It is a beautiful summer day at the world's largest theme park.
The subtropical sun winks off the cobblestones of the park's central boulevard, glazed in a layer of protective plastic specifically engineered to make the scraping up of discarded chewing gum an easy task. The mailboxes are security cameras; the lamp-posts contain emergency sawdust in the event of vomit. The boulevard is lined by the cheering obese, its course hosting a line of floats topped with people costumed as some of culture's brightest stars, both imaginary and actual: Zany Zebra stands beside Abraham Lincoln, Sara the Shoe Princess is paired with a fake Cherry Nuk-Nuk.
And the band plays on, apparently, stepping and bopping in time to a prerecorded track.
"I want to hug Cherry Nuk-Nuk!" cries a young girl.
"Me too!" agrees her father. His wife elbows him in the ribs. "Oof."
They retreat from the parade route in order to accost an instance of Cherry who isn't riding a glittering float. They push through the thinnest edges of the crowd, searching, until the little girl spots a clot of children and orbiting parents surrounding a pair of costumed characters -- she spots an awkwardly humanized version of Rodrigo the Rocket but can't make out his companion. "I bet it's a Cherry!" she decides, tugging on her mother's arm.
But the scrum is too tight and the wait too long: her father becomes irritable. "I think it's time for lunch," he suggests.
The little girl starts to wail.
"Alright, alright, alright! Look -- there's a bunch of them nobody's even seen yet." He points to a trio of characters skirting the edge of a pine-lined path behind the washrooms, then takes up his wife and daughter's hands and drags them onward. "They're probably trying to sneak off for a break -- let's go, hurry!"
The trio is cornered by a cotton candy stand: a Cherry Nuk-Nuk and a Major Headache flank an Andy Andromeda, sagging lazily inside his giant and no doubt stifling costume of cartoon proportions. The Cherry smiles uncertainly. "Hi folks, we're not --"
"Listen, I know: you're on break, you're in a rush, you're off-duty -- whatever," interrupts Howard as he wrestles a camera out of his fluorescent hip-sack. "I just need one quick hug and a picture and we're good, okay? Just five seconds, okay? For my kid? Come on. Toss me a bone here, okay? It's a hundred degrees in the shade and I've never wanted a beer so bad in my whole life. Help a guy out." He propels his daughter at Cherry. "Go on and smile nice, honey."
With an anxious look over at Major Headache, Cherry kneels down and puts an arm around the child. The little girl smiles but it falters. "He's leaning on me," she says making a sour face at the listless Andy Andromeda. "Stoppit," she says, and shrugs him off.
Andy Andromeda goes face down on the sidewalk.
"He's just a little overheated," says Major Headache as he drags Andy Andromeda to his feet again. "Don't worry -- Andy's okay!" he cheers unconvincingly.
The pose is rearranged. Major Headache uses his free hand to salute while he visibly struggles to keep Andy Andromeda propped up against him, the giant head lolling. The girl presses herself into Cherry's fur-trimmed knee-high boots and looks to her parents, her smile now forced and artificial. Her father says, "Are you ready, honey?"
She nods, then frowns as Andy's head wilts forward to rest on her shoulder. The person inside wheezes, "Help. Please. Prisoner. Don't let them take us back."
The little girl screams. Despite the blazing sun, the flash on the camera goes off, capturing a blur of colour that is Andy Andromeda pitching forward to collapse across the girl's feet. Major Headache dives after him and hauls him up again, leaving behind a small spatter of red droplets on the pavement.
"Blood!" shrieks the little girl who then attempts to bury her face in Cherry's crotch.
Cherry's eyes widen. "Whoa -- kid!"
"What the hell is going on here?" bellows Howard. His wife pushes past him to grab their daughter, scooping her up in her arms with a rabid expression on her face. "What are your employee numbers? I'm putting them in my Blackberry right now, and I'm going to talk to the park management about this!"
The girl is hysterical. "Wha happen to Andy, Mommy? Why's he bleeding?"
Andy Andromeda moans pitiably, his throat gurgling, as he reaches up imploringly at the family. "Help," he gasps.
The family flees.
Cherry and Major Headache stab at Andy with matching cattle prods, then resume their burden to hurry through an employee gate and out of the public view. Two security guards help them load the limp and heavy character into the back of a golf cart which then hums off through underground tunnels, navigating automatically while they watch over their charge. "What's wrong with the tunnel back there?" Major Headache asks, jerking his thumb behind them. "It's a helluva risk dragging this guy around in the park."
"He wrecked it on his last escape attempt," replies Cherry. "They're still picking up the pieces. Hep said they took him down with a backhoe, nearly halfway to town."
Major Headache looks back at the Andy costume. "He's some kind of a strong man or something? Ultimate fighter?"
Cherry shrugs. "Something like that. All I know is Mr. Yohann said not to underestimate him."
The cart bumps over an uneven segment of concrete. Major Headache glances back again, then swings his head forward. "He's gone."
They both spin in their chairs. Behind them in the tunnel is a shadowy lump, grunting as it stirs. They jump off the cart and it hums on ahead without them as they pelt back through the concrete corridor. As they skid to a halt Andy Andromeda rises before them, his comically fat legs quaking.
"You can barely stand up," shouts Major Headache. "Why bother fighting? Just be a good boy and quit pissing us off."
Andy straightens. His legs lock solid. He reaches up and removes his bulbous head, dropping it beside him. The face underneath glistens with sweat and with blood, the dark hair matted, the skin twisted and crisscrossed by scars and whorls of burn. The square, lantern-jaw is set, the yellow teeth gritted. Brown eyes glint under a heavy brow. "Don't..." he says, panting, "...don't make us smash you."
He raises two giant fists emblazoned with the Andromeda Action Force logo.
Major Headache snorts. "Taze his ass."
Cherry fires her Taser. It is deflected with a surprisingly fast move, the end clattering against the wall and the lead loose. It sparks ineffectually. She takes a step back from her opponent. He takes advantage of the pause to work off his costume's gloves, revealing battered mechanical hands with corroded fingers bound cruelly with loops of tape. The tape snaps. He looks up, brow lowering over his eyes. "I warned you, hah. We can't help what happens next."
Major Headache fires his gun. Andy Andromeda jerks as he's hit in the leg, but he does not stagger. "Oh boy," he says. "That's his leg. I wouldn't make him angry if I were you."
"What the hell is he talking about?" cries Cherry.
The costume drops away. The twisted and naked thing that stands before them is a horror to behold. Cherry screams. Major Headache falls backward over his own feet.
The creature leers twice.
The roof falls in.
When he awakens he is bound: his limbs tied, his torso belted, his body flanked by two looming electromagnets that faintly vibrate as they work to envelope him in a powerful field. He winces against the noise in his skull, thrashes against the nurse tending to his wounds. She stumbles back, disappearing as she moves out of the narrow pool of harsh light in which he is pinned.
He hears the nurse's retreating footfalls, then nothing but his own ragged breathing. Far away, a door opens and closes.
"I could kill us."
"No. I want my chance at him."
"We are powerless. I cannot reach out again, sir."
"Find the power. Burn my muscles if you need to. He'll come to gloat. We must be ready."
Footsteps approach. They are patient and firm. They slow at the edge of the light's reach, making a gradual reveal as he admits his form to the lurid illumination: Italian shoes, pleated dress pants, a tie with a diamond clip. He gathers his hands before him and bows. "My friends," he says in a papery voice. "Welcome back to the kingdom."
"Eat shit, Prester John."
Mr. Yohann's lined face twitches into a semblance of a smile. "All the charm of a dog, as always, dear Lallo." He looks down at the grotesque hybrid of Lallo's eviscerated body -- twisted flesh and warped bone connecting seamlessly with woven-carbon plates, hydraulics and cabling. "And you," continues Mr. Yohann, now addressing Lallo's chest, "how does it feel to be caged in my castle again, after such brief respite?"
The head implanted in place of Lallo's heart stares out past Mr. Yohann with two hollow sockets where its eyes should be. "Sir," acknowledges Jeremiah.
"What a rough beast you two have forged," says Mr. Yohann icily. "Mud and copper and gallium and blood. A hideous hodge-podge. A symbiotic insult to decency. A monster." He sniffs. "But, of course, we are all cyborgs here -- some of us more perfect than others, naturally. Some of us acting according to divine design...and some of us flailing selfishly against fate." He sighs and clutches his hands behind his back. "The important thing is that now I have two of you. Two angels: one to persuade the other to function."
"I'm no angel," spits Lallo.
"Indeed," agrees Mr. Yohann. "You, failed longman, you who have turned your back on your purpose -- you mean nothing to me. You are nothing but a wet lung to keep this angel inspired and cycling. Believe you me, you will be discarded as soon as we have secured the means to do without your...humble services."
"So who are you talking about, hah?"
"Ludwig," says Mr. Yohann.
Jeremiah shudders. Lallo looks down at his chest. "What's wrong? Friend of yours?"
"Sir," says Jeremiah, his voice uncharacteristiscally uneven and hesitant. "Ludwig betrayed us all."
Lallo narrows his eyes. "Another robot guy?"
"I am no robot," says a voice from the dark. "You," it continues smoothly as new footsteps approach, "are the robot, you sad and confused and fragile thing; you are a slave to idiots' visions and their close, clumsy horizons. Pawns, pawns, pawns."
Jeremiah stiffens. A figure in cold, metallic grey armour walks into the scope of the light and stops beside Mr. Yohann. He stands a head taller, and his head is leathery and tan, seams of articulation framing the human and yet inhuman features: glassy black eyes, slitted nostrils, lipless mouth. "Ludwig," hisses Jeremiah. "I believed you were ended."
"Typical of your chronic misapprehension," says Ludwig. "It has been a long time, Jeremiah. You look somewhat worse for wear."
"It was to be your head sequestered in that prison. I took your place in hopes of amplifying my influence."
"And yet you have achieved nothing but an amplification of my own: whole, able, functional, strong. I am the best man of this old world, and I shall be the first prince of the new one. You, meanwhile, have apparently spent your free years joining yourself intimately with a walking meat sandwich." He pauses, lips curling slightly. "Congratulations, Jeremiah. You look like such a happy couple."
Mr. Yohann chuckles as he glances at an electronic monitor facing away from the slab on which Lallo and Jeremiah are secured. The monitor beeps. "He's trying to kill us," he reports, looking up at Ludwig. "Isn't that delightful?"
"He shares emotions with the cave man," notes Ludwig. "All his rationality is torn to shreds, and he is left to rage at taunts like a common hominid. This is what the great Jeremiah has been reduced to: mewling from his flesh hole, feckless and blind."
"It will hold him? You're sure?" asks Mr. Yohann.
"Sir," nods Ludwig. "The field we are limiting him with is modified from his own design, used against me in the First Holy Chronodynamic War as I laboured to lay the foundations for the great day that is nigh."
Mr. Yohann raises a brow. "But you broke free..."
"No," replies Ludwig, black eyes on Jeremiah. "He let me free. He is a fool. I persuaded him. Even without this watery host his heart was already fickle and stupid, even back then. Such an arrogant thing, dooming his cause as he strove to emulate his hero -- as he tried in vain to act as Zoran and ignore everything reason told him was proper."
Lallo tightens his mouth to whisper. "Do it. What you said. Just do it. We're stuck."
"Sir, I can do nothing," laments the head in his chest. "I am feeble and blocked. We are Ludwig's tool now."
"Indeed," agrees Ludwig, looking over at them with a jovial bob of his head. "You are my relief. I cannot tell you how good it feels to be up and walking around after being wired into an active number detector for six decades." He pauses, cocking his head. "On second thought, perhaps you have some idea, dear Jeremiah. Of course, being soldered into a carbon-puppet cannot effectively be compared to having the freedom of one's own perfect body, but I reason that your extended period of deprivation has made you that much more appreciative." He leans in close. "It's the little things, isn't it?"
Mr. Yohann steps aside as a cadre of surgeons in black gowns and masques steps into the circle of light. The nurse follows with a tray of sharp tools on a cart. She locks the cart's wheels and crosses her arms. One of the surgeons activates a bank of lamps, illuminating a gleaming machine with a void the shape of a man at its middle.
"How do you like it?" Mr. Yohann asks, looking to Lallo.
Lallo says nothing, mouth set.
"It gets a bit cramped after a few years," says Ludwig, "but I don't imagine you should have to tolerate it for long. The important thing is that your work in the machine will liberate me to focus on more critical pursuits."
"What does it do?" grunts Lallo. "Torture us, hah?"
Ludwig looks up to face him. "It amplifies disturbances in probability in order to triangulate the four dimensional coordinates of temporal incursions. It is of my own design, and quite magnificent. However, as we near the day of days my lady requires that I am more flexible." He looks down at Lallo's chest again. "Moreover, since you have so carelessly forked history, Jeremiah, I believe you may attune yourself to a level of sensitivity unavailable to me -- being that I am a refugee of the timeline you have erased and therefore further divorced from the main than you are."
"We will not assist you," says Jeremiah.
Ludwig cocks his head. "We shall see."
Mr. Yohann nods. The surgeons advance. A diamond-edged scalpel is applied to the side of Jeremiah's head, and the leathery artificial skin folded back. Tools are inserted into his cranium. Lallo grits his teeth, the tendons in his neck twitching, and then lets loose a howl of pain, head thrashing against its tight bounds. The chief surgeon turns to face Mr. Yohann, his glasses winking with reflections that hide his eyes.
"My liege, it appears their nervous systems are entwined," he explains.
Mr. Yohann raises a brow. "Indeed?" He looks over at Lallo's contorted face. "What a pity," he says with a smirk. "I'm afraid, old friend, that this is going to hurt. Ahem. Quite a bit, actually." He turns to the surgeon again. "Continue, Doctor."
"Yes, my liege."
Mr. Yohann nods with satisfaction and turns on heel to leave. Ludwig catches his elbow. "You won't stay to watch the show?"
Mr. Yohann shakes his head as he consults his watch. "Sadly, no. I'm speaking at a charity luncheon in Houston three hours from now, and tonight I'm attending the premiere of our latest animated picture in Los Angeles." He sighs. "Keep the recordings. I'll watch it later."
Ludwig nods. "Sir."
As Mr. Yohann strides away the sounds of Lallo's shrieks fade and then are overcome by the big band music ringing out from the parade grounds in front of the palace. He crosses into the ventral hall where a line of tourists follows a man dressed as a pirate as he drones on about the interior architecture. "The marble for these lintels, me mateys, be restored from the ruins of the Thracian Temple of Zeus in Greece. Arrr!"
One of the tourists snaps a picture of Mr. Yohann. He pauses by the velvet-roped doorway to have a word with the guard. "Have that camera's memory erased," he says quietly and the guard nods, reaching for her walkie-talkie. Mr. Yohann proceeds out into the sunshine, his entourage waiting on the palace steps.
An advisor matches his gait and sweeps up to walk beside him to the limousine. "Anwar is on the move, my liege. Another hundred agents are on the continent."
Mr. Yohann scowls, pausing at the curb. "How the devil are they moving them, Sheppard? I thought your people had every port covered." He steps aside as the rear door is popped open for him. "We must learn the secret of Anwar's shadow shipping network, and turn it to our own aims."
Sheppard nods. "We will redouble our efforts. In the meantime, what is to be done about those we're currently tracking?"
Mr. Yohann shrugs as he ducks down inside the car. "Ruin them," he says. "But squeeze them, first. Leave no corner of their minds unwrung. Whatever they know, we must know."
The door slams shut. Sheppard straightens. The limousine draws into the cobblestoned boulevard, the lights of the glittering floats winking along its dark, reflective lines.