyone.
It was not far to the cave. The Roman oppressors had set fire to the camp when the elders refused to divulge their secrets, refused to recant their faith and bow to the Roman emperor and his deities. It was to him and to him alone that fell the task of bearing the ancient font of wisdom into the desert where it would remain hidden until those of knowledge and worth would come to find it. The truth would endure and live forever, and when the Messengers came, the word of the hidden scrolls would carry all mankind into union with the Godhead. This he believed and this was why he ran when his legs screamed at him and his back was a map of fresh pains, because the body was illusion and when he buried the secret knowledge he would die knowing he would rise again and find peace in the bosom of the holy mother.
The cave was not far. He had made the journey many times, bearing the more common scrolls to be hidden, the commentary and explanation of the holy device that had brought the sect to wisdom, the gift of Those Who Came Before, the First Ancestors. The ways of his sect were secret and alien, an spoke of other worlds, other Earths with other men on them, strange and alien beings who were as kin to mankind, but where men bore within them the fruit of wisdom earned by eating of the sacred fruit of the tree of knowledge, the brothers beyond the stars ate of the tree of life and so gained immortal perfection, but without choice. Such was the way of things.
Earth, Earth alone had been blessed with a path back to the true form of mankind and the return to the true Goddess who spawned us.
This a man named Mika'el, or Michael, knew as he ran through the desert, dragging behind him an irregular path of bloody markers drying in the sun. Far behind him the camp where his brethren studied the alien device was put to the torch. The supplicants linked arms and marched defenseless into a line of Roman legionaries and were cut down by the short blade called the gladius hispaniensis, or struck down by the thrown spear called a pilum, a wicked weapon with a shaft half made of soft metal, designed to bend and fix itself in its target. When the sands were stained in a permanent sunset the tents and the remaining scrolls and all evidence that the cult that had ever existed were burned, and after three days the centurions bade the Legion turn the earth and salt it so that no trace of its existence would remain.
So Michael ran.
It was growing dark and he could see the column of smoke rising behind him, and admonished himself with the story of Lot when he glanced over his shoulder and nearly fell. Stumbling, he felt the energy draining from him as his concentration shattered. He slowed, breathing hard, a sheen of sweat gluing his white garments to his body. It truly was not far now and he began the descent to the most secret cave, distant from the others where the truth had been secured. He counted the steps down the carven path in the rock until he found the turn that led between two tightly placed rocks that forced him to turn and wriggle between them, and from there he walked, stinging bloodied feet clinging to the sand with each step.
The cave lay at the end of a narrow gulley, barely visible from above. He had to duck the low lintel as he passed inside, and his foot hooked on a stone. The clay jar dropped from his hands and shattered, and Michael wept. The Secret Scrolls were revealed.
Harsh ochre light filled the cavern. The Secret Scrolls were not of parchment or papyrus or the scraped skin of a sheep or goat, they were a cube, a cube that seemed to be made out of light itself. To stare into its surface was to see an infinity of tiny, incomprehensible symbols layered on one another, intersecting in all directions. A tiny shift in perspective revealed yet new truths.
Michael picked it up and used its light to illumine the cavern, and pulled the wooden spar by the door. It slipped out of its carved channel and there was a clattering of rock as the front of the cave was buried, sealing him in. He held the Scrolls carefully in both hands and walked deeper into the cave. At the rear, on shelves that had been built when his grandfather was too young to walk, the jars with the written exegesis of the material stored within the cube waited. Michael sat down in front of them, folding his legs, and meditated on the foolishness of the world and the way earthly hungers distract us from the Divine.
He died three days later of thirst, without moving.
God came to take him in the form of a girl in white, her skin pale like the finest marble. Her crimson eyes regarded him and there was something sad in them, and he died alone with his God.
I too, was there. Observing. Cataloging. Ensuring that nothing that transpired would ever be forgotten.
I am Uatu. I am the Watcher.
EVANGELION: AGE OF MARVELS
"Secret Origins, Part 1"
May 1, 1945 A.D.
Lorenz Kihl daubed the sweat from his face with one of several handkerchiefs kept for that task, piled around the reader in front of him. A device of his own design lay before him, illuminating a fragmentary scrap of scroll from beneath, making it easier for him to pick out the fine, almost invisible letters, ghosts left where ink once dried. He rapped his fingers on the scuffed surface of his desk unconsciously as his left hand recorded possible transliterations of what he struggled to read. He wrote with a fountain pen, stopping to wet the nib and blot before beginning the next line. He was steeped in old things, and preferred the elegance of tools and techniques long refined over new and untested technologies. He had a tall stack of notes, ready to be typed out.
The flap to the tent opened, and the still, stifling air inside exchanged with the restless, stifling air outside.
He looked up. Maria stepped into the tent. Something was wrong. Her upper lib had been bloodied and her hair was askew. He reached under the table to where he kept a Walther resting atop a stack of papers and closed his fingers around the grip. Maria took a few steps into the room and stumbled to the ground. Death followed her.
Johann Schmidt. Kihl's bowels turned to jelly and he fought a momentary, flickering inner war over whether to draw the pistol and shoot or put it back down. Schmidt scanned the room, his unblinking, bloodshot eyes taking in everything. Maria lay on the floor weeping, her dark hair spilled around her face. Kihl heard other men shuffling outside, and caught glimpses of dust-weary boots under the edge of the tent. Schmidt's hand rested on an entirely unnecessary sidearm. Taller than any man had a right to be, his presence filled the tent like some demon of old. Despite his heavy leather coat, buttoned to his chin, he did not sweat. He had no skin to sweat with.
The Red Skull spoke.
"Herr Kihl," he said, disdainfully looking over the desk and the notes, "At last we meet."
Kihl moved his hand away from the gun and rested it on his knee where Schmidt could see it.
"A wise move, Herr Professor Doktor. You would have been dead before you fired a shot, and your Jewess with you."
Kihl tensed. "I don't know what you mean. Maria Schneider-"
"Is not Maria Schneider, she is Madalena Schuller, or she used to be before your former research assistant disappeared from the face of the Earth and you took on a new student. It must have been expensive."
"It was," said Kihl.
Schmidt sneered. It was a sight to see, his flat, almost lipless mouth pulling away from teeth too bright against his crimson lips. His entire head was a livid sore, ridged with veins, his eyes sunken deep into his sockets, his flesh pulled so tight he looked like a dead man. Kihl recalled the words of an American poet.
…and the Red Death held sway over all.
"You have not been listening to your radio," said Schmidt. "Have you not been following the progress of the war?"
Kihl stared at him flatly, as if he could will him to leave the tent. "No. I am a scientist, not a soldier. The war is not my concern."
"The war is everyone's concern," said Schmidt, touching the papers on the table with his glove hands.
Maria slithered away from him, curling up against one of the reading benches. Kihl shot her a knowing glance and spread his fingers.
The Red Skull did not see the gesture, or gave no sign that he did, at any rate. "Hitler's war is over."
"I don't understand."
"The Allies have not yet announced the news," said Schmidt, "but the Fuhrer took his life a few hours ago, in his private bunker in Berlin. The war is over, Herr Professor Doktor."
"What do you want with me?"
Schmidt stood up. "We both know your operation here was at the pleasure of the fuhrer. No doubt you have been running on the proverbial fumes, spending your last few meager funds to keep going while the war turned away from you. All of the Fuhrer's other foolish extravagances in search of Hebrew artifacts have proven fruitless and were long abandoned. All except this one."
"I am a scholar. I am studying Essene holy texts, nothing more."
"An amusing lie," said Schmidt, "and clearly transparent. You received funding until '44, when you were cut off. The Third Reich was being strangled from every direction, sending out unarmed tanks crewed by green boys while old men held the capital and the Fuhrer screamed at phantom armies, like a child playing at war on a map with his schoolmates. You and you alone were given the means to pursue this research during that time. Someone saw value in what you are doing here, Herr Doktor."
"I will admit that I took advantage of the Fuhrer's fancies," said Kihl, calmly. "Who didn't?"
"Who indeed," said the Red Skull. "These fancies were apparently worth draining what little of your family fortune you could salvage before the Nazis seized it to fund the last days of the war. You're broke, mein Herr, not to put too fine a point on the matter."
"Did you come here for a reason, or to intimidate me?"
"If it is the latter, said Schmidt, drawing up to him, "I have succeeded."
Kihl drew back.
"You found results, Herr Doktor. You will reveal them to me."
Kihl swept his hand over the scroll reader and his notes. "Essene holy texts, found by a shepherd in-"
Schmidt pulled out his sidearm and shot Maria in the calf. It happened so quick Kihl barely registered the noise until he heard her screaming follow after it, tinged by the ringing in his ears. The Red Skull touched the side of his head and tilted it from side to side, as if fighting a crick in his neck.
Kihl nearly fell in rushing to her side. She moaned, tears spilling down her cheeks. The wound grazed her leg, but it was bleeding badly. Kihl tore his shirt off and looped it around, pulling it tight, and the faded white silk darkened with blood. It was a minor wound. He glanced over his shoulder.
Schmidt had the gun aimed at her head.
"I didn't miss. In fact, had I wished it, I could have placed the bullet in the artery not far from the wound and she would be dead in thirty seconds. Now, Herr Professor Doktor, would you like to reconsider lying to me?"
"I told you-"
Schmidt's thumb pushed the safety down.
"Alright!" Kihl barked, shielding her with his body. "Alright, I'll show you."
He stood up, glancing at Maria as he moved to the far end of the tent. He cleared away one of the empty jars, gently resting it on the carpet that covered the sand, and cleared off some various pieces of debris and old notes. He knelt to open the safe, blocking Schmidt's view. He could feel the guns swinging around to his back.
Kihl let out a slow breath and took a crab step to the side as he swung open the safe. Inside was a cube about the size of his fist, covered in parchment, tied with strings. He picked it up and stood, breathing out slowly.
"You said the war is over," said Kihl. "What good could any of this do you?"
"Hitler's war is over," said Schmidt, holstering his weapon. "A new war is beginning, a shadow war. The secret bomb the Americans have developed means the end of organized warfare as we understand it. The wars of the future will be fought by proxies, in jungles and deserts far from the combatant's homes, and even that will be a distraction. The true war will be fought in secret, hidden places, by men who are prepared to seize whatever means become available to them. Hitler's dreams died with him, Herr Professor, but I am alive."
Maria looked at him as though he were a coiled serpent, clutching the blood soaked makeshift bandage to her leg. Kihl pointedly did not look at her, the better no to draw Schmidt's attention to her again. He unwrapped the cube.
It rested in the palm of his hand, heavier than it looked. From a distance it appeared solid, made of a strange ochre mineral, lit somehow from within. On closer inspection, the surface was densely packed with writing- and not only the surface, the entire mass, diagrams within diagrams, wheels within wheels, enough knowledge to fill a thousand thousand scrolls all packed into a space the size of a man's fist. Kihl held it up.
"That," said the Red Skull, "is your secret. What is it?"
"Knowledge," said Kihl. "Immense knowledge."
"If that is nothing but a container for religious texts," said Schmidt, "If you have wasted my time…."
"I haven't," Kihl said hurriedly. "This predates religion, this object predates mankind. It has been in this valley for thousands, perhaps millions of years, or longer. The Essenes who learned to open it studied only a tenth of its wisdom."
"Opened it," said Schmidt. "How does one open it?"
"It is… interesting to see," said Kihl. "I would appreciate it if you did not shoot my assistant in alarm."
Schmidt's unblinking eyes flicked to her. "If this is a foolish attempt on my life, know that even if you succeed, there are ten men outside ready to riddle this tent with bullets, Doktor. Do not be a fool."
"I'm not," said Kihl.
His fingers slid over the perfect, unmarred surface. He'd spend months looking for the marked places on the surface the scrolls themselves described, searching for the right spots, to no avail. Every method of searching, every too, turned up nothing. The surface was perfect, unmarred. To find the right spot one had to listen to one's fingers, for lack of a better term, an alien sort of synethesiac sensation. He found the right spot and pressed, and the cube did not give.
The orange script flashed out, expanding in every direction. Schmidt was actually startled, his hand halfway to his weapon before he stopped, his features twisted in an alien, unwelcome expression, foreign to his disfigured death's head. Wonderment. Orange script was everywhere around them all, filling the tent like flakes of snow in a blizzard. Kihl could still feel the weight of it in his hand, although he held a shapeless ball of script. He could even feel the sharp edges digging into his palm.
"Fascinating," said Schmidt.
"The amount of text contained in the device is mind boggling," said Kihl.
The Red Skull's features twisted in an almost sneer. "Indeed. I do not recognize this script."
"There are few who can. The ancient Essenes of this place set about translating it themselves. I have been studying translations of translations, lacking the resources to attack the cube itself."
"Do you have a functional lexicon?"
Kihl thought of Maria on the ground, clutching her wounded leg.
"Yes," he sighed. "I have begun the task of creating a direct lexicon, without the need for a translation of a translation."
"Is there anyone else who can translate this material?"
"No. The scrolls are heavily damaged. It would take decades to recreate my work, perhaps more."
Kihl moved his hands and the cube slammed shut, reforming in his hand. He held it out and the Skull took it, his thin not-lips twisting in a small, satisfied smile.
"There were many special projects during the war, Kihl," said Schmidt, "None were successes, other than the serum that gave me my gifts."
"Of course," Kihl said, smoothly.
"What is this device, Doktor?"
"The records of an alien race that seeded this planet with life, possibly eons ago."
"A holy text? Prophecy? Warning?"
Kihl fought to keep his face neutral. "An instruction manual, so to speak."
Schmidt paced around the tent. He stooped slightly to touch Maria's head, smoothing her hair as he might pet a dog, without looking at her. "Why is it here? Why not a Roman treasure room, why not some hidden vault in the Vatican? Why was it hidden?"
"Because it is dangerous. If the scrolls are true, the technology these ancients possessed… is all but magic."
"Magic," said Schmidt. "I see. I am suitably impressed, Herr Doktor. I think it is time we discussed the terms of your employment."
Schmidt snapped his fingers, and two guards rushed in. They were not dressed in proper Reich uniforms, although they too wore heavy coats and black helmets, and carried slung machine guns. They lowered a chair for him to sit on. One brought a folding table into the tent and spread it out, while another carried a silver tea set, and yet another bore a cigarette stuck in a long holder. Schmidt leaned to one of them and spoke softly, and a medic slipped into the tent, squatted beside Maria, and opened his kit.
"Tea?" said the Red Skull.
"It's so beautiful here."
Kihl stood at the back of the room, watching his Madelena. After moving here they had abandoned her alias, and he had taken up a new one, but in private he was Lorentz and she was Maddy and all was right in the world. She leaned on the wrought iron railing surrounded by the billowing gossamer curtains of their balcony, the wispy cloth framing her slender form like the wings of an angel. Kihl watched her, the slender wisp of her body illuminated by the sun and made quite visible under the sheer cloth of her dressing gown. The modest ring he had given her -they could not afford to be too extravagant- shone on her left hand, glittering in the morning sun. They had been married in a small church not far from the hotel, by a local priest. An old vaquero stood in for Maddy's father and the groom's side was filled in by a fruit vendor and a local man who claimed to be a poet. Maddy wore a sturdy, business like skirt and jacket and Kihl wore a linen suit and so they were both married.
Kihl saw the ugly scar of a gunshot wound on her thigh and tensed, as he did each time he saw it, tugging the perfect curves of her leg out of shape. He shook his worry away and sidled up behind her, slipping his arms around her waist, and pressed his chest to her back, his chin on hers. She'd stopped dying her hair and it had resumed its rich black, so dark seemed blue. He rested his hands on hers, his long, fine fingers lacing between the short, delicate ones of her small hands. Her skin, always pale no matter how much she was in the sun, glowed in the morning light and even bare of makeup she was a vision. She was all he had in the world.
The Red Skull knew it.
He saw the man's car rumbling down the cobbles, an enormous Rolls in gray and black. Kihl, most of his fortune gone and now living on the good graces of a war criminal, avoided ostentation, displays of wealth. He would have melted into the countryside with Maddy and disappeared if he hadn't known that Schmidt would find them and murder her on general principles. As he saw a member of Schmidt's staff emerge from the car and move to the rear, he ushered her inside and moved her in the bedroom.
"Lorentz," she whispered, her voice cracking as she choked back the tears. "What is he doing here?"
"I don't know."
He pulled the French doors shut in front of her. They were wooden frames filled with lace, turning her into a ghostly shadow. "Stay there. Keep your pistol ready."
They maintained the fiction that it was to defend herself, but they both knew what it was for.
Kihl slipped into a jacket and waited in the parlor of the suite. The front door unlocked, and two of Schmidt's agents, dressed in nondescript clothes, stepped inside.
The man himself ducked under the lintel of the door. He wore a Panama hat and a scarf around his mouth and a pair of heavy, dark sunglasses, and his skin was covered in mottled, amateurish makeup. It would serve to disguise him sufficiently if he remained in the car. He tore off the hat and scarf, folded the glasses, and handed them to one of his aides, then daubed the makeup away from his cheeks and brow with a folded handkerchief. One of his men stuck his cigarette holder in his mouth and lit it for him.
"Professor," he said brightly. "Are you ready to begin?"
"Begin?" said Kihl. "I was told the facility would not open for another six months."
The Skull glanced at the bedroom door. "We are advancing the schedule. I hate to interrupt the honeymoon, Herr Professor, but you are needed now."
"But my wife-"
The Skull's warped face twisted into the sneer that passed for his smile. There was no levity in it. "My men will of course remain here, to ensure her safety."
"You mean to hold her hostage."
"If you wish. Think of it as your obligation as my vassal, mein herr. Please your liege lord and he will not claim the right of prima noctis."
"I'll do whatever you want," Kihl said, quietly. "Leave her out of this."
The Skull's expression flattened. "Do not presume to give me orders, Professor. I may have to chide you."
The Skull turned and Kihl followed him, glancing over his shoulder at the two men standing inside the door to his honeymoon suite. They didn't bother to close it behind him, as if making a point, and stood stone still, almost like statues. Schmidt was joined by a ring of other adjutants and they walked in silence down through the parlor of the hotel and out onto the street, where one of the Skull's men opened the door to the car. Kihl slipped inside.
The Skull handed him a heavy stack of folders. "Potential recruits."
"Ours is not a mission of discovery," said the Skull, "we will exploit the fruits of your labors and develop these advances."
"Into whatever I require."
Kihl opened the first folder. "Anthony Stark?"
The Skull regarded him neutrally.
"Stark? The American weapons manufacturer? Are you ma…"
The Red Skull's eyes narrowed by a tiny degree. Kihl's teeth clicked shut.
"Your observation is an astute one," said Schmidt. "It will be some time before old wounds heal, and we are able to develop the sort of talent we need to complete the more advanced projects, but it would be foolish to ignore strong minds who can contribute and lay the groundwork for future projects. Stark's designs may lead to a solution to our power requirements."
"I'm not an engineer," said Kihl, "I don't presume to know the details."
"That is why I tolerate you," said Schmidt. "So few academics are willing to acknowledge their own limitations."
"Yet, how? Why would this man work for you?"
"He won't," said Schmidt. "He will work for you, or rather, he will work for the man we are creating, who bears your face and name. The chaos of the war's end has given us much to turn to our advantage. It will be simple to create a family fortune out of thin air to replace the one you squandered."
"I was a member of the Party," said Kihl.
"They have Von Braun working on their rockets, and they are using Speer's intelligence against the Soviets, Professor. The new war began as soon as the old one ended, and it is, as they say, breeding strange bedfellows."
"Do you mean to align yourself against the Communists?"
"Don't be ridiculous," the Skull waved a hand, breathing out a steady stream of smoke. "Ideology is dead. There are men of opportunity under every flag, in every nation. It is but for us to harness their talent. Alas, my reputation precedes me. You, on the other hand, are a refuge without any troubling associations, and a newly restored family fortune."
"So, I will act as the head-"
"The outer head. No decision will be made without my authority," said Schmidt. "No decision. If you change the color of the paint in your office without my leave, dear Madalena will have to suffer the consequences. Is that understood?"
Kihl stared blankly at the first page of Stark's file. The cruelty of the world, that he should have saved her from the camps to lead her to this. He should have found a place for her in Palestine and left her there. A momentary flicker in his mind, and he saw her standing on the balcony as she had that morning.
Only now, she was surrounded by her mother, and her sisters.
Kihl blinked and stared out the window.
"You will travel with your wife," said the Skull, "it would appear odd if you did not. I am already preparing the way, ensuring you will be regarded as a disgraced academic and a victim of the regime. Again the chaos at the end of the Reich's fall works in our favor."
"I was not a member of the party by choice," said Kihl. "I never shared its ideals."
"Indeed," said Schmidt. "I might say the same thing."
Kihl slowly looked at him, trying to keep his expression neutral.
"Hitler was never ready to go far enough," the Skull mused. "Too entranced by his convenient fictions, a sad, ugly little man unworthy of the role providence laid upon him. I will not make the mistake of letting my lessers command me again."
Kihl spent the rest of the ride feigning interest in the documents. He would go over them later. He was too busy stilling his beating heart, trying to think of some way out of this situation. If he fled, Schmidt would find him. If he sent Madalena away, Schmidt would kill her to spite him, or worse. If he went to the authorities, he would be branded a war criminal and imprisoned, and Schmidt would kill Madalena. Every option he considered led nowhere, every path closed to him but the one he was one.
"Don't waste your time," Schmidt said idly, apropos of nothing.
Kihl resigned himself, closing the folder. He watched the streets of Buenos Aires roll by until the car took a sharp turn down a narrow alley. He could not see through the driver's compartment, but he caught a glimpse of a brick wall. It must have been a false one; he saw the threshold pass as the car drove through it, and watched a metal door lined with a facade of bricks slide up behind him. The interior was lit by harsh sodium lamps, and not much larger than the lumbering vehicle itself. Schmidt stubbed out his cigarette and shifted in the seat.
Kihl realized he was becoming used to the man's atrocity of a face. Something deep inside him shuddered, coldly.
Eventually, the car stopped. Schmidt stepped out as an aid opened the door. One opened Kihl's door and he stepped out. One of the Skull's men seized his stack of papers, spun him around, and frisked him, double checking his pockets. He removed a pocket watch, the only article he'd been carrying, and flipped it open. An old photograph of Madalena from before the war was tucked inside, against the cover. The man studied it for a moment, smiled quietly to himself, a very Teutonic smile, and slipped the watch back into the pocket of Kihl's coat.
When he was released he said, "You treat me as if I am already a traitor."
"Caution is warranted," said Schmidt, lighting another cigarette. He drew the holder from between his teeth and blew a smoke ring. "There are already means of altering a man's mind, and in the future there will undoubtedly be more. Come."
Kihl expected some sort of scientific facility. From the doors he passed, he knew there were hints of one, but he was led into a room that could be a richly appointed Continental drawing room. Seated facing away from the door was a pale man with jet black hair, clad in a smoking jacket and slacks. He was reading something- a technical journal, by the look of it. Kihl glanced over his shoulder and saw a spiral molecule diagrammed on the one page.
The Red Skull blew out a long streamer of smoke. "Lorenz Kihl, may I present Nathanial Essex, late of London."
The man stood up and turned around, and Kihl drew in a breath. He was not merely pale; he was white as death, some sort of carnival nightmare. His eyes were flat red without sclera or pupil, and there was a crystal of some kind set directly in his skull. His blue lips resembled those of a corpse, and spread in a thin smile over teeth yellowed with age.
"Essex," the Skull hissed.
He smirked, and he changed. His skin darkened, blooming with tiny pockmarks and scars, a hint of a birthmark, the normal discolorations present in a human being. He blinked his eyes and they went from scarlet to blue, perfectly normal. He extended his hand.
Kihl first declined, and then thought better of it. His grip was like iron.
"Herr Kihl," said Essex. "Our associate has told me so much about you. It is a pleasure to encounter a mind of your caliber, so rare among these cattle."
Something about his casual use of the term frightened Kihl. He hoped it didn't show, but knew otherwise.
"I am flattered that my reputation precedes me, but you have me at a loss."
"I am a geneticist," said Essex, "and I have already begun working with some of the data gathered from your researches into the Cube. Please, sit."
Schmidt remained standing, perusing the nearby bookshelf and puffing on his cigarette while Kihl sat opposite Essex.
"The possibilities are remarkable. A complete reshaping of the human genome, not as a gradual process of selective breeding or engineering but instantly, worldwide. Imagine the power such a tool presents. An end to disease, an end to infirmity, an end to weakness. A true…" he glanced at Schmidt, "Master race."
The Red Skull turned from the books. "Imagine a future, Kihl, where a chosen few are masters of the world, immortal, invincible, immune to disease, able to heal any injury. Imagine a race of perfect soldiers who do not need to eat or sleep, armed with weapons that can render men down to the primordial soup in an instant. We could be gods. Essex' part in our grand drama represents only the first step. One of many. You should be honored."
"I am," Kihl lied.
He listened to Essex rant, failing to understand most of it, and made his excuses. He rode back to the hotel alone, in the back of the Skull's car, and when he arrived, he opened his own damned door. He found the door to the room unlocked, and as he passed inside, Schmidt's men gave him curt nods and departed, drawing the door closed behind them.
When he pushed into the bedroom he found Madalena sitting on the edge of the bed, hugging herself. He sat down beside her and her head fell on his shoulder, and she sobbed violently.
Empire State University
Kihl had much on his mind. His hands trembled as he drove, navigating the narrow, crowded Manhattan streets in the unnecessarily bulky Chevrolet Bel Air that Schmidt had insisted her purchase from a local dealer, just as Schmidt had carefully chosen the house in Queens he would occupy during his time recruiting the American scientists for the project. He finally found his turn -he was not yet used to driving on the right side of the road, even- having missed it the first four times, and pulled onto the campus. He had many things on his mind, even beyond the usual looming threat from torture and death at the hands of one of the world's most wanted criminals.
Madalena was pregnant.
Ahead he saw the parking lot for the University, an island of trees and low buildings in the sea of ever expanding skyscrapers that surrounded him, choking out light from the sun and fresh air. He hated this place; he hated the chain of events that brought him here. He pulled up to a boxy little hut where a bored looking security man sat on a stool, next to a striped pike that crossed the road, though Kihl could have simply walked around it. These Americans had, at some point, decided that their automobiles were the center of the universe. He pulled the behemoth to a stop and rolled down the window.
The guard nearly leaned into the car. "What can I do for you, sir?"
"I'm visiting a student," Kihl said, disguising his accent as best he could.
The guard nodded and waved him on, the gate lifting up to admit the car. It trundled along until he found a sufficiently open spot and he pulled into it, threw the lever into park, and stepped out. The warm September was choked with smog, although one would never know from the attitude of the people around him. In his tweed jacket and waistcoat and had he looked every part the visiting lecturer, and the crowd parted naturally around him. He tugged his watch from his pocket and looked at the time, and took a good look at the faded photograph of Madalena before he snapped it closed again.
The change of classes was beginning and he was to meet his contact in the hallway. He made sure he had the right room and stepped aside as the students poured out. He felt a pang of regret at seeing their fresh young faces, so eager to learn and build their contributions to the body of human knowledge. Kihl was beginning to mind his nerves. His prospective recruit had not yet appeared. According to the Skull's files he was notorious for skipping classes and his domineering attitude. It would be just his luck to report back that he had failed to even meet the man.
The door banged open, and two men stepped out. The shorter of the two looked older than his years, a hint of premature gray around his temples. He had an animated, concerned expression on his face.
"I'm telling you, Victor. You have a calculation in error in one of your formulas. If you activate this machine, it could be catastrophic!"
The other man waved him off.
Tall, dark hair to his shoulders, he could have found work in Hollywood if he had not taken up an interest in the sciences instead. He wore his sweater and slacks with the casual air of a man too good for the world around him. Kihl mad met royalty who were less haughty. He disliked this man immediately.
He was to recruit him.
"Richards, you are a fool," he snarled. "Always so cautious. Science is to be found on the edges, at the extremes. There is no discovery without risk."
"You're letting your personal feelings cloud your judgment, Victor. Let me-"
"No," he snapped. "When I require your opinion of my researches, Richards, I'll ask you for it."
He turned on his heels and stalked away. The shorter man, Richards, gave him a reluctant look and strode away. He appeared to be meeting a fair haired woman, much younger than he, at the end of the hall. They spoke animatedly of something, their looks charged with a sort of sensual fury, a restrained desire that permeated all their gestures, even the simple touch as she rested her fingers on his upper arm.
Kihl sighed. It could have been him and Madalena, all those years ago.
Von Doom finally took notice of him.
"You are the man who is so insistent on wasting my time," he snapped.
Kihl restrained himself, with some difficulty. "Lorenz Kihl."
He thrust out his hand. Von Doom looked at it dismissively, and he let it fall to his side, resting in his pocket.
"You are arguing with your colleague."
Von Doom waved his hand with a dismissive snort. "Richards is a fool. A great mind shackled by caution and illusory morality. He could be so much more than he is."
Kihl glanced over his shoulder. They were holding hands now, wandering away at a pace that suggested they were heading nowhere in particular.
"There will be a new age," von Doom nearly shouted, raising his fists. "An age of marvels, and I will be one of its great figures."
"I am here to speak with you on that very account," said Kihl. "Your paper published last fall is of interest to myself and my colleagues."
Von Doom stopped in the hall. "My colleagues mocked me for it. Fools."
"Indeed," said Kihl. "Witchcraft to the ignorant, simple science to the learned."
"I have been dismissed as a charlatan, my ideas mocked as a superstition, accused of alchemy, of all things."
Kihl looked him in the eyes. "I believe you."
"I've done some research on my own," said von Doom, "into you. You were a Nazi."
The word turned to ice in the air. "Everyone was a Nazi. As an academic, I was in a precarious position."
Von Doom gave him a flat look. "An academic above all should never bow to unreasoning thugs. You-"
"I was not making a decision for myself alone," said Kihl. "I left at the earliest opportunity."
Von Doom nodded slowly, his haughty expression cracking for the first time, but only for a bare second.
"Let us cut to the chase, as these Americans say. What is it you want?"
"To recruit you for our consortium. You are not the only man of reason and intelligence to realize that the strictures of academia are ill equipped to face the new age, von Doom. I have some materials for you to review, a hint of what my organization is undertaking."
"What exactly is your organization undertaking?"
"An entirely new scientific field: Applied metaphysics. The science of the soul."
There was a flicker of interest on von Doom's face. Kihl sighed inwardly and began to explain.
"I have to leave," said Kihl.
"I know," Madalena said, coldly.
She'd been lying in the same bed for three days, barely eating, not really sleeping. Kihl leaned on the door frame, at an utter loss as for how to help her. He hadn't seen her like this since '40, when they left Germany for Palestine, and her family was left behind. In a way, he understood. They had lost their chance at a real family. He took her away from home to save her, took her from her family because there was no room for him, only to subject her to this, living in constant fear that thugs would break down their door in the middle of the night. He had an appointment, and he dared not miss it.
It was slashing rain, turning the city a pale gray as he drove through Midtown. Its usual vibrancy was muted, the crowds on the sidewalk sheltering under a bobbing sea of gray and black umbrellas. He could only go a few miles per hour in the creeping traffic, and so feared he would miss his appointment. Though it was nominally spring, it was bitterly cold. He tilted his head to glance out the window at the towering shape of the Oscorp Tower, his destination. Wrestling the big car off the road, he drove up a short but steep ramp and up to a gate. A valet in livery ran up to the car.
"Mister Kihl? You're expected. I'll take care of the car for you, sir."
Kihl nodded gratefully, passed him the keys, and took his satchel. It was a short walk from the parking garage into the building itself. His feet slipped a little on the tile floor. He was getting old, and his knee gave him trouble, making soft crinkling sounds only he could hear with each step. He brushed some of the rain out of his rapidly thinning hair and headed for the elevators, standing in clear shafts in the middle of the immense lobby. He pulled the card from his pocket, checked it, and pressed the button for the executive penthouse.
A buzzer on the panel chattered, and a distorted voice asked, "Name?"
"Kihl. Lorentz Kihl."
The elevator started to rise, the world falling away from him, although the shaft was no longer clear once the elevator passed the first floors. It moved fairly quickly, giving him a glimpse of labs, offices, all futuristic, state of the art. He was not as overawed as he should have been. When the elevator stopped and the doors opened, he was greeted by two thuggish men who overstepped him by a foot each, and frisked him. Something about the entire affair had a very criminal air. It bothered him.
Once he'd been properly humiliated, the tone set, he stepped out onto plush carpeting. He was surrounded by lush plants. A desk sat the end of a garish American imitation of an old world elegance, the chair behind it turned to face the rain. Someone had a taste for melodrama. Kihl waited until the guards left before he approached, standing between two oversized guest chairs that sat before the desk. He lowered his satchel to the ground and the chair turned around.
Norman Osborn did not stand up. He was a man who clearly devoted himself to appearing as intimidating as possible, although the effect was spoiled somewhat by his peculiar haircut. He kept up the act, tenting his fingers in front of his face like a villain in a bad serial.
"Good afternoon, Mister Osborn," said Kihl. "I represent…"
"I know who you represent, and why you're here. Stark turned you down."
Kihl gave a half nod by way of assent.
"The son is not the father," said Kihl. "May I sit down?"
Osborn gestured to one of the chairs and Kihl took it.
"Something to drink?"
"Thank you, no. I had hoped to get right to business."
Osborn nodded, and Kihl drew the folder from his satchel, checked it, and rested it on the desk without removing his hand from it.
"There are men who have been burned alive for what you are about to see."
Osborn smiled a shark like smile and drew the folder across his desk, and opened it. He flipped through the pages idly, stopping at the third, where the diagram of the proposed Super Solenoid engine was clipped. He ran his fingers over the page, then pulled a pair of reading glasses from his pocket, slipped them on, and pitched forward. He scanned the page, mouthing the solutions to some of the equations himself.
"Your people think this device will actually function."
"Yes," said Kihl. "We have top minds at work on it already. As you can see from the prospectus, our organization has a number of divisions, all working for the advancement of mankind."
"Genetic research, alternative energy. Curious, I don't see anything about weapons development."
"Perhaps that is why Stark turned us away."
Osborn closed the folder. "What are you proposing?"
"A research partnership," said Kihl, "a very generous one. Our organization is well funded and extensive, Mister Osborn. Our goal is not to waste anyone's money or time. Or goal is an… alignment, a finding of common ground between individuals of talent, ingenuity, and means."
Osborn nodded slowly. "You're planning something, and you'd rather have me as an ally than an enemy."
"I didn't say that," said Kihl. "The sensitive nature of these researches requires a certain perspective. Imagine the potential profit in an engine that can produce infinite energy."
Osborn's eyes remained flat.
"Now, imagine the potential profit in carefully withholding and controlling such a device. In having control over it."
He smiled his shark-like smile again, and passed the folder back to Kihl. "What is it you want from my company?"
"To seek your expertise and your manufacturing capability, particularly for our development of energy sources and military technology. I am a survivor of the Second World War, Osborn. I would prefer never to see such a conflict again."
"You think that can be accomplished by one side having the bigger stick?"
"No," said Kihl, "I think the nature of warfare is changing and I should make sure the right side has the decided advantage. Don't you?"
Osborn nodded slowly. "I'll consider it."
"My card," said Kihl, sliding it across the desk. "There is no hurry."
He stood to leave. Osborn leaned in his chair, and it creaked. "Who do you really work for, Kihl?"
Kihl froze. "I started the organization myself."
"Interesting that you were broke," said Osborn, "and that somehow you became wealthy again in the middle of a transatlantic flight from Algeria to Argentina."
"I had taken steps to secure my family's funds before fleeing Germany with my research assistant, Osborn. My Jewish research assistant, who is now my wife."
Obsorn nodded, more slightly than before. "I'll be in touch."
Kihl felt lighter as he made his way back to the car. When he arrived in the garage, there was a different valet, but he had a chit in his pocket and when he offered it, the new man went to retrieve his car. He tapped his foot impatiently. He had no appointments scheduled for a week, and if he had to lie in bed with Madalena for the entire time, he would. Whatever it took. His car pulled up, the valet stepped out, and he dropped inside.
A gun barrel touched the back of his head. He froze. A grizzled man in an trench coat, an eye patch covering his left eye, sat up.
Kihl eased in the throttle and pulled out onto the street. The man made himself comfortable, the gun and its heavy cylindrical suppressor still aimed at the back of his head. He glanced from side to side, nervously.
"Drive casually, Herr Kihl."
"You're German doesn't make you a Nazi. Working for the Red Skull makes you a Nazi, Herr Kihl."
"I don't know what you're talking about. I'm a professor."
"Of what, exactly?"
"Formerly mythology, currently applied metaphysics."
"Odd contacts for a professor of mythology, Kihl. Norman Osborn. Anthony Stark. Victor von Doom, Otto Octavius. Corporate magnates specializing in weapons and military technology, roboticists, whatever the hell von Doom was before he disappeared. Have you heard from him, lately?"
"No," said Kihl. He hadn't; contacts with him past that point were handled by his subordinates.
"Do you know who I am?"
Kihl shook his head, only slightly.
"Good, that will keep things simple. How's the wife?"
Kihl's hands tightened on the steering wheel.
"I know what they have on you, professor. We can get you out."
"There's nothing to get me out of," said Kihl. "I am a retired academic. I do some consulting work for some business interests to support myself and my wife. I am not a spy, or an agent, or anything else, and you are pointing a gun at my head for no reason."
He heard the safety click on and all but felt the gun sweeping away from him.
"I am an old man, I am tired, and I want to go home."
"Stop at the next corner."
"Now," he growled.
Kihl pulled over, much to the consternation of the drivers behind him, which they voiced with their horns. The one-eyed man pointedly holstered his weapon under his overcoat and opened the back door of the car.
"My card is in the glove box. Call me if you change your mind, Kihl."
He stepped out and slammed the door shut, and Kihl put the car in drive and pulled away, tires spinning a little. He glanced in the mirror. The man in the overcoat had already vanished, melting into the crowd. His hands shook as he drove back from the city, until he crossed into Queens. Only then did he relax, partially. The rain was letting up.
The car jounced into the driveway and he killed the engine, sighing. The family across the street was arriving home from some excursion as well. Kihl rarely spoke to them, but he knew their names; the man was Benjamin, the woman May, and the boy, their nephew, about eight or nine years old, a scrawny boy in glasses. Kihl never learned his name. He stepped out of the car and down to the mailbox, frowning as he pulled the mail out, ignoring the neighbor's wave. Among the bills and advertising flyers there was an unmarked envelope. He opened it and found single sheet of paper, a message neatly typed in the middle.
We are watching you.
Kihl waited calmly, at least outwardly. Seated at a cafe in Buenos Aires, he should have been at ease. Madalena was thrilled to return. She had always had moments of happiness here, when she let herself forget Kihl's… associations. For himself, there was only more stress. The organization -they were beginning to call it Seele, the Society of the Soul- was now large and well organized enough that it required his actual attention, and were he remiss in his duties, Schmidt would voice his displeasure. He still had the card the man in the overcoat had given him, hidden inside the hollow bedpost of their bed in Queens. As he saw the silver Rolls Royce approaching, he finished his cup of espresso and stood up, his overcoat folded over his arm.
Stepping into the car, Kihl kept his expression neutral. Schmidt casually read a newspaper, idly taking a bite from a sandwich grasped in his left hand. He glanced at Kihl and at the plate of food resting on the small board that folded out from the felt panel that separated the passengers from the driver. He gestured towards it, finishing his chew before he spoke.
Kihl declined with a shake of his head. "What is it?"
Schmidt glanced at him. "I've read your report. I compliment you, Doctor. Most men would not have handled Nick Fury so calmly."
Kihl remained quiet.
"You omitted nothing from your dialogue."
"Correct," said Kihl. "As I told you, Stark wouldn't hear of us. I wonder if it was he who tipped off-"
"Leave that to me," said Schmidt. "Best you avoid such thoughts, and such concerns, Doktor. If you were compromised, any information you have would end up in the hands of our enemies. How is your wife?"
"Fine," Kihl said, quietly.
"Fine," said Schmidt, "but getting older. As are you."
Kihl looked at his hand, frowning at the effort it took to close his thumb over his palm. Arthritis. "Your point?"
"We must advance the project."
"There are so many areas of concern," said Kihl. "The administration is a nightmare, and the budgets…"
"I expect to be handled. Did you see this?"
He held up the paper. "The Americans have built a functional space rocket, but are refusing to launch a manned mission to the Moon."
"I'm acquainted with one of the scientists on the design team, a man called Richards. He also turned us down."
The Skull nodded. "Osborn is failing in every attempt to refine a working super solenoid. Even the base materials are prone to somewhat explosive failure."
Kihl shrugged. "I am no engineer."
"You will move away from the United States," said Schmidt. "I have already made the arrangements for your effects to be transported. You will not return. Do not attempt it; your papers have already been properly invalidated. You will redouble your efforts to decipher the cube, Kihl. We require samples of the alien technology. You have been able to tell us that they exist but not where they may be found, and I must know."
"I need time for that," said Kihl. "The information stored in the cube is vast, the organization all but random. The original Scrolls offer no guide. Even with my lexicon-"
Schmidt's eyes slowly turned to him. "My patience rapidly grows thin when I am presented with excuses, Kihl."
"I will find the information you need," said Kihl. "I don't know how useful it may be. The artifact itself may be millions of years old. The original samples may have been buried by tectonic drift, or-"
"Leave that to me," said the Skull. "You will report any further attempts by Fury or his underlings to contact you, at once. Is that understood?"
"Yes," said Kihl, "It is understood."
"You will be dropped at the cafe. Take the evening off, but be prepared to be picked up and escorted to the facility in the morning. You have work to do."
Kihl sat alone in a hospital waiting room. There was no television or radio, and so he took to reading and re-reading the same newspaper again and again while he waited, his aging hands shaking. Madalena had been with the doctors for four hours. The only thing he had to distract himself was the newspaper, the entire front section dedicated to the failed moon mission- Richards, the man he'd met a few times at Empire State, his wife, her brother, and a test pilot had stolen the American Moon-craft and attempted to make a flight, unwilling to wait for authorization from their superiors. They had failed.
They had been exposed to cosmic radiation and, somehow, had not died. Instead, they had been changed. Kihl marveled at the photographs of a man with an army eight feet long, stretching as though it were taffy, at a boy whose skin caught fire yet took no harm, and at the tragedy of the pilot a man called Grimm, now a walking mockery of the human form, coated in an armored carapace of spongy rock. He took in every detail of the flight, every available detail of the ship itself, the text of the speech Richards gave announcing the existence of his crew to the world. None if it mattered.
The nurse emerged and spoke softly to him. He didn't hear her. He stood up and walked slowly behind her until he stepped towards the white, antiseptic room, partitioned off from the hallway. He could see Madalena's hunched form sitting on the bed inside, and heard her sobs even as the doctor placed a hand on his chest. Kihl thought about brushing past him, and then stopped. The man had gray hair and eyes lined with worry, a look of feigned compassion molded on his face.
"What is it?" said Kihl.
"Cancer," said the doctor. "Pancreatic."
He drew in a ragged breath. "How long?"
"A few years, at the most," said the doctor. "A few months, more likely. Possibly sooner. It depends on how aggressive the tumor is."
The doctor nodded. "Even if we could operate, I'm afraid it's spreading."
Kihl nodded, and swept past him. His wife was sitting on the examination table swathed in a blanket, shaking. Her eyes were sunken and her skin was sallow, her hair matted to her head. He'd never noticed how gray she'd become, how she'd shrunken in on herself, becoming even thinner. He sat down beside her and she fell against him, sobbing. He cradled her, resting his chin on her head, his fingers laced though her hair, and struggled not to break down himself. After a time she grew quiet, and they sat in silence for a while.
Eventually, she stood up, and he took her home. Neither of them spoke. Their house here was larger than the one in Queens but felt emptier, and he felt oddly saddened at the loss of the presence of the Parker boy, who'd been so inexplicably thrilled to learn that Kihl was an educated man, as if he were some sort of mythical being. America had its charms, the least of which was a comfortable distance that allowed him to forget, sometimes.
He drove the Bel Air to their house in silence -he had been permitted to keep it, and had somehow developed an affection for it- and all but carried her into the house. He gave her a sponge bath and washed her hair and carried her into the bed, and in the kitchen he made a tray of all her favorite things, but she ate none of it. He fell asleep in his clothes, lying next to her. When she slept all the worry went out of her face, and she looked just like she did in the faded photograph clipped in his watch, pale and dark haired and perfect, a mouth a little too large and made for smiling in a world where smiles did not come cheaply.
When the sun came up, he went to work. He made the call and the car picked him up. He was given the sign and received the countersign and was frisked and went to work. In the bowels of a complex beneath Buenos Aires, in a darkened chamber, he approached the sum of ultimate knowledge and opened it, his fingers finding just the right spots for information to explode around him, filling the room. He pushed on it until it moved to the right spot, where he had left off in his notes the day before, but he pushed a little too hard and that information swung away. He sighed and was about to move it back when he realized he'd stumbled on something.
The lexicon he'd developed had become second nature, and so he simply read the alien script, wondering how its makers had pronounced it, if they had need for sounds at all. He read a story, a very special story about Seeds of Life, of Adam and Lilith, and the forbidden union between them.
In the darkness he found light, and saw the truth of the Instrumentality of Mankind. He did not record the information, not yet. He began his search, frantic. He needed to know where the alien biological samples had been buried, and he needed to know soon. A few years at the most, most likely months.
If what the Secret Scrolls promised him was true, he would never need to fear living without his Madalena again.
Kihl drew up on himself. Despite his wool coat and fur hat and the heater in the lumbering limousine, he was freezing. Frost crusted the windows, and he could barely see. His breath turned to mist in front of his face, and every exhalation was labored. His arthritic hand hurt, his thumb throbbing, and his knee was still burning from the international flight. Worse, every movement made him jump. Every glance from a pedestrian on the street, every man in a suit, every police officer was in his mind the first of a contingent sent to detain an operative of the Red Skull on Soviet soil. His heart was hammering in his chest, and he forced himself to breathe and remain calm.
He thought of Madalena, not the frail skeletal shell she was becoming, beautiful Madalena as she had been when he first saw her, in a flower print sun dress with a kerchief in her hair, carrying an oversize load of textbooks towards her morning class, his class. He should have known when she sat in the front of row and touched the tip of her pen to her lips that he would marry her.
No. He should have left her be.
He winced at the thought. She'd be dead, with her family, had he not rescued her. Hadn't he bought her another twenty five years of life?
What sort of life?
His driver grunted and he looked up. He was there. The hotel where he would meet his contact loomed overhead, blocky and domineering, the new architecture of the ideal Communist state. The driver opened his door and leaned over to speak to him in whispered German.
"You are being observed."
He had no idea if that was to comfort him, or threaten him. He shuddered, blinking at the snow. Why did he have to travel to this place in December?
He was not to stay long, despite booking a room. He should be back in Buenos Aires within a few days, as he had promised. He hated himself for leaving Madalena in her illness, but the cost of failing to accede to Schmidt's demands were even worse. He clenched his overcoat around himself and carried his briefcase up the steps to the hotel. There were a few natives outside, he paid them no mind. He pulled his hat down as he walked into the lobby, his heels clicking on the tile floor. The bored looking clerk behind the front desk ignored him, as well. The possibility that the entire hotel was staffed by the Skull's people dawned on him, but he didn't want to press.
There was no elevator. He had to walk to the third floor, and by the time he did his knee was screaming and he was huffing and puffing, his heart not so much pounding as leaping to and fro in his chest, as if it could throw itself through his ribs. He needed more exercises, less coffee, less stress, and the more he thought about it the worse he became. He stilled himself and found the right door, he hoped, and knocked.
A moment later it was answered by a tall, broad man in a smoking jacket and slacks. He looked up and down the hall, seized Kihl by the shoulder, and drew him into the room, slamming the door.
"You are Kihl, I presume," he said in English.
"Yes," said Kihl. "You are…"
"Of course. Anton Vanko. The sign is 'From here to there'."
"The counter-sign is 'knight takes rook'," said Kihl.
Vanko let out a slow breath, and slipped his hand from under his coat. "Please, sit. Tea?"
"Thank you, no," said Kihl. "I appreciate the risk you take by meeting with me here."
"I don't think you do, Professor," said Vanko. "Then again, it's quite a risk for you, isn't it?"
Kihl sat and laid a folder on the table. It contained very little information, relative to what he presented to the others. Vanko took it without commenting and flipped through it, sipping his tea. He sputtered, and set the cup aside.
"This is insane."
"I assure you, it is not."
"Why would anyone ever need a suit of armor so large?"
Kihl leaned back in his chair. It creaked slightly, and he glanced down. "It is not armor, Doctor. It is a containment system."
"This technology is light years beyond anything I have ever seen, even when I worked for the Americans," said Vanko. "It looks…"
"Alien," Kihl said quietly. "Do you understand the sensitivity of this material? It's literally worth your life."
Vanko nodded and flipped through the rest of the folder, then closed it. Kihl took it, stood up, and walked to the waste basket at the plain desk under the window. He drew out a lighter, flicked it to a flame, and set the corner of the folder afire. When it caught, he let the flaming mass of it drop in the wastebasket, and watched it burn, the specially prepared paper curling into an undifferentiated black mass.
"I have a feeling it would be unwise to refuse your offer of employment."
"Perhaps," said Kihl, "perhaps not. I would ask you to consider what the Soviets would do with your designs, and what you could do with the materials I have just shown you, which are only a sample of what I have discovered."
"What, exactly, is it that you have discovered?"
Kihl sat down. "We must accept, Doctor, that the greatest discoveries of human history are unfolding around us. Flight, radiation, the atomic bomb, mechanical computing, all of these are but shadows, smaller parts of a larger whole. Humanity is discovering with frightening rapidity that we live in a much larger universe than we ever believed possible. Such a universe includes alien life… alien life that has visited the Earth in times past."
Vanko looked at him flatly. "I'm listening."
"At the end of the last century we were confronted by the revelation that we were not made in the image of God, but grew out of the muck on our own. This understanding shattered mankind's collective psyche, and what followed after was war, dissolution, death, a civilization in its death throes as all of its convictions were undermined. My discoveries bear a greater truth."
Kihl leaned back in his chair and folded his hands before him. "Man was not made by the God of Abraham… but there are other gods. Gods who left mankind with a great gift, as Prometheus gifted us the fire. Instructions."
"Instructions for what?" said Vanko.
"How to make new gods from ourselves."
Vanko breathed in and out, slowly. "If I hadn't seen those equations I'd call you a madman."
Kihl smiled. "I take it that means you accept our offer."
Vanko nodded, slowly.
"I wonder," said Kihl, "How many living men know what lies beneath that mask."
"None," Doom rumbled, towering over him as they walked through the Great Hall of Castle von Doom.
Kihl would have scoffed at the pretension if he didn't value his life more highly.
"How is the project progressing?"
Doom stopped, hands folded behind his back, standing still, like a statue. In his tower armor he resembled some alien brand of death, some mad artists' mechanical mockery of the Grim Reaper in a skull of chrome and a green cloak. Kihl wondered how he could stand imprisoning himself so, what terrible secret lay beneath his polished mask. Even Tony Stark removed his armor sometimes, after all. Kihl couldn't be sure he was even speaking to the man himself. It was said he sometimes sent simulacra in his stead.
"I understand, now, why my device failed. Richards did not sabotage it. It would have failed even had I succeeded in perfecting the design. I have much to teach you, Professor Kihl. I have spent the last two years mapping the planes of the afterlife, reclaiming my heritage and learning the ways of the occult arts. I have such sights to show you."
He aimed his fist at Kihl's face. It crackled, the armor scintillating with an alien, yellow energy, like a tiny sun. "That is, if I do not kill you where you stand. No one plays Doctor Doom false."
Kihl took a breath. "You've learned who my superior is."
"Yes," Doom snarled. "It is only out of a minuscule professional courtesy that I have not already dispatched you."
"Very well," said Kihl. "Promise me this, though. If you kill me today, kill Schmidt, as soon as you can, before he has time to gather his resources and go to ground. I can tell you where he is."
Doom lowered his gauntlet.
Kihl let out a breath. "I had hoped one of you would learn. I should have known it would be you."
"I am not a commando, or a warlord, or even a scientist. I have no means with which to move against him myself. At first, I cared only for the safety of my wife, and so I capitulated to him, carried out his orders."
"She is in a coma, Doom. Pancreatic cancer. She will not recover. Schmidt has extended me the courtesy of keeping her in a state of living death in a hospital under his control. My world is falling apart."
Doom said nothing.
"My discoveries are too dangerous. The genie is out of the bottle. I need a partner, someone who will act in concert with me as a guiding hand. The technology of these ancients is a key to the future, but it has been spread into too many hands. I cannot act alone. I need you to act quickly in concert with me, to purge the organization of Schmidt's control and bring the various elements to heel. Only you could accomplish this."
"You mean for me to do your dirty work?" said Doom.
"No," said Kihl. "I have identified another who would leap at the chance to be the… I believe the expression is trigger man. I need only contact him and offer him the relevant details, and it will be so."
"Why should I trust you, after nearly a decade of duplicity?"
Kihl stopped in his walk. "This is the technology of the gods, von Doom. When we master it, you can throw out your map of the afterlife. We will create new gods, gods who serve us rather than their own fickle desires. There shall be a new heaven, and a new earth, for the old earth shall have died away."
Silence reigned in the hall of von Doom.
"I need time to move assets of my own in place."
"I thought I might expedite the process," said Kihl, "if I give you a full accounting of Schmidt's movements over the last several years, and the various individuals I have recruited."
"It would," said von Doom. "It surprises me somewhat that you would seek my aid."
"I know most of the accusations leveled against you by the West are false, and if they were, I've seen worse. My life has been a cruel joke, von Doom, a series of mistakes piled on mistakes. I see a path to correcting them and I mean to take it. I mean to make amends with the time I have left. For Madalena."
Doom nodded, his helm barely moving.
"Schmidt deserves to die for what he's done," said Kihl.
"Agreed," said Doom.
"I have something else in mind," Kihl whispered.
There was a television in her room, this time. They were more common now. On television there was a giant man who came from the sky and proclaimed he meant to consume the world. People had seen rocks falling from the sky, the heavens aflame, and a gleaming herald of the destroyer to come. It was said that it was the end of the world, that the eschaton was at hand, that the last judgment was upon mankind. Some believed that the being that called itself Galactus was God, others that it was man's iniquity, the excesses of these so-called flower children, that had moved God to withdraw his protection.
In the end, the will of God or the Gods mattered not, for three men and one woman with powers beyond the ken of men spoke for mankind and told the great devourer to flee, lest he be destroyed. The planet Earth would not tolerate such intrusions. The meaning of it all was still sinking in. Absolute proof of alien life. The simple, brutal age of the World Wars seemed like a thousand years past, the men who charged up the beaches and died in the muck like knights on horseback, for all their relevance to these new days. In the end, the planet survived, the Four were heroes, and the world went on, not having ended.
Except, that is, for Kihl. He stared at an empty hospital bed, trying to understand the meaning of the neatly folded sheets, the silent machines, the darkness. The meaning would not come to him. He could not comprehend that he would not fire up his Bel Air and drive back to their little cottage and that Madalena would not be waiting for him, that she would cook him dinner, that they would not listen to music of better days on an old radio and make love and wake up so she could wait for him and they could do it all again. She would do none of these things.
Madalena was dead.
Kihl stared at his hand, cursing his infirmity, cursing the world that made men unequal, made men hurt, made some men weak while others were strong. He flexed and unflexed the joints, an action now made possibly only by the artificial ligaments and tendons that Vanko had implanted in his hand, turning it into a gnarled mass of scars, but a functional one. His hand worked, as did his knee. The advances made in both would be kept secret, though they should be shared with the world.
Madalena was dead.
The Red Skull stood outside her hospital room with two heavily armed thugs.
Madalena was dead.
Schmidt stepped into the room, not sparing a glance to the bed. "Kihl, you will come with me. It is time we made clear the ongoing terms of our relationship in light of this… development."
"You mean, now that you no longer have her as leverage over me."
Schmidt smiled, and barked an order.
His men dragged Kihl, an old man, out of his chair by his arms and dragged him down the hallway. Everyone working in the hospital was one of Schmidt's people, and yet they did not set eyes on the Red Skull, or raise any alarm, or do anything much different from what they might normally do in their everyday goings on. They carried Kihl out through the front doors and threw him in the back of Schmidt's car. He landed roughly, his knee, enhanced though it was, grinding until he nearly screamed. He sat on the back seat, throwing his leg out to lessen the agony, as Schmidt took up a seat beside him.
"Drive," he barked, and the car started and pulled away from the hospital. He turned to Kihl. "Now, Doktor, let me offer my condolences."
"I would prefer you go to hell," said Kihl.
"Your sudden rebellious streak is amusing," said Schmidt, "but it had best be short lived. I still-"
"Need me, yes," said Kihl.
"You rather treacherously arranged to produce an incomplete lexicon for the Scrolls, yes," said Schmidt. "The question now is whether I force you to work night and day to continue translating or simply torture you until you reveal what I need, shoot you and bury you behind the motor pool."
Kihl said nothing.
"I tolerated your… insolence out of a belief that you still held our goals in mind, that you mean to create a better world, an improved humanity."
"I do," said Kihl. "I have decided the world would be much improved without you in it."
The Skull laughed, his tight, raw throat undulating under his dry, yellowed teeth. "How clever. Do you think you are a spy now, Herr Kihl? Are you the spy of that Fleming man, what is his name… Bond, yes? James Bond? Do you think you're going to impress me with your wit?"
"No," said Kihl. "I'm stalling you."
The Skull's expression went neutral. Then, he whipped a pistol out of his coat.
The limousine slammed to a stop, as if it had hit an invisible wall. Kihl toppled forward, his knee cracking from the impact, and landed on the floor. Schmidt came down beside him, the gun clattering away towards the front of the car. Kihl didn't bother reaching for it. Schmidt scrambled for it, seized the grip, and tugged. It creaked, but did not budge from the floor. Kihl sat up and pinched the bridge of his nose, rolling to take the pressure off his knee. He would need to see Vanko about repairing the internal armature again.
Schmidt tugged at his weapon frantically, then stopped. There was a great sound, a kind of metal shriek, and the roof of the car rolled back, curling on itself like the lid of a tin of sardines, exposing the night sky. The side of the car, doors and all tugged away until the metal stretched, shrieked, and split, and the sides folded down, like petals of a flower. A man stood in the road in front of the car dressed in a cloak and helm, regarding them coolly. His steely gaze fixed on Schmidt.
Kihl managed to slowly, agonizingly stand up.
"Herr Schmidt," said Kihl, "May I present Eric Lensherr. I don't believe you've met."
"What is the meaning of-"
Kihl jammed the barrel of the pistol into Schmidt's back and pulled the trigger twice, in rapid succession. He was tough, a Super Soldier, but he was not bulletproof. He fell as though his strings had been cut, landing on the twisted floor of the sedan with a heavy thump.
"I'm not dead," he rasped, "I'll get up in a few hours, and when I do-"
"I know," said Kihl. "Quickly, Eric. We have work to do."
A van pulled up and a few of the Skull's former employees picked him up and tossed him on a stretcher, unconcerned for his broken back. Kihl lurched inside, nodding curtly to Lensherr, who returned the gesture and stepped off into the night. The doors closed behind them.
"Every day of my life, I lived in fear of you," said Kihl. "Every day I feared some minor infraction or some petty whim would cost Madalena her life. I had to live with the woman I loved, knowing that every time she saw me she saw you looming over my shoulder, waiting for your moment."
"You limited yourself," Schmidt spat into the floor. "You could be a god, and you concern yourself with a woman."
"I could be," said Kihl, "but you won't."
The ride to the appointed place was quiet. Kihl kept the pistol leveled at Schmidt's head. When the car pulled up, Lensherr was already waiting. The two men grabbed Schmidt by the legs and dragged him out; he could have killed with with a blow of his arms.
"What is the meaning of this?"
"I have studied everything I could learn of Erskine's research," said Kihl, standing beside the pit. "You may well be immortal, Schmidt. Your severed spinal cord will heal. It's possible that deprived of oxygen, you will go into a sort of sleep state, a form of hibernation. It may not be possible to actually kill you without destroying your brain, and your mind would be such a terrible thing to waste."
"You're a dead man, Kihl!" Schmidt screamed, his skeletal mouth frothing as he was lifted over the edge of the pit. He tumbled over the edge and landed on the floor with a sharp slap. He cried out, but quickly resumed his regular breathing. "No prison can hold me."
"You can jump at least six meters," said Kihl, "so I made the pit twelve meters deep. You can lift at least two tons, so the lid weighs six."
"I'll get out of this, and when I do-"
"There is nothing left for you to take from me, Herr Schmidt. If anything, you have given too much. I've been using the connections you made me establish to undermine your authority at every turn. You once spoke to me of the future, of the shadow wars in the coming age of the atom. The age of the atom is over, Red Skull. You're a relic of the past, a Republic serial villain desperately trying to fit in. You're so small, so limited. Shapeshifters, mind readers, aliens, super soldiers… and all you can think to do with them is play a child's game of silly costumes."
Kihl sighed. "Erik, if you would."
To his credit, Kihl remained steady while the massive lid of the prison-sarcophagus lifted from the ground, humming with invisible magnetic force. It dropped into place with a shuddering, hollow boom, and the detail of six trusted men Kihl arranged began shoveling black earth on top of it, sealing the grave.
Los Angeles, California
Toshiro Ikari was late. He glanced at his watch, deeply annoyed at the traffic. He considered chastising the driver, but there was little the man could have done. He had a meeting with a certain Lorentz Kihl about a business opportunity, the possibility of a partnership with Kihl's company that would open up the Japanese market. Several of his competitors would also be in attendance. The business world was presently being rocked, prompting near riots in several financial centers as the bottom fell out of Oscorp, on the news that Norman Osborn, its president and chief executive officer, was dead, and that Spider-Man had killed him.
The international media was in an uproar. Half of them claimed that it was either self-defense, justifiable homicide, or both, as thousands of witnesses had seen Osborn in his guise as the Green Goblin throw a young woman named Gwen Stacy from the high tower of the George Washington Bridge, leading into Manhattan. Information was sketchy, but Spider-Man was on the run, his identity exposed by a package sent by Osborn to the Daily Bugle newspaper hours before his death, and several of his associates were in custody; one of the editors of the paper had been fired after a public row with the editor, a man named Jameson. What fascinated Toshiro was that Parker was not a magnate of industry, or even a particularly successful man; he was a recent college graduate of no particular distinction who worked primarily as a freelance photographer for the Daily Bugle itself. Amusingly, it seemed, his main source of material was himself, in his guise as Spider-Man.
Toshiro read all the American papers; while here in the States, he sent one of his people to collect them from the newsstand in the lobby of the hotel. He needed to assess the situation and make his movie. The Bugle's front page story was an amusing balance between savaging Parker, accusing him of a litany of crimes, and a veiled attempt to cover for the fact that the Spider-Man's chief media critic was also his employer. The article was rather salacious, written by a man named Brock that Toshiro had no familiarity with.
He'd already made several calls, shorting Oscorp stock the moment the first rumors of his disappearance hit the news, approximately a week before the incident. Osborn had been acting erratically for years, and his board had threatened to remove him twice. Toshiro was focused on a number of international trends, but the impact on the markets represented by this incident was a watershed, something that might never happen again. The media had been questioning for years the wisdom of the New York Stock exchange operating in a city crowded with mutants, masked vigilantes and lunatics, a city that was constantly under threat from strange forces. A good third of Toshiro's fortune came from anticipating and manipulating the financial fallout of a madman's attempt to turn the entire city into lizards, or Doctor Doom threatening to annihilate it with a tidal wave.
That Kihl had been passing him information about these events in advance was only part of the story, of course. Kihl seemed to possess an almost supernatural affinity for information, as if he had access to some dark art that would reveal trade secrets to him. Toshiro looked up from the paper, pinching the bridge of his nose.
He wondered how many of the men he would be meeting today would dress up in colorful costumes later. He snickered at the thought of adopting a secret identity himself. The car crunched through the parking lot of Kihl's tower, headquarters for the Institute for Human Advancement, which sounded like the front for some organization of black-suited criminals in a bad spy film. Toshiro shook his head as the chauffeur opened the door. He stepped out, buttoned his coat, and looked around. He saw representatives from NHIs, and from a number of his competitors. Kihl had of course requested that he attend in person.
Yes, this looked like a cover for something else.
The gala was being held on the fourth floor. Ikari presented his invitation at the door, and a young blonde woman took it, looked it over, and smiled warmly at him. As he looked around the room, he noticed a number of very attractive young women with well-turned calves in similar roles, all dressed in the same blue uniform with a pillbox hat.
If there was a giant globe in the lobby, he was going home.
As it turned out, there wasn't. There was a series of escalators- the bottom part of the tower was a massive open atrium, the fourth floor being visible from the lobby. Above that, it was all enclosed. Ikari joined his fellows, trying to look nonchalant and American. Some of the others had entire entourages with them, and stodgy old men with bad haircuts that were ten years of our date and suits that made them look like gangsters. Toshiro scoffed at them; the old men and their proprieties were a joke. The page had turned on them a long time ago.
When he reached the top of the series of escalators, a young woman approached him and bowed, awkwardly. "Mister Ikari?"
He returned the gesture, more elegantly.
"Chairman Kihl would like to meet with you in private, upstairs."
Ikari nodded. She turned and he followed her, making a point to study the motions of her rump under her tight blue skirt. She walked through the open space where the gala was to be held and produced a key that opened a separate elevator.
"It's this way, sir."
He stepped inside. She didn't. He arched his eyebrow, but she said nothing and turned the key. The doors slid shut, and he noticed there were no buttons, but it was already moving, and rapidly. It slowed after a moment and the doors parted onto a black marble floor. Etched along the ceiling of the room was an illuminated confusion of sigils, some sort of obscure Western occult symbol whose meaning did not immediately spring to mind. It reflected on the glassy floor, creating a rather disorienting effect.
The Chairman must have been sitting at the desk, facing the window. He turned around slowly, using a switch on his chair to control his movements. It was bulky and Ikari quickly realized that it was a sort of tank-wheelchair hybrid, running on tracks. The Chairman was in his seventies or eighties, and had not aged well. He slipped a pair of reading glasses on his nose with his left hand, letting his right rest on the black expanse of his bare desk. His fingers were ringed by some sort of apparatus that sank directly into his skin and clicked when he flexed his hand to pick up a small box. He pointed it at Toshiro and pushed a button.
Ikari froze in his tracks. Lights flashed on the floor, and a profusion of light sprung into being around him. He realized he was standing in the middle of a wireframe map.
"What is this?"
"The topography of the Hakone region," Kihl said quietly, his voice a harsh whisper. "It relates to my business proposal."
Ikari stepped out of the map, and Kihl pressed a button. It shifted, the surface rising. Buried beneath the mountains and the Ashii lakes was something he took to be a dense pocket of rock, but…
"Is this accurate?"
"Yes," said Kihl.
"You mean for me to build a structure of this size? It's enormous, no one could-"
"Not build," said Kihl, smiling thinly. "It is already there. I mean to excavate it."
"What is it?"
Kihl pushed the button again and the map vanished.
"Something more impressive than a glider and a fright mask."
Toshiro paced outside the delivery ward, stopping now and then to join the other men in watching the television bolted into the corner above the window. Slashing rain pelted the glass, almost overwhelming the audio. It was a surreal experience. The screams in the background were always clear. A riot had broken out in front of the American White House in their capital, between pro- and anti- vigilante protesters. He stood with his hands in his pockets, loosened tie dangling around his neck, and watched men in crude mockers of Spider-Man's masks -no one else seemed to bother with the mirrored eyepieces- locked in a struggle with a mass of men and women carrying pictures of the Stacy girl.
"Do you think it will pass?" one of the other expectant fathers said. "The Diet is considering a similar measure."
He meant the Power and Responsibility Act, named for a phrase Parker had used during his disastrous trial, in a ring speech given before his escape. The news reader was explaining the facts; under American and most similar systems of law, Parker couldn't actually be charged with any crime, given that it was Osborn that actually threw the girl off the bridge; her surviving family had declined to seek civil damages against him in light of his aunt's death after his identity was revealed. The bill's sponsor was J. Jonah Jameson, elected Senator from New York after stepping down from his media empire.
"I'm sure it won't," Toshiro mused. "The Americans adore their heroes."
Of course, it was going to pass. Kihl had already arranged it. He had at least three shapeshifters holding key positions in the United States Senate, and a variety of mind controllers and telepaths in his employ. There was the other matter, as well.
The broadcast switched to an advertisement for the new mutant suppressive drug. A pretty young girl with an obviously fake rubber prosthetic on her face swallowed a handful of pills, and in a flash, her normal appearance was restored. Toshiro was watching busily when a nurse approached him, pulling her surgical mask down over her face.
Toshiro followed her into the recovery ward. The wife was asleep already. She looked like ten miles of bad road, with her eyes swollen shut and her skin sallow and clammy, but he could hardly blame her, given that she'd been in labor for nineteen hours. His child lay beside her in a plastic crib, waving a tiny hand. He scooped her up in his arms, taking the nurse's advice on how to support her neck. He stood there for a while rocking his newborn, staring into her still-dark eyes. When they handed him the forms, he put her name down as Yui.
There was a doctor waiting for him outside.
Ikari could see the look on the old man's face. Given his status, Ikari could expect the best, most experienced doctors. Old doctors become accustomed to the delivery of bad news, forging a mask through the years they slip into while relating dooms to their patients. Ikari took a breath and waited.
The doctor tilted his head slightly to the side. "We've performed the standard tests."
"And?" said Ikari.
"Your child is a mutant. You know the rules. The reporting requirement."
Ikari shifted on his feet. "That won't be necessary."
The doctor's eyes widened slightly. "It's hospital policy. When the new law takes effect…"
"The new law hasn't taken effect," said Ikari. "I'm told there's a drug…"
"Yes," said the doctor, folding his hands in front of him. "Mutex. It's mostly effective, and the side effects are minimal. I'd suggest waiting until she manifests an ability before using it. She's lucky to look normal. I've seen babies born with wings, with vegetable matter in their bodies, things you wouldn't believe."
Ikari nodded. "I trust, doctor, that you will recognize the sensitivity of this matter. You know who I am."
Ikari smiled slightly. "You have my word, your cooperation in this matter will be appreciated. Is anyone else aware of the test results?"
"Keep it that way," said Ikari, brushing past him. "When my wife wakes up, let her know I'll be back in a few hours. I have some phone calls to make."
Toshiro enjoyed children. They were simple, they were easily pleased. Unlike the rancid bitch that bore her, Yui, his daughter, was thrilled by the prospect of wearing a hard hat and the promise that if she was quiet while her Daddy worked, there would be ice cream later. He would have to consider acquiring a new wife, given her recent penchant for complaining. She wasn't without cause, of course, since the largest and most secretive construction project in human history was gobbling up an obscene amount of his time, but Toshiro paid for her lifestyle and he doted on his child. What more could she want?
So he had sex with a few of his subordinates. Who didn't?
Exactly what compelled him to bring the girl along, he had no idea, but it amused him to watch her following along, taking exaggerated steps in her overcoat and the oversized hard hat that came down to her eyes. She walked closely behind him, holding the hand of his assistant. Yui's big green eyes took in the construction site like an alien landscape, regarding each of the massive construction machines as though they were lumbering behemoths from a past age.
He crouched in front of her. "Yui dear, I need you to wait here. Daddy has a meeting."
She nodded, and he shot his assistant a look. She led Yui away while Toshiro made his way to the temporary complex that had been built over the main excavation shaft. He passed through a door made of plastic sheeting, of the type that would be used in a cold room in a warehouse, and it was chillier inside. He heard the faint howl of the wind inside the structure Kihl called the Black Moon.
To call the pit a shaft, as if it were a mine, was somewhat deceptive. It was a half a kilometer across and the edges were terraced, allowing for the construction equipment built into the slopes. Backhoes so large they had to be built on the floor of the primary excavation, too large to be lowered by crane, were digging a spiraling tunnel down into the earth, heaving the soil into gigantic conveyor belts that carried it to the surface. The soil was destined to be put in plastic bags and sold to housewives, so they could grow plants in it. Waste not, want not.
A much narrow pilot shaft waited at the bottom. Toshiro stepped into a freight elevator, an open contraption of steel grating and exposed cables that was much safer than it looked, and the workman closed the gate behind him. He checked his watch and watched the black earth walls rise around him. The elevator went down on a slope, jouncing as it moved from terrace to terrace. At the bottom he stepped out, his immaculately polished shoes crunching on gravel. Kihl had requested this meeting here, and traveled personally to Japan. Toshiro was nervous. There was no shame in admitting that.
Sometime in the last ten years, Kihl had dispensed with the wheel chair. He moved in a ponderous, bulky way, the complex exoskeleton built over his legs whirring. The suit he wore was both armor and a kind of ambulatory hospital bed. Toshiro was reasonably certain that his own legs hung limp inside it, and his arms were folded across his chest, the two manipulators on the suit controlled by Kihl's mind, courtesy of a certain Otto Octavio's. Only his head was exposed, liver spotted and dusted with brittle white hair. At first, Toshiro thought he was wearing sunglasses, but the bulky visor appeared to be permanently attached to his skull.
Kihl's mouth moved, but no sound came out. A strap around his throat translated the motions to his armor and a synthesized voice said, "You have struck the Chamber."
"So it would seem," said Toshiro. Please."
At the far end of the pit floor was a trailer where the pilot tunnel was being excavated. All work had ceased when the drills struck liquid. Some of the men working on the project had to be persuaded to keep their mouths closed, for the simple reason that by all appearances, the drill had struck a massive underground deposit of blood. Inside the trailer, a sample of the material waited in a refrigerated tube. Kihl had to turn sideways to get inside, and his head nearly touched the ceiling. When he stood still he stood unnaturally still, like a statue. His right arm moved with a liquid, mechanical precision and a curious delicacy, the three stubby fingers of his claw-hand closing around the vial.
"The raw stuff of life," Kihl's armor said in a flat monotone. "As promised us."
Toshiro spread out the plans Kihl had sent him on the table. "Drilling into the Moon was one thing. This is insane, Kihl."
Kihl replaced the vial and loomed over the plans. Something mechanical in his visor whirred as it adjusted.
"I fail to see why. The structure of the Moon should be stable enough to permit it."
"The problem," said Toshiro, "is this. There's an entire city sitting on the spot where you want to build this mirror system. We can dig in from the side, but sooner or later the government is going to notice what we're doing and wonder how we plan to hold up Hakone."
Kihl considered that in silence. "Leave the government to me."
"I've had my engineers go over the plan."
Kihl's head snapped to him, and his visor whirred.
"They can be trusted," said Toshiro. "I've prepared contingency plans. We'll continue with the current excavation until the tunnel reaches this level," he tapped the paper, "then go laterally, moving in a circle, leaving columns to support the roof. The process will continue, allowing the construction of a spiraling roadway around the outside of the dome. The rock struts here will be reinforced with concrete and rebar."
He stood up. "You realize that this is the greatest construction project in the history of human civilization."
Kihl nodded, a brief, curt motion. "You have no idea, Ikari."
Toshiro ignored the cryptic comment. He was used to them by now. "The complex you mean to build on the floor is a separate undertaking. I don't understand why you think we're going to need all of this agricultural space, and you want me to build a series of caves within caves."
"Labs, working facilities."
"Between the agricultural fields, the artificial sunlight, the defenses… This looks like an enormous bomb shelter," said Ikari. "Is there something you're not telling me?"
Kihl stared at him, the red glass plate of his visor as unreadable as stone. "There are many things I am not telling you. There will be great profit in this endeavor for you, and for your family."
The last words were emphasized, just slightly.
-77° 37' 33.96", -34° 49' 28.93"
Fuck Kihl and fuck his fucking flair for the dramatic.
Toshiro Ikari held his hat to his head, or rather to the hat on which it was layered, which was on his head over the hood of his parka. The wind whipped around him, ice sliding over his cheeks like tiny razors. Antarctica was cold, and he failed to see why he was invited there at all, why Kihl insisted he join him in this desolate hell hole. Construction of the Geofront Project was going apace, he was even ahead of schedule. Kihl mostly left his subordinates alone when they did their jobs. The old man, of course, did not meet him outside. He was met instead by a rather scraggly looking man with intense eyes and hollow cheekbones, a heavily ruffed hood pulled up over his face.
"Toshiro Ikari," he shouted into the wind.
"Who are you?" Ikari demanded.
"Gendo Rokubungi," he shouted back.
He handed Ikari a length of wire with a clip at the end; Ikari attached it to his belt and followed him. The men who'd escorted him up the long path from the anchorage up the ice wall stayed behind, watching intently with rifles in their hands, their faces covered by masks. Ikari excused the theatrics. It was too cold to do without them. Ahead, at the end of the path, was a heavy door of polished steel, set in the ice. As Rokubungi approached he spoke into his radio and the doors opened. He pulled Ikari inside and waited for them to close, then pulled down his hood.
"You'll want to remove your coat."
Ikari blinked, and with a roar of air warmth blasted into the space, a sort of airlock between two heavy doors. Rokubungi sat down on the bench on the wall and Ikari joined him, stripping off his coat and the coat he wore under that, until he was dressed only in a sweater. Bu then, it was quite comfortable. Rokubungi stripped down to a t-shirt and slacks. Ikari glanced at him. He had a fighter's hands and an intense, almost wild cast to his eyes, an a jaw that would be a bite more masculine with a beard. There was something predatory about him that Ikari both liked and misliked immediately. He stood up.
"If you'll follow me."
Ikari rose and the inner door opened, and warm air rushed over him. A few steps up led to a long corridor. The entire structure appeared to have been built out of prefabricated sections, but it was as sleek and futuristic as could be, some sort of spaceship. Ikari had only heard rumors of what Kihl had to put together to accomplish this, and what the cost might be. There were a number of other corridors branching off from the main one, and he heard the bustle of activity. There were labs here, and some sort of excavation that was the equal in cost to the operations in Japan.
The corridor ramped up, to a set of windows. There Kihl stood like a statute in his armor, now even more inhuman than before- the oversized legs ended in caterpillar treads that could flex and allow him to move in different directions, and his arms had been replaced with a set of flexible waldoes. He looked out the window, ignoring Ikari's approach.
Ikari stood beside him and looked out. He blinked a few times.
This wasn't Antarctica.
It was a jungle, ancient and layered in mist, spreading out as far as they eye could see. Heavy palms shook and a flight of alien looking birds took off and flap-flapped into the air, much larger than he realized at first. The trees continued to shake, and Ikari walked to the glass, nearly pressing his face to it. There was a clearing ahead. He looked down on the trees from a rocky outcropping. He could see the facility arching off to the left and right, along some sort of crater.
Something stepped out of the trees. It was enormous, a good twenty feet at the shoulder, moving with an alien, leonine grace on two long legs, swinging its huge head around. For a moment, Ikari fancied that its beady eyes caught him before it swept on, sniffing at the air. It spotted something and charged off at astonishing speed, footfalls so heavy he could feel them. Its tiger-striped gray and green body vanished into the treeline, and Ikari stood for a moment, his heart hammering against his ribs.
"What…" he started, taking a breath, "What in the hell…"
Rokubungi stood next to him. "Some of the local fawna. Archeopteryx and Tyrannosaurus Rex."
Ikari leaned on the glass, nearly falling to his knees.
"What is this place?"
Kihl turned to him, a human head set in the broad shoulders of his powered exoskeleton, his eyes hidden beneath a now much sleeker visor.
"An alien and savage land," he said, his voice coming from behind his own lips. "Where life springs eternal. There is something here."
"What is it?"
"The other half of the puzzle," said Kihl. "They key to immortality and absolute power."
"Why am I here?" said Ikari. "It seems you have the construction well in hand."
"You have proved your competence," said Kihl. "It is time you were brought into the inner circle. Leave us, Rokubungi."
The young man nodded and left, without a word, without turning back or a hint in his stride that he resented being left out of the conversation.
"What inner circle?" said Ikari.
"Those who converse with God," said Kihl, "and know His secrets."
"If I remember my Christianity right," said Ikari, "God doesn't like being conversed with."
"No," said Kihl, "but the tables are turned. Now it will not be we who are made in his image, but he who is made in ours. Preparations must be made. I will explain the Scenario and your part in it. You are to be nominated to the Human Instrumentality Committee."
"The what?" said Ikari.
Kihl's chapped lips twisted into a strange, cold smile.
Toshiro admired brandy. He swirled his glass and took a mouthful, breathing in through his nose to properly enhance the flavors. The blend he was drinking this evening was extremely complex, and it took his refined palate a moment to sort out all the flavors. He sniffed a hint of blueberry and a bitterness that reminded him of hops, and of course the almost chalky smoke of the fired barrel. He took another sip, just as the gilded double doors to his study blew open and the limp form of one his bodyguards rolled across the floor, spraying his Persian rug with a fine, strongly pumping arterial spray from his throat.
Ikari jumped up, his knee sending a jolt of pain up his thigh, and threw his glass to the floor as he went for the gun in his desk drawer. Another bodyguard backed into the room, firing wildly and shouting into his wrist. Something flashed through the air and the gun flew out of his hand, tumbling across the floor. A second flash lanced across his throat, opening it, and he toppled back over the body of his predecessor, arms flailing, gurgling loudly as he choked on his own lifeblood.
A figure stepped through the door. He was dressed in high, pointed-toe boots and gloves, all black, over a tight bodysuit of fine, green scales, like the mail worn by ancient warriors, over which was layered a black tunic that covered his chest and hung to his knees. Over one shoulder and belted around his waist was a satchel, and he wore a rubbery mask that twisted his features into a perpetual sneer and covered his eyes in yellow lenses. From his head dangled a purple cap, like an old nightcap, that hung down to his waist. Before Toshiro had the time to rack the slide on his gun, the intruder casually, almost without looking, tossed a fine double-bladed knife that buried itself in Toshiro's bicep, and the gun clattered to the floor. There was some sort of launcher built into his glove.
"Evening," the figure rasped, a barely suppressed giggle underlining his words.
Toshiro was trapped; behind him was the floor to ceiling window, and either side, a fine collection of expensive books he hadn't yet had occasion to read. Several of them now had blood on the spines. The intruder leapt over the dead bodies of the guards, seized the desk, and tipped it up with one hand. It flew against the wall and blew apart with a crash, splinters, boards, and drawers flying everywhere. His bottle of brandy thunked on the floor.
The intruder picked it up and took a long pull, spilling some of it over his rubbery chin, and threw it into the wall, where it exploded in a shower of glass.
"W-Who are you?" Toshiro demanded. "Osborn? It can't be."
"No," the figure rasped, "Not Osborn, Toshiro. Norman Osborn is dead."
Ikari pushed back across the floor, grinding broken glass into his robe. He scrabbled to his feet and stumbled backwards, into the wall. The intruder calmly watched him scramble to find the right book. An antique copy of the Tale of Genji toppled to the floor, the pages cut out in the shape of the pistol secreted inside. Toshiro scooped it up, aimed, and fired. The invader leaned out of the way before the shot was even fire, stepping out of the way of Toshiro's wild fire as he strode forward, tilting from side to side at lazy angles, bending his knees. He flicked his hand and from some device built into his glove, a tiny blade spun across the room and sank into Toshiro's arm, and the gun fell to his feet with a thump.
Toshiro sank to one knee, and tried to tug the blade free from his arm, but red hot pain lanced up to his shoulder and he cried out through clenched teeth. The intruder flicked his hand again and buried another blade in the opposite arm, and Toshiro screamed, slumping against the books. The shelf rocked, toppling old volumes over his shoulders.
"Who are you?" he screamed.
The invader seized his collar and dragged him to his feet. "You really don't know, do you?"
"What do you want?" Toshiro wailed, his shoulders twitching as he tried to move his useless arms. The Goblin tossed him across the room as if he weighed nothing at all, and he crashed into the bookcases on the far side. He felt something in his shoulder snap and whimpered as he slid down to the floor. Warmth was spreading across his arms from the wounds, but he felt cold, and started to shiver.
"Please," he begged, "I'm just an old man. I never harmed anyone."
The Goblin fired another blade into his leg, casually, almost indifferently, and Toshiro grasped at it, curling up in a ball. That earned him another in his side, sinking into his flesh below his ribs, freeing a spreading stain of dark blood around it.
"I'll do whatever you want, just don't kill me."
The Goblin fired again, and another blade sank into his calf.
"I'm loyal!" Toshiro screamed, "I've always been loyal!"
The Goblin calmly walked to where he lay and seized his angle, twisting. The bones popped under his grasp, and Toshiro cried out, feebly trying to move his wounded arms as the Goblin walked into the middle of the room, dragging him behind, and rolled him into the ruins of the desk. He reached into his satchel and pulled out a small object- a polished metal pumpkin. He twisted the stem with a loud clicking sound and rested it between Toshiro's thighs. Each of the miniature jack-o-lantern's eyes contained a digit, starting at thirty, and began to tick down, twenty-nine, twenty-eight.
"No," Toshiro pleaded, "oh God…"
"Say her name," said the Goblin. "Say it!"
"What?" Toshiro blubbered. "What are you talking about?"
He flicked a spinning blade into the floor next to Toshiro's head and aimed the device square at his forehead.
"Say! Her! Name!"
"Yui," Toshiro whispered.
He broke out laughter, seizing his stomach, his chortles rapidly rising into a shrieking, sibilant wail as he threw his head back and laughed like a madman. Behind him, something rose from the darkness, lighting the study as if from the rising sun. The lights on the Goblin's glider, a set of metal wings around a single jet engine, silhouetted him against the wall. He turned and casually launched more of his blades at the window, shattering the glass, and stepped through it, settling his feet into locks on the glider's wings.
"Goodbye, Toshiro," he cackled. "I'll see you in hell!"
Toshiro pushed away, dragging blood across the carpet. The pumpkin counted down to twelve.
Then, it exploded.
To be continued