Adventures in the Belly of the Beast


Miles O'Neal

(soon to be a trashy paperback romance)
Gary was gray. A deathly gray, but in the sickly, pale light of the innermost rooms of the Port Command Center nobody noticed. At best, they all resembled some fungoidal life form which fled the light of day.

Gary stared in depression at his console, the damage assessment nearly beyond belief. Most of the Beemers missing, and precious few of his fellow mercenaries left. A few were known dead, the rest were MIA. He cursed under his breath, desperation fighting with his calm air of detached confidence the others needed to see. His fellow combatants were disheartened enough without his seeming to give up.

He relaxed his grip on the keyboard before he broke it. A grim smile crossed his boyish lips as he keyed in commands he'd never expected to give. All other systems would self-destruct the moment an invader tried to use them.

Across the room, Kim watched through slitted eyes as that ghost of a smile came and went as swiftly as their destruction had arrived. Motionless, she mused at Gary's recalcitrance at a total break with his past. He was neither totally with, nor totally against her. Soon she would have to decide what to do with him. Already the word treason tugged at her conscience as she thought of his knowledge of the Resistance. Yet she knew that without his aid they would have already fallen.

Her eyes closed, she resumed her silent but deadly mental patrol of the corridors. The enemy was still at large - the battle would continue until one side was exterminated. Or both. Right now the odds were heavily against her side surviving the afternoon.

Somewhere deep in the bowels of a labyrinthine laboratory referred to only as "The Ranch", the leader of the Mercenariess sat at his massive obsidian desk, apparently staring at a large vase of onyx pebbles. At some level of consciousness he noted their presence, and smiled inwardly at how their candy-like appearance had fooled more than one visitor into attempting a nibble. Another part of his mind pondered the enormous wrecked spacecraft housing the lab. No one had yet proven who the builders were, or where they had gone. The sole piece of technology his team of brilliant engineers had managed to master - that was far better to consider. Those tiny black boxes could be their salvation yet, but none of his staff could explain how they worked, or guarantee they were safe to use.

Sitting up suddenly, a determined look upon his face, he slapped the intercom button. "Cindy! Has our resident Madman shown up yet? It's time for the latest intelligence briefing."

"No, Hawk," responded his personal aide. "Psych thinks that after that reaming out he got about his last disinformation campaign, he might have ... gone over the wall." The trouble in her beautiful voice was plain.

The great mind behind the hawklike nose and the hard, glittering eyes considered that possibility a moment, rejected it. "Those two-bit poultroons wouldn't know a nut case if it walked up and French kissed them smack on their professional egos. But I am getting worried - I thought he'd calm down by and be back by now. Keep looking and keep me posted."

Sighing to himself, he released the switch. They couldn't have picked a worse time to come down on the one person capable of distracting and confusing an enemy with their own words. And with no word from Duncan's troops in the last two hours, things were looking very bleak. He desperately wished he had a line into the Port Command Center. "May as well wish for a million dollars," he grumbled to himself. He laughed quietly. After all, he'd spent that much setting up the Mercs!

Gary stared at the display, his mind reeling numbly. For years the Resistance had wormed its way into the heart of the behemoth organization which controlled most of the world's information flow and analysis. Slowly, stealthily, subtlely, the Resistance had pushed the giant towards a saner direction. Lives had been destroyed in the process. but far more had been saved. They were nearing their goal. Ever so slowly, they were leading civilization away from the edge of the abyss.

But now, with victory finally in sight, their doom had arrived from a totally unexpected direction. A microscopic enemy beneath their contempt suddenly stood poised to destroy both the Beemer Navy and the Mercenary Resistance's hard work.

Kim retreated back into the relative peace and order of her own mind, unable to stand the chaos in Gary's any longer. A glance at the monitors just made her more depressed. The halls were empty of everyone except the enemy, and there were far too many of them for her weary brain to battle. Most of the labs were filled with fire and smoke, and the damage control systems had apparently been sabotaged. She and Gary were the only Mercs left, and she couldn't detect a native Beemer within 5 klicks. Kim couldn't think of anything else to do. She smiled weakly at Gary. "Guess it's over, guy," she sighed.

Gary stared back expressionlessly, but his eyes were hard as steel. She wondered what he was going to do. The enemy would welcome them with open arms and set them up as minor monarchs if they would cooperate. If they didn't, they were guaranteed a painful death at the hands of the Inquisitors. The days of slave-prisoners were over - it was all or nothing. Kim worked the bolt on her Inmac DB25 and awaited Gary's next action. She heard feet running down the corridor. One way or another, it was about finished.

Gary grinned ferally. She tensed. Faster than her eyes could follow, Gary ripped his shirt off. She stared in disbelief at the uniform this revealed. Just as quickly, Gary donned his shirt again. It seemed impossible, but Kim trusted her eyes. Gary was Supraman.

Meanwhile back at The Ranch, Kiwi finally finished the task he had set himself two desperate nights ago. He knew the Beemers didn't approve of his absence, but he planned to save their fannies as well as his own. Falling back exhaustedly against the wall, he sank to the floor and stared at the monstrosity he had created. Smirking, he decided he was even more twisted than anyone suspected. Who else could have, or would have, grafted such a deadly thing onto the alien black box?

Staring in satisfaction at his brainchild, Kiwi foolishly relaxed as the weariness of the last 48 hours crept over him. He awoke seconds later with a start as his door slammed. Nobody was there, and his electronic offspring appeared to be untouched. As he leapt to his feet, a motion outside the window caught his eye. Aghast, he watched a familiar sail retreat across the river. What had his former compatriot been doing here?

Suddenly he realized his carefully ordered notes were missing from his white board. His heart raced in fear until he read the message scribbled in the board's corner. "Kiwi - Center about to collapse. Hurry if you want to save Kim. Few still survive." He glanced again in relief at the disappearing sail. Don still cared.

Strapping the black box onto his back, cradling the converted electron dispersal unit in his arms, he ran for the exit. There was no time for explanations. He bounded past Hawk in the hallway and called, "I have to get to the Port immediately! Send backups!" Hawk gasped as the Kiwi leapt into his car and laid rubber leaving the parking lot; nobody would believe Kiwi's car would move so quickly. A few seconds later Hawk and a full squadron of Black Boxers were deploying in Kiwi's wake.

The door glowed a bright, cherry red, and exploded inwards. Kim dove beneath a desk, but Gary merely faced the door, eager expectation replacing the wicked smile he had been wearing. If he really was Supraman, Kim was going to have to trust him, despite his looking like a puppy sensing its returning owner. Nevertheless, Kim solidified her mental shields, checked the safety on her Inmac, and prepared for the final battle. Briefly, she wondered where the Madman was, and if he was still alive. Suddenly she grinned. The Madman was right; there were no atheists in foxholes - even if the foxhole was really a desk.

The shock troops burst into the room, and immediately halted at the sight of Gary standing calmly with his arms out, palms up. They held their fire, but kept their guns aimed at his chest One spoke briefly into his suit radio. Gary was searched - the other Mercs had fought viciously to their deaths. Busy with Gary, the invaders neglected to search the room. Kim held her breath. A few seconds later, at the cry of a shrill whistle, the invaders jerked to attention. More troops entered.

One of the newcomers reached down and yanked Kim from under the desk, knocking the Inmac from her hands before she could react. Throwing her onto the desk, he planted a gun muzzle in her back. She prepared to kick him in the crotch and die, when she caught a mental whiff she could hardly believe. She stared in horror at the door, tasting the full bitterness of defeat. The leader of the unholy horde had arrived.

Gary's face lit up with an adoring smile as her sworn enemy's fearless leader ambled in. He stood silently, looking a bit arrogant, a bit insecure. His boyish face lit up as he saw Gary's smile.

Kim groaned inwardly. Figuratively, she was now before the Gates of Hell. She would die, the world would be enslaved, and Supraman had apparently sold out. It was beyond belief. She prepared for one last thrust, knowing fully it would be her last act. Outwardly nothing changed. Inwardly, she tensed, became an arrow on a bowstring stretched to its limit. She imagined herself a target on his face, willed the arrow to come bury itself dead center. Any second now...

With a roar like the end of the world, the room's rear wall shattered, disintegrated. Her foot reflexively disemboweled her captor. She flew across the desk, the heel of her hand slamming the President's nose back into his skull, killing him instantly. As she fell on top of him, Supraman flashed by, his blurred feet crushing the throats of the two nearest guards. They hit the floor together as enormous energies crackled briefly over their heads for a scant few seconds.

In the ensuing silence, surrounded by small, soft corpses, Kim and Gary glanced wonderingly at one another, ecstatic to still be alive. A somewhat nasal voice from the vicinity of the former wall broke the stillness. "Say, why don't you two get up, instead of lying there like a couple of roadkill wallabies?" Leaping to her feet, Kim bounded across the room to give Kiwi a fierce hug. Gary looked annoyed for just a second, then shrugged his shoulders, ran across the room, and also hugged Kiwi. The three of them stood like this, Kiwi trying desperately to breathe, until Hawk's voice broke in. "Looks like we won in sudden death overtime." They all grinned foolishly.

"What I don't understand is why that slimebag was so ready to accept Gary as a friend. He almost seemed to expect Gary to be on his side." Hawk stared at the group. The group stared back. Nobody offered any solution. Gary looked smug.

Cindy walked in and handed hawk a sheaf of papers. "The cleanup crew found these on Gates."

Silently, Hawk skimmed the papers, first amazed, then amused, finally chuckling out loud. "Where's that Madman? He deserves a medal, too. Wait! According to this, we have a traitor in our midst!" After a moment of studying the papers further, Hawk nodded sadly to himself. "This makes sense." He scribbled something on a sticky note and handed it to Cindy. She arched her eyebrows, and Hawk nodded. Her face white, Cindy saluted and left the room. Everyone looked around uncomfortably and waited.

A moment later, scuffling sounds came from the hall were followed by a brief scream as if someone had fallen from the balcony. Rushing to the window, they all stared in disbelief at the form impaled on a stake below. This was a friend, someone they had trusted. "Now," Hawk said quietly, "now I think we are safe."

Cindy returned, shaking. "I just said to come in here for a moment. And they jumped! Honest!" Her eyes would look haunted for months.

At the victory assembly, everyone got some form of recognition, especially those who had to be carried out of Port Command. Kim, Gary and Kiwi got medals, monetary rewards, and parking spaces. Several medals were awarded to Duncan's troops. Duncan had been found alive in the rubble, but had quietly disappeared into the bayou with her son for some rest. Only the Madman was unaccounted for - Kim accepted his medal for him. The celebration at Morgan's castle lasted all weekend. Miraculously, none of the drunken revelers drowned in the moat, even though dozens were thrown in.

A few days later, Kim bagged a few days leave "to visit a dying relative". An hour north of Austin, sure she wasn't being followed, she backtracked and headed west towards I-10. At a deserted truckstop somewhere before El Paso she parked her Turbo Carrera. Just before dusk she hiked into the sunset with a compass and canteen, carrying a sweater for the coming chill of the desert night.

A hundred meters from a crumbling adobe building, she crouched behind a tumbleweed and barked like a coyote. A prairie dog yipped back. She stood up in the clear night air. With a quick glance over her shoulder, Kim ambled towards the ruins. A figure lounged insolently in the doorway, almost hidden in shadow. She smiled, and was rewarded with a smile from the shadows.

For hours they walked the dunes and talked. Of the battle. Of victory and treachery. Of strategy and tactics. Of the past, present, and future. They argued quietly, and neither wavered. Returning finally to the sandblasted adobe walls, they started a small sagebrush fire, dropped comfortably to the sand, and leaned back to stare at the beautiful, unending desert sky with its infinite flickering jewels. Abruptly Kim sat up and flicked a scorpion from her knee into the dying flames. It hissed and popped. Laughing, their eyes met. For long minutes they stared deeply into one anothers' souls. Finally, quietly but firmly, the Madman spoke.

"No, I don't mistrust you. Or Hawk or the Merc resistance. I just don't trust the technology they're playing with. Those black boxes. What do we really know about them? Nothing." He shifted to stare into the full face of the moon, low in the east. "Sure, I fought for the same things you all fought for. We all fought together. We turned the sleeping giant around a bit. We beat the fanatic legions of Gates and his gospel of turning everyone into least common denominator clones of him. But everybody who uses those black boxes becomes a fanatic, too. They act like drones, like their minds have been sucked out by aliens in a Spielberg novel."

"But what's the alternative?" demanded Kim. "Those things are powerful. For all your work harnessing the power of the sun, it's still not enough. And someone's got to keep the Beemer menace under control." Watching her face, he was sure there was more. But if so, she wasn't going to say anything. A sad, enigmatic smile played about her lips. Her gaze slowly moved into the distant skies of west Texas.

He wanted to answer, but thought better of it. He stood, and Kim let him help her up, despite her being the stronger of the two. He gazed steadily into her eyes. He'd forgotten lately just how tall she was.

"I think you know how I feel, the things I wish I could say. But it's just possible I still have a family - a wife, kids. I need to head east and start hunting for them again." He looked small, and she wanted to comfort him.

Instead, she smiled her huge, dazzling smile which had disarmed so many others. "I hope you can find them. Will you bring them back to Austin?"

"Probably. Depends on things beyond my control right now, like what shape the country is in back there, and whether there's anything left here for me to do that's worth doing... Will you keep me abreast of what happens at The Ranch?"

"Of course. You know that they're worried about you..."

"Yeah. Do they know I'm worried about them?" Kim giggled in reply. Suddenly his hands were on her shoulders. He leaned forward and kissed her lightly, his lips barely brushing hers. He stood there for only a short moment more. "Vaya con Dios." He was gone.

Without looking back, the Madman hiked east into the desert to his waiting motorcycle. "Vaya con Dios", she replied quietly. Slowly she walked back to her dew-covered car, the stars twinkling aloofly above, the desert as quiet as her moccasins treading on the shifting sand.

Dawn found Kim in her Porsche, as it snarled up the narrow, winding road to Cloudcroft. For appearance' sake, she had another day to kill before she returned to Austin. "Not that Hawk can't guess why I really took the time," she mused with a smile. Screaming past a semi crawling up a short straight, her car leapt over a hill into the morning sunlight, to find the road surrounded by clean, fresh snow. For the first time in months, the world looked beautiful again. Grinning and down shifting, she roared into a new sunrise.