Spirit of the Row/Faces of the City
From Unofficial Handbook of the Virtue Universe
Like a gargoyle, he perches on the 55th floor cornice of the Gibson Building and looks out over the Row. His craggy, homely face is mostly shrouded by an old scarf and a fedora, a style favored by the original "mystery men" back in the days when it was not always easy to tell them from the criminals they fought - especially in the case of one Marcus Cole, now the most famous of them all.
He crouches on one knee, an arm laid across the other, regarding the brownstones and streets much as an aging prizefighter might gaze soberly into a mirror. He is large and powerfully built, but the weariness of years hangs upon him, bowing that broad back, weighing upon his big heart.
It saddens him that he can't offer a better future to the families who live here, most of them just struggling to get through another month, another paycheck. It hurts him that the streets aren't safe, that people here must walk carefully by day and barricade themselves in their homes by night, living in fear of those who prey upon the weak and innocent. It gnaws at him that so many don't even have jobs or homes or hope.
He is beset on all sides. Punks in masks, roaming in packs like wild dogs. Mechanical puppets, a plague of metal scavengers. Magicians on the rooftops, taking lives with their dark rituals. Something strange and unclean, rising up from the sewers.
His best days are behind him. The Art Deco spires of High Park are monuments to that achingly brief glory, when the factories of the Row hummed around the clock (lit by that novelty of the age, the electric lamp) and a good day's work meant a good day's pay; when the well-to-do and office workers alike took apartments here for a short train ride to Steel Canyon; when prosperity for everyone seemed just around the corner. Then the bottom fell out, taking with it the dreams of a generation. Still the grand hotels and apartment buildings remain, their shining facades tarnished, inhabited by those who can't or won't leave for someplace better. Many of the tenants are nearly as old as their rent-controlled residences. Each year there are fewer.
He doesn't look back at the towers; he doesn't need to. Instead, he peers through the gathering twilight to the south, where Police Headquarters stands in the center of Freedom Plaza, a mighty fortress of justice. It was built in the giddy postwar years - they had to knock down the old station house, such a shame but that's the price of progress - and there was some hope that it might be a new beginning for the Row, but the money dried up right after the last of the concrete did. Few would care to admit (on the record) that it is an outpost in hostile territory, or just how closely the enemy presses on its walls.
Heroes come through here now and then, mostly young bucks on their way up. They never stay long, hurrying along to better parts of town and higher-profile threats. The police are too few, too jaded, and often too corrupt to make much difference. People in the Row take care of each other because no one else will.
To the west are the garment works that gave this part of the city its name. For a long time, that was the Row's only remaining industry (besides crime), but twenty years ago the owners found that domestic sweatshops couldn't compete with foreign sweatshops and finally closed the place down. People were actually sorry to see them go; as awful as it was, it was still a job. Now the long buildings are home to a series of illegal enterprises. For every one that's raided and cleaned out, another sets up shop. Cleaning up the garment works is like rolling a boulder up a hill, or holding back the tide with a broom. A lot of things in the Row are like that.
His scowl deepens as he looks to the east, where a huge squared-off shape is just visible in the distance. Crey Industries spared no expense on their Kings Row facility; it's fifty stories tall and covers four city blocks. For all that size, it has few windows. Most disturbing of all, he hasn't been able to get inside. No door in the Row should be barred to him, but Crey's are.
So even though Crey is now the biggest employer around here, he doesn't like them, and he doesn't trust them. He'll take their money - what choice does he have? - but if they think it entitles them to anything more than an honest day's work...
A scream wafts faintly up to him from the street, interrupting his dark thoughts. He almost ignores it. Lots of people got problems. They all gotta get by as best they can.
But the Row takes care of its own.
With a sigh and a nod, he acknowledges his duty. He does not leap from the ledge, but simply ceases to be there. In moments he is at the side of someone who needs help - doing what he can, wishing he could do more.
The sun is shining as he walks along Orion Beltway, buoyed by the current of the crowd. He stops in front of the old Majestic theatre; Breakfast at Tiffany's is playing. He buys a ticket, goes inside, sits down. The movie's already started, the auditorium almost empty for the matinee.
Up on the big screen, Audrey Hepburn banters coyly with a young George Peppard. Finally she ushers him out of her jet-set apartment and turns to the camera with a twinkling smile. "Hello, King."
He sits up a little straighter in his seat. "Hey, doll-face. How ya doin'?"
"Actually, I'm quite cross with you. We're neighbors, yet you don't come to see me nearly as often as I'd like." Hepburn's pout becomes an impish grin. "But I'll forgive you if you take me dancing."
He chuckles. "You know I'm not much for dancin'."
"I happen to know you were quite good at it once," she declares loftily.
"I'd just step on your dainty toes."
"I can handle a few squashed toes. I'm tougher than I look, you know. Maybe you'd rather go to the arena, watch the fights? Oh!" She claps as a thought occurs to her, illuminating her face. "We could go for a walk in the park. It's quieter now that the heroes have moved on, but it's still beautiful. Mm, we could pretend we're a young couple in love..."
He chuckles again, but there's an edge of worry to it. "Girl, what's gotten into you?"
"Oh, I'm fine. Wonderful! Really." She fidgets on the edge of the sofa. "I suppose I'm just a bit lonely. I miss the heroes who used to sit in the park, and Perez... Perez and I used to talk all the time, about everything, but I haven't heard from her in so long. And you, well..." She looks up from her hand-wringing with an apologetic smile.
"You know I've got people of my own to look after," he murmurs gently.
"I know. I do." She turns her eyes down and her face aside, a wistful profile. "I just miss how things used to be."
He nods. "We all do, sweetheart." As the melancholy silence stretches, he coughs. "Listen. Let's do it. Let's go cut a rug, just like you said."
"You mean it?" She's all smiles again. "Oh, thank you, King! I'd love that." Hepburn bounces up from the sofa and starts toward the bedroom, off-screen. "I'll meet you outside in five minutes."
Smiling under his scarf, he stands and walks out of the theater, letting the movie continue without him. The fedora shades his eyes against the bright sun. It's a golden afternoon on the Beltway, and he takes in the sights while he waits.
He could be jealous of Galaxy, with her busy streets and clean storefronts and new stadium and green parkland and bustling warehouse district, better-favored in practically every way. It would be easy... if he didn't know her.
There's a tug at his elbow. The young woman standing there, wearing a coat and low heels and a pixie smile, isn't Audrey Hepburn - but to his eyes, she's even prettier. He grins and puffs up a bit, gallantly offering his arm to the lady. She graciously takes it, and together they walk away as the sun dips low over the western skyline and the shadows lengthen.
He looks like an ordinary man, a mid-level bureaucrat in some city office: average build, thinning hair, round spectacles, a dress shirt rolled up to the elbows, slacks and oxfords. But when eight feet of animated brick and stone and concrete sits down next to him on the park bench where he's having his lunch, he doesn't bat an eye. He just looks up from his sandwich and folded newspaper and smiles politely at the visitor.
"Hello, King. What can I do for you?"
Actually, it's the hulking stone figure that seems uncomfortable. "Don't mean t' interrupt your lunch break," the Row demurs in its low, rumbling voice.
"Nonsense. You know my door's always open." The man reaches into his lunchpail. "Would you like the other half of this? It's egg salad. Or some coffee? I have a thermos."
"Nah, thanks. I'm good." The giant takes a deep breath. "Actually, I came to see if you might, uh... kick some more money my way. Get some more cops on the streets, maybe fix up the schools a little..."
"Now, King," the bureaucrat begins in the patient, tolerant tone of one who's had this conversation many times before, "you know I'd like to help you out. But I'm just stretched too thin right now, with the rebuilding and all. Heck, I don't even have the funding or manpower to finish cleaning up around here." He waves his half-eaten sandwich to the west, where rubble has yet to be cleared from the base of damaged and abandoned buildings on the edge of the industrial park. "I've got Hellions to deal with, and Clockwork, and new heroes running all over the place like children who've had too much sugar." He allows himself a brief chuckle.
"I know," the stone man replies, trying to be just as patient and reasonable. "Believe me, I know all about tough times. But I'm just askin' for a couple hundred grand..."
The snort is still amused, but it's more sarcastic now, less friendly. "You and everyone else. Everyone comes to me looking for a handout. Steel wants me to do something about the arsonists and the Outcasts, Sky wants me to ask Uncle Sam for more highway funds, Galaxy's got her new arena, you want half a dozen things, and Eastgate..."
"Yeah, what about Eastgate?" Suddenly the Row is on his feet, like an avalanche in reverse. "I don't see you liftin' a finger to help her, or Perez."
The bureaucrat is unmoved as the much larger figure towers over him. His voice is as cool and steady as his spectacled gaze. "Perez and Eastgate are a personal concern of mine. But they've both suffered very traumatic events. There's not much that I can do for them, and to be perfectly honest, there may not be much to save. I have to think of populated parts of the city first. Unless you'd like to wait in line behind them...?"
It's not a threat. City Hall doesn't make threats. It makes promises, and chooses which ones to keep.
The Row sighs, shakes his head, unclenches his fists. "No, I don't mean that."
"Good." The sound of the lunchpail snapping shut indicates that this conversation is over. He stands, tucking the newspaper under one arm. "Nice talking to you, King," he says mildly, "but I really have to get back to work. Come see me again sometime. My door's always open."
Go back to your own domain and let me do my job, the voice of City Hall does not say.
But the spirit of the Row, left standing alone on the wide plaza in the shadow of Atlas, hears it anyway.
He walks along Hell's Highway and remembers when it was Park Avenue. Once, all four lanes flowed with traffic - cars, delivery trucks, yellow taxis and city buses - at almost every hour of the day and night. Now the wide street is empty save for loitering bands of toughs in bandanas and ripped jeans, proudly wearing the mark of the Beast. He feels their eyes on him as he passes, but they have the sense not to offer a challenge.
He walks past the ruin of a famous department store and remembers when people came here to shop for everything they thought they needed - toys and shoes and fur coats, housewares and appliances and diamond rings - or just to eat at the lunch counter and ride the escalators and admire the elaborate window displays. Those windows have long since been smashed in and the dark and cavernous interior looted of anything of value; all that remains are empty shelves, toppled mannequins, loose trash, and torn posters gaily advertising Memorial Day sales.
He walks in the shadow of a high-rise apartment building and remembers when this was some of the most expensive and coveted real estate in the city, especially units with a good view of the park. Like the stores and boutiques, the tower is now an empty shell... probably. Gang members and the homeless have been known to squat in the abandoned apartments, along with others of grander and more sinister purpose who desire a secret lair conveniently close to the city's heart. Sometimes these groups discover each other, usually with violent results.
He walks through the gate, nodding respectfully to the guardian lions, and into the park proper. And he remembers.
Picnicking on the grass. Flying a kite. Boating on Everett Lake. Feeding the pigeons. Strolling along the winding paths. Watching A Midsummer Night's Dream performed under the stars.
He walks deeper into the wood, past strutting Hellions and stinking Vahzilok and posturing Lost and busy Clockwork. They all get out of his way, giving him a wide berth - all except for the Thorns, intent on their rituals. He beats them senseless and directs their grateful captives to safe paths out of the park before continuing on. The canopy closes over his head, shutting out the sky and casting everything in dappled green twilight.
He walks, sure-footed, through the maze that the untended forest has become, stepping over rocks and roots and logs and burbling streams. His footfalls are muffled by moss and fallen leaves and soft earth. His path is lit by the soft glow of wrought iron lamp-posts.
At last he comes to the very heart of the wood. The ground slopes down here, forming a natural bowl. At the marshy bottom, surrounded by water-loving ferns, is an uncovered boulder. There's almost no sound in the small clearing: no birdsong, no buzzing of flies or ticking of gears, no gurgling or belching from the swamp creatures in the lake, nothing but the faint whisper of the wind through the trees. Sunlight filters through the canopy in thin slanting shafts.
Slowly and carefully, he walks down into the center and steps onto the stone. He stands there for over a minute, attuning himself to this place and waiting for the presence here to take notice of him. Finally he speaks.
"Perez, it's me, King. I'm here. Talk to me? Please?"
For long moments, there is no response. Then the rustle of the leaves becomes ever so slightly louder, forming words at the edge of perception.
~ go away... ~
Though he expected this answer, it still makes his heart sink. "It's been four years... ya gotta come back to us."
~ just go away... please... leave me alone... ~
He tries. He reasons, he begs, he scolds, he apologizes. None of it does any good. The wind keeps repeating the same desperate request, the plea of something still wounded and frightened. To stay would only cause more pain, and that's not what he wants.
But he does pause at the edge of the clearing, just long enough to make his usual promise, whether it's heard or not.
"I'll be back next year, okay?" As long as it takes.
And as he walks away from that shrouded glen, trying not to feel too discouraged, he remembers the Perez he used to know - sometimes young-seeming, sometimes older and motherly, changing with the seasons but always warm and outgoing and full of life. Always welcoming those who came to her for a little respite from their troubles.
He wonders if he'll ever see that Perez again.
He has business in Steel today. The irony does not escape him.
He hasn't gone three blocks from the tunnel when he picks up a shadow. Walking alongside him, appearing only as a reflection in the windows he passes, is a tall man in a grey pinstripe suit. The style changes in each window, from 1890s to 1990s, from 1979 to 1929, but it's always a suit.
"What are you doing here, King?" asks Steel, looking especially pinched and disapproving as a banker from the turn of the last century.
"I'm here t' see a man about the Lost," the Row replies. "Don't worry, I'm not stayin' long enough to drive down your property values."
"The Lost, hm? That figures." The dot-com entrepreneur smirks. "You won't find any here, you know."
"Naw... just body-snatchers in the alleys, goose-steppers on the street corners, and Outcasts everywhere ya look."
The railroad baron harrumphs, muttonchops bristling. "Despite what the yellow press would have you believe, my crime rate is the lowest in..."
The one called King stops suddenly, making his companion do likewise. On the sidewalk ahead, three men in colorful T-shirts are harassing a cringing woman, showing off with small displays of their elemental powers.
Steel frowns, fidgets, and finally demands, "... well?"
The Row shrugs his massive shoulders. "Hey, your problem, not mine. But I tell ya what - I'll do you a favor, just this once."
"You're too kind," the Victorian banker declares frostily, looking on as the Row breaks up this ersatz reunion of Earth, Wind and Fire and receives the thanks of their victim.
"That's your problem, Steel," the Row observes after she runs off, looking not at the figure in the window behind him but at the great skyscrapers for which the city's financial district is named. Banks and corporate headquarters and office towers, they march down the center of the zone in four mighty columns, with the land rising up around them on all sides like reviewing stands. "You spend all your time with your head in the clouds... you lose sight of what's goin' on down at your feet."
"Someone has to look at the big picture. Someone has to take the lead, grease the wheels and make the deals, keep things moving forward. That's what I do." The man in the grey suit ostentatiously examines his manicured nails. "What do you do these days, King? Besides shelter the indigent and collect welfare."
The Row whirls, jabbing a finger at the window. "I do plenty! If it weren't for me and mine, you'd be doing your deals in the dark, with crap up to your knees, and without any of your fancy coffees!"
"You ignorant, ungrateful..." The patrician financier stares his fellow city spirit down. "I made you."
The Row's face is a mask of stone, his voice dropping to a dangerous hush. "Yeah, Steel, that's right. You made me what I am today."
Before the other can frame a reply, the big man in the fedora turns on a scuffed heel and starts off down the sidewalk again, head down with bullish determination. The reflection has to hurry to catch up, flickering across a bookstore and a townhouse lobby before falling into step again.
"That's old news, King. When are you going to stop thinking of the past and start looking to the future?"
"I've seen your future," the Row answers bitterly. "It's got no jobs, 'cause you sold 'em all to China an' India an' Mexico. You sold our birthright, Steel."
The corporate raider rolls his eyes. "You act like it's personal, but it's not. It's just business, the free market at work."
"Yeah?" King glances at the window, but doesn't stop walking. "Like those deals you did back in the Thirties with all them German banks? Was that just business too? You should take a look at your balance sheets sometime. No tellin' how much blood money's on 'em."
"That goes both ways, King. Or are you going to pretend you always gave everyone an even shake? What about the Irish? Or the Poles? Or the blacks? There's blood on your hands too."
The Row pulls up short again, facing off with the fellow in the high starched collar and top hat. "Yeah, okay. I done some bad things, things I ain't proud of. But I owned up to it and changed my ways. When are you gonna do that, Steel? When are you gonna admit you're not perfect?"
Steel's response is a haughty glare. "I don't have to answer to you, or even to City Hall. The only ones I have to account to are the stockholders." The tycoon consults his pocket watch before returning it to his vest. "Finish your business and get out." The window ripples like water; when it clears, there is only the Row's own broad-shouldered reflection.
"Heh. Thought he'd never shut up."
Feeling rather pleased with himself, and with a new spring in his step, the Row turns the next corner - and finds himself nearly face to face with an equally surprised Council adjutant and his five jackbooted goons.
"... aw, nuts."
Some of the zones that made it through the Rikti War more or less intact, sheltered behind the force-field barriers, soon succumbed to other problems. Perez, traumatized and abandoned to gang violence, withdrew into herself. Others had it even worse.
The war was hardly over when Overbrook was shattered, fractured, torn apart by the villain who gave it its new name: Faultline. A few years later, the same thing happened to Eastgate at the hands of the Trolls. The spirits of these places, riven to their very foundations, went insane. Today, even mortals who listen carefully can hear the faint murmurs of madness, rambling and disjointed, from the deep cracks in the earth. The sane do not linger in Faultline or the Hollows.
There are not even whispers in what remains of Baumton: only the crackle of still-smoldering fires and the mournful wail of the wind that blows through steel skeletons. Whatever once lived in Boomtown is long dead, blasted to ash and rubble by the worst of the Rikti onslaught. It was human agency, however, which wiped out Siren's Call two years later, when the hero Sunburst exploded with the force of a hydrogen bomb. The siren's song has been forever silenced; the echoes of a great shout still seem to ring in the air, underscored by the clash of arms and the warning clicks of a Geiger counter.
But Skyway is different. Skyway's been messed up for almost thirty years. She's learned to live with it, sort of. Like most drug addicts and mental patients, she has her good days and her bad days.
This is not one of her good days.
Blonde hair, blow-dried and feathered. Huge rose-tinted sunglasses. A little too much makeup, still not enough to cover the wrinkles. A hideous polyester jacket over a glittering low-cut disco dress, both of which have seen better days. And roller skates, of course.
It bothers him, more than he lets show, to see her like this, strung out and old before her time. Back in the Fifties she was wholesome and All-American, poodle skirts and bobby socks. Her optimism about the future - that Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow - was enough to rekindle some hope in him. Once they sat on a rooftop together under the stars, bathed in television's flickering glow, and watched a man walk on the Moon. And now here she is, down in the gutters with him.
Sometimes, when you're already at the bottom, it hurts worse to see someone else fall.
"What do you need, King? Mm, so many kings. There's you, and Elvis, and that guy with his head in a jar..." She beckons him closer, speaking in a husky stage whisper. "Tell ya a secret? I think he's kind of nuts." She giggles, twirls on her skates, and nearly falls; this only makes her shriek and giggle more as she tries to regain her wobbly balance.
The Row waits patiently until her attack of mirth has subsided. "I'm tryin' to find out more about the dope the Lost take that changes 'em. What it does, where it comes from. Thought maybe you could help me out."
"Naaah, you don't want anything to do with Shift," Sky says, waving one hand dismissively and putting the other to her brow as if pained. "It'll mess you up, make you hear voices. Bad trip. Supes, King. Supes is the good stuff."
"You shouldn't be on the Dyne, Sky." It's a tired refrain, even to his ears.
"But I can't help it!" She laughs. "It's everywhere! It's on the streets, under the bridges, in the sewers... rivers of Troll piss runnin' right into my veins." She snuggles up to him, a little too bright-eyed. "You want some? I can get you into a Troll party... they'd love a big, strong, tough guy like you." She purrs, running her hands over his chest. "Course, you might have to beat a few of them up... but I bet you'd like that, huh?" Her grin shows lots of teeth.
"No thanks," he murmurs, pushing her away as gently as he can.
When Sky's offended, she gets pouty and sarcastic. "Oh, riiight... you're clean and sober." She smirks and pokes him square in the chest. "'cept for all that beer and whiskey and gin, huh? We've all got our ways of dulling the pain, King."
The Row sighs and nods. "I guess you're right." Privately, he thinks there's a world of difference between a little booze and stuff that turns you into a green monster.
Sky isn't finished. "But you wanna know the best part about Dyne? Sometimes... when I'm really flying high, sometimes I can see through time."
He just looks at her, cocking a skeptical eyebrow.
"No, really! Not up and down, but, like... sideways. Like, a world with no people, just dinosaurs. I've seen it, King. I've seen a world where Mu never fell and magic rules." Her voice is awed, her eyes wide as she looks past his shoulder at things only she can perceive. "Oh, King... I've seen another Skyway. Where the dream came true and the roads go everywhere. It's the year Two Thousand, and everything is clean and bright and shiny like a silver rocketship, just like they promised. It's so beautiful." She's almost trembling with emotion as she describes her vision.
Then it all comes crashing down, her face twisting into something ugly. "... and I HATE HER! That was supposed to be me! My future, and she stole it from me!" She beats her fists against his broad chest. "I hate her! I hate her!" Tears and mascara leave dark tracks down her cheeks.
The suddenness and intensity of her mood swing leaves him at a loss for words. "Sky, I..."
"Get out!" In an instant she's a foot taller, her voice deeper. Her next blow pushes him back. "I hate you! Get out of here!" Is her skin, perhaps, a little greener?
He doesn't wait around to find out.
The morning fog is lifting as he emerges from the tunnel, the sun rising at his back. The span of Valor Bridge can be seen dimly through the gray haze; somewhere out there, Power Island lurks in the middle of the harbor, protected by its own curtain of light. The chill air tastes of salt. A horn's single note carries mournfully over the water, backed by the faint clank of metal on metal and the shrill cries of wheeling gulls.
He turns left and walks along the road a bit, then makes a right into a parking lot between two warehouses covered in peeling paint and rust. It's still cool and foggy here, in the shadow of the War Wall. No one else seems to be around; the lot is deserted save for an old pickup truck, an equally decrepit forklift, and some wooden shipping pallets. He crosses his arms over his chest and waits.
Presently the mist clears enough to reveal another figure, as tall and broad-shouldered as the Row's manifestation. He's dressed in the flannel shirt, bib overalls and steel-toed boots of a longshoreman, with a filthy rag tucked into a back pocket and a ring of keys jingling at his waist. His unshaven face is as gruff and homely as a bulldog's, but it splits open in a warm grin as he steps forward. The two embrace as brothers, clapping each other on the back.
"How ya doin', Indy?"
The longshoreman shrugs affably. "Same as always. Tide goes out, tide comes in. I keep busy. How 'bout you?"
The Row shrugs back. "Same as always."
"That bad, huh?" Indy tries to make it sound like a joke, but it's not, not really.
"Yeah." The Row chuckles. "It's okay."
Indy nods with understanding and sympathy. The two of them go way back, back to when the Row was just getting started. Independence Port was already a century old by then, named in the aftermath of a revolution, born along with a new nation. The original harbor had been dredged and widened, with slips and quays and silos and cranes built to accomodate modern ships. The paint on the bridges was still wet and weeds and wildflowers grew on the bare top of the big island. Much has happened since then - the Depression, two World Wars, the splitting of the atom, the rise of the heroes - but Indy hasn't changed all that much. The tide goes out and the tide comes in again.
"So... what brings ya down to the docks?" Indy knows his neighbor and little brother too well; he can tell something's up.
In the shadow of his fedora, King's eyes narrow. "Last night, I caught some Marcone torpedoes havin' a meet in the garment works."
"Marcones?" The longshoreman scowls. "The hell are they doin' 'round here? They're strictly Rogue Isles."
"Yeah, but that's not all. Guess who they was meetin'? Nicky Vitelli."
"Vitelli?" Indy blinks. "I ain't heard nothin' about them since..."
"Since Tommy 'the Turbo' got blown to bits back in '75, yeah. And his kid's a real piece a' work too. Kept mouthin' off to me, talking trash. I had to hang him off the roof of the Carradine Building by his ankles to get anything useful out of him."
"Heh. Same old King."
The Row smiles faintly, then gets serious again. "So here's how I figure it. The Marcones want to carve themselves a new slice here in Paragon. And they're lookin' for little fish like the Vitellis, guys who're tired of being pushed around by the Frosts, to give them a foot in the door."
"Hrmm. I got enough problems with the Family as it is." Indy begins to pace back and forth on the cracked asphalt. "They're this close to going to war with those Chinese gangsters. Not to mention not one but two private armies makin' trouble on the docks, and that damn octopus." He stops and turns to King with a frown. "If the Marcones make a play, that could be the match that sets it all off. We could be lookin' at a mob war right in our backyard."
The Row nods. "That's why I came to you. I can't stop this alone."
"You know I'm with ya, King. Always." Indy offers his hand, which the Row shakes firmly, not letting go.
"Yeah, I do. Thanks. And if there's ever anything I can do for you..."
"Actually..." That grin is back, this time with a bit of mischief to it. "A little bird told me there's somethin' goin' on in Liberty Quay this morning that could use my personal attention. Might be right up your alley too."
"No kiddin'?" The Row doesn't have to think about it long. "Okay, I'm in."
One moment, the two of them are standing in a parking lot; the next, they're inside another warehouse, appearing in the midst of some very surprised and angry mobsters and the Sky Raiders they were about to close a major arms deal with. Everyone goes for their guns as the Family underboss demands an explanation.
"Where da hell did you come from? Who ARE you?"
As they move to stand back to back, the Row grins under his scarf. "You wouldn't believe us if we told ya." Then, over his shoulder: "Ready?"
Indy's holding a crowbar now, one as long as his arm, and doesn't bother to hide his smile. "Ready."
The next few minutes are very exciting. But when the Tsoo show up to take the weapons and money for themselves... that's when things really get fun.
(with special guest Pocket D)
Crossing his arms over his rocky chest, the spirit of the Row glowers at the suspicious truck.
He doesn't know exactly when it showed up here, parked in an alley behind some brownstones, not far from the police station and the Yellow Line. Much of what goes on in the Row is below the level of his conscious awareness, like a mortal's breathing. Perhaps a week went by, or two, before he noticed the increased foot traffic in that alley; another few days before he got around to checking it out, and discovered the truck.
The truck is unmarked, its plates registered to an obvious alias. No one shows up to drive it away or answer questions. Plenty of others come and go, especially during the evening hours: party-goers by the look of them, both civilians and heroes, whooping and laughing and staggering as they climb in and out of the back of the truck like it was a clown car. A party on wheels that never goes anywhere.
It's a mystery on his home ground, and he doesn't like mysteries.
The Row steps up to the truck and unlatches the doors, throwing them open to reveal... an empty cargo area, just like the last two times he's looked. This time, however, he climbs inside (making the rear of the truck dip noticeably) and walks around a bit. Still nothing. Definitely no party.
One of the doors has swung back into place, casting the unlit interior in partial darkness. He pulls it tight, then reaches out to pull the other one shut.
And the world drops out from under him.
When the doors close, the inside of the truck isn't in the city. It isn't even on the same planet, or in the same universe. It's somewhere else.
He can't feel the rest of himself. He can't feel the Row. It's all gone. What surrounds him is more than blackness; it's total sensory deprivation.
Faced with such a shock, some beings might succumb to madness or dissolution. But Kings Row is made of sterner stuff. The portion of its spirit contained within its stone avatar refuses to be snuffed out; it digs in, clinging to existence, fighting its way back to consciousness.
When he comes to, he's on his hands and knees, surrounded by loose chunks of rubble. His massive frame shivers and trembles. If he had a stomach, it would be empty. It's another minute before he can pull himself together and stand up.
He's not in the truck anymore. He's in a small lobby or waiting room, like hundreds of warehouses and small businesses all across Paragon. But around the corner is no warehouse, just a short corridor leading to a three-way intersection and a freight elevator. The smartly-dressed woman standing next to the doors greets him warmly.
"Hello, sir, and welcome to Pocket D."
"Pocket D, what's that?" he rasps. He's got plenty more questions - like where the Hell am I and how do I get back? - but he's trying to play it cool, take it one step at a time, not let the dame see how rattled he is.
"Paragon's newest, hottest dance club, and it's just a short elevator ride away." She poses artfully, gesturing to the doors with a turn of her hand, and for a moment the memory of a cigarette girl he knew back in '39 snaps into focus. "When you're ready to return to Kings Row, the exit is behind you." She points back the way he came. "Or if you like, you can leave by way of Talos Island or Founders Falls." She gestures to the other two exits.
"So..." he asks slowly, just to be sure he has it straight. "I go through any of those doors, I end up back in the city?"
"Yes, sir." The hostess looks him over again. "If this is your first time in Pocket D, tell one of the bartenders to receive your complimentary drink. On behalf of DJ Zero and our staff, welcome."
"Thanks," he rumbles, touching the brim of his fedora politely. He's tempted to leave right now, to turn around and see if that door really does lead back home. But...
The Row don't back down, and the Row don't run.
Music, that buzzy techno stuff the kids listen to, washes over him as the elevator doors open and he steps out into a place that reminds him of a dozen other clubs and speakeasies he's known. The clothes and the songs are different, the lighting is cool blue neon, but the mood's the same as it always was - the flirting, the bad jokes, the too-loud laughter. The colored barman catches his eye and flashes him a friendly grin. It's not until he shoulders his way through the crowd and wanders out onto the big dance floor that he gets a reminder that this is no regular gin joint.
Red sky... floatin' rocks... is that the moon, or the sun? Ain't nothin' about this place that makes sense. The loud music doesn't fill the deeper silence within him.
He's just about to climb up on the bandstand and try to get some answers out of the floating guy who looks like he's running the show when he feels a hand on his elbow. The mook standing there, his hair slicked back into a ridiculous little ponytail, is too skinny to be muscle; an errand boy, then.
"Mr. King, right? There's someone who'd like to see you."
At first, he can't believe it. Who here could possibly know who he is? Then he follows the gopher's gaze up to the second floor balcony, overlooking the dance floor, and thinks he understands.
By the time the Row gets up there, the figure he glimpsed is back in his private booth, holding court, flanked by tough-looking men and dames in slinky dresses. Short and wiry, in expensive sunglasses and a cream-colored suit from twenty years ago (that somehow looks hip and retro on him), he's almost swallowed up by the upholstery; but as the Row approaches he jerks upright and leans forward as if about to bolt, a curly-haired bundle of nervous energy and fast talk.
"It IS you, I knew it! Sky's told me all about you, man. I feel like I know you already. You know, you're bigger than I thought. But those clothes!" A short, scornful laugh. "What'd you do, find 'em in a Dumpster? Let me give you the number of this tailor I know, he'll set you up. Make you look like a million bucks." He holds out a hand without looking and someone puts a little black book in it, which he begins to thumb through.
The Row clears his throat. "So... you'd be Talos Island, huh?"
"That's me, babe. Call me Talos, everyone does." He passes over a pair of business cards with a grin. "That's the tailor, and one of mine too, in case you ever need to get in touch. Heck, take some more, pass 'em around."
The Row tucks the cards away without comment. "This your place, then? You run this juke joint?"
The smaller man laughs again, though it's more of a giggle this time. "No, the D is Zero's, but him and me are tight, know what I'm sayin'?" He leans back, spreading his arms expansively to gather the women closer. "When he wanted to start this up, he came to me first. Yeah, everyone comes to Talos, because they know I've got it goin' on. Boardwalk, high-rises, trendy apartments? Me. Stores, arena, ferries? Me, babe. And now I've got the D, too. Yeah, things are pretty sweet." He grins broadly as his girls fawn over their sugar daddy. "Wanna know my secret? You're a pal, so I'll tell you. Location, location, location. I'm where it's happenin', King."
The Row considers his fellow city spirit, his entourage and his surroundings for a moment before speaking again. "Well, if your patch is so great... what are you doin' here, and not lookin' after it?"
It's one of those moments when everything stops but the music. As the molls draw away and one of the assistants murmurs an apology and quickly ends his phone call, the lean man gives the Row a long hard look over the top of his shades. His voice is as cool as the waters of Eastgate Bay: "... I could ask you the same question."
Then the one known as Talos smiles again, breaking the brittle tension. "But the Row doesn't fall apart because you're not all there all the time, right? Same thing with me. Besides, I've got people looking after things for me, people I trust. You've got to learn to delegate, King. My domain practically runs itself."
The Row coughs grittily. "I talk to Sky, remember? I hear things too. About the Warriors..."
"The Warriors?!" The reply is quick, dismissive. Polished. "The Warriors are nothin', King. They're nothin'!"
The Row is unmoved by the glib denial, continuing to tick off items on his thick fingers. "... Tsoo, Thorns, witch-doctors and zombies comin' in from Astoria, Freakshow, plant-things..."
Everyone in the booth is watching the Row closely. The glossy black lenses on the other side of the table are unreadable, reflecting the Row's own features. "What are you saying, King?"
The Row shrugs. "Maybe you should keep a closer eye on your own domain."
"Maybe you should." The other man abruptly stands up, his much taller goons doing the same a moment later.
The Row looks left, then right, sizing up the situation, and finally nods. His gravelly voice is deceptively mild. "You're right. Ladies." He half-turns to leave, then looks back. "One more thing. The real Talos was a hero. You ain't him. As totems go... you're a weasel."
That's the other's cue to leap over the table at him, face twisted into a snarl and fingers curled into talons of black glass, but suddenly there's someone else between them: a smiling man in a dark suit and tie, glowing faintly and stopping the attacker's charge with nothing more than a hand on his chest. It's the floating guy, only he's not floating now.
"There a problem here, fellas?"
"He started it, Zero," the claw-fingered spirit accuses, too angry to realize how ridiculous he looks crouched atop the table. His sunglasses have come off and his beady eyes are wild. The bodyguards stand around uncertainly, hands inside their jackets.
Zero tsks, his smile never wavering. "You know the rules. No fighting here." He turns to the Row. "Sorry about that. Should have asked you before putting the truck there. Hope there are no hard feelings."
The Row shrugs. "Hey, it's okay. Now I know what's goin' on..." He looks around the club again. "You got a nice place here, Mr. Zero. And if some of my people wanna come here, drink some beers, shoot some pool, have a good time, forget their troubles, that's okay by me. They earned it."
"Thanks. Glad you understand."
"But this guy's right about one thing: I should be getting back to where I belong." The Row tips his hat again and walks toward the exit.
"Yeah, go back to your shit-hole!" The man in the cream suit has climbed back down and now stands behind Zero, sneering and gesturing rudely. "Your worthless dead-end pile of dirt! You're what I clean off my fucking shoes!"
"And you're just a bantam rooster who thinks he's cock a' da walk," the Row observes without looking back.
For all his eagerness to return to his domain, he pauses at the intersection of the three hallways, looking toward the door that the hostess said leads to Talos Island. If he were to step through and walk its streets, examine its docks and beaches, survey its dense forest of glass and neon... would he find it missing a soul?
The Astoria he remembers was a classy lady - the society type, old money but not stuck up about it. She loved poetry, The Great Gatsby and all that jazz. Always dressed to the nines. Showed up at the best parties, though few ever knew who she really was. When "the incident" happened, the whole city mourned. So when the security chief asked him to go in and clean out some of the Banished Pantheon's servants, he said yes, out of respect for her memory.
His first clue that this isn't going to be as easy as he'd thought is the fog. The miasma blocks his sight, something ordinary fog doesn't do; it shrouds the neighborhood in hazy twilight even at high noon. The shapes of buildings loom out of it, more suggested than seen. And it's cold, a chill that penetrates his stone shell and goes right to the spirit within. It throws him off his stride, makes him wary and uncomfortable, and he's only just stepped through the gate.
Then he sees the people.
There aren't supposed to be any people in Astoria, not anymore. Not since the worshippers of a bunch of really nasty gods that no one else had heard of for thousands of years worked a ritual that plunged the area into perpetual semi-darkness, killed everyone within its boundaries, and raised the bodies - along with those buried in Moth Cemetery, a sprawling necropolis dating back to the first white settlers in the region - as an undead army under their control. The spirit of Astoria wasn't able to do anything because, by all accounts, she'd been the first victim. The dark gods tore her apart and ate her.
It's the sort of thing that gives even city spirits nightmares. To the Row, this place feels emptier than Fossburg or Baumton. It's the silence of the grave. The fog just makes it worse.
Aside from small parties of Tsoo or Thorns on their own mysterious errands, there shouldn't be anyone inside "Dark" Astoria but the witch doctors and their shambling zombie horde. Certainly no civilians. But he can see them, as clearly as he can see anything else in this place, walking along the sidewalk in front of him. Ordinary people going about their ordinary lives.
"Uh, 'scuse me..."
The closest, a woman in a sleeveless dress, stops and stares at him. "Hello?"
"Can ya tell me what's goin' on here?"
Another two passers-by, a man in a suit and a boy in T-shirt, jeans and ball cap, have also stopped now; they're as surprised as the woman. "You can see us?" she asks.
"Sure," the Row replies, brows drawing together. "Why wouldn't I?"
"I... I'm not sure." She looks both puzzled and annoyed at not being able to answer.
"We see others sometimes," the man adds, "but they come and go so quickly, and they aren't... all there, I guess. But you're real!" He steps forward and puts a hand on the Row's arm. The touch feels freezing cold, making the Row flinch in surprise.
"Are you a hero?" the woman asks. "Please, can you help me find my husband? He went to work in Steel Canyon this morning and he hasn't come home for lunch. I tried calling his office but the phone lines are dead."
"And I'm looking for my daughter," the man says. "She goes to Campbell High School. I've been looking for her since... since... why can't I remember?"
A crowd is starting to gather. Everyone marvels at the brick man's solidity and ability to perceive them. They press closer, all of them asking for help, clutching at him with icy hands.
"Can you get a message to..."
"... been looking all over for my wife..."
"... please, mister..."
"... tell us what's going on..."
"... meeting my boyfriend..."
"... seen my dog, he ran off..."
"... Freedom Phalanx coming to help us?"
The Row has never felt this bitterly cold, not even during the worst New England winters. It saps his strength. He struggles to be heard over the rising buzz of the crowd, to push them away without hurting anyone.
"... so glad you showed up..."
"... never met a hero before..."
"... need you to..."
"... help me, please..."
The mob has grown large enough to attract the attention of others. Suddenly the gloom is pierced by a bright flash and the crack of thunder, followed by a deeper rumble. The crowd dissolves into panic and chaos as half-seen figures in tattered rags lurch out of the fog and begin to drag people away. Some scatter and run, seeking safety in flight, only to have their feet encased in rock or their bodies lifted into the air, surrounded by a sickly green glow.
Help us, the crowd screams. Save us!
Walking corpses with glowing sigils on their dried-out skin take aim with Winchester rifles and flintlock pistols. Spectral bullets tear through shrieking civilians and blast chunks out of the Row's rocky hide. He staggers, trying to wade through the crowd and attack, but there are too many, too many...
As another volley of shot rips into him and icy daggers reach for his heart, the Row roars... and lets go. Hundreds of pounds of stone and brick and pavement, suddenly unoccupied, fall to the ground in a shapeless heap.
Half a city away, a figure slumps against the wall of an alley and slides down into the trash and clutter. Big hands gather up a discarded copy of the Paragon Times to wrap around itself like a blanket.
"Too many," it rasps. "I can't... I can't..."
It's said by some that those from the Row are too tough to cry, or that they're all cried out. Neither is entirely true.
The Row only cries when no one is watching.
With Indy as his guide, he descends into the underworld.
Down, down, down, through vast spaces filled with pipes and the unmuffled roar of machinery, through basements and sub-basements, through steam tunnels and utility rooms. Down flights of stairs and across walkways that clang and quiver under each heavy step. Down into darkness, pushed back only by the dim glow of red and white-gold bulbs or the harsh light of buzzing fluorescents.
The streets above are lined with factories and refineries and warehouses. Acres and acres of industrial park, almost a square mile of silos and sheds and substations and smokestacks, stretch from one edge of the walled-in island to the other. What was once a gentle slope has been built up into a series of terraces and retaining walls with a deep trench cut down the middle. The great dome and cooling towers of the Terra Volta Reactor stand at the top with their backs to the south wall, the control and maintenance buildings almost lost at their feet.
Even in these difficult times, when Power Island needs its own set of War Walls, when renegade soldiers own the skies and freaks of nature and of cybernetics roam the service yards and slag piles, Terra Volta continues to hum with power and purpose. Raw materials are unloaded at the dock at the base of the steep-sided island and brought inside the wall through massive doors below the public security checkpoint; finished goods leave by the same route. Skeletal transmission towers carry thousands of megawatts of electricity to a city that depends on it for light and life.
They are already below the level of the trench and the guarded access tunnels when they come to a large unmarked door. Indy turns to his brother spirit. "This is as far as I go. You can find your own way from here." When the Row simply nods, Indy takes off his ball cap and wipes at his forehead. "Listen, King, this guy... he's young, but he's playin' with a lotta juice, okay? Watch your step, and your mouth."
The Row chuckles and claps his brother on the shoulder. "Yeah, I know. Relax. I used ta be him, y'know?"
"Yeah, well... times change." It's not often that Indy looks worried. "Just be careful. S'all I'm sayin'."
With a quick but firm shake of hands, the two part ways. Indy starts back the way they came, vanishing swiftly into the darkness, while the Row squares his shoulders and pushes the door open.
The chamber beyond is not on any map or blueprint of the Terra Volta Power Authority. It is a brick-walled pit sunk into the earth, perhaps forty feet in diameter; steps are built into the wall, spiralling down into the depths, with landings every hundred feet or so. The shaft is filled with flickering orange light and the pounding of a hammer on metal, both coming from somewhere below.
Keeping one hand on the wall and placing his feet carefully, the Row begins to descend. The light gets brighter, and hotter. The ringing of the hammer gets louder. By the time he reaches the bottom, he is walking through an oven and the sound of the hammer is like a ten-ton piledriver:
In the center is a bronze giant - literally a man of bronze, some eight feet tall and almost half that across his shoulders - relentlessly beating away at the anvil before him. His back is to the visitor, and he is silhouetted against the leaping flame of his forge.
Just as the Row is trying to decide how or if to interrupt, the smith pauses in his constant hammering... then suddenly whirls, hammer raised to smash. Eyes that are glowing windows to the molten fires within regard the intruder.
"Oh. It's you."
Without another word, the smith returns to his work.
"So, you know me, huh?" the Row asks, shouting to be heard over the blows of the hammer and the crackle of the flames.
"Of course I do," the smith replies. "You held this office before I came along." Another pause; the living metal flexes like muscles bunching tensely under skin. "You've come to challenge?"
"No, no, nothin' like that," the Row quickly explains. "I just wanted t'ask a favor."
The smith considers this. "Well, make yourself useful," he finally says, aiming the hammer at the forge's bellows.
The Row does as he is bid. Sparks fly from the forge and threaten to set his hat and scarf ablaze. The smith uses a pair of tongs to hold the piece of metal he's working in the heart of the flames until it glows cherry red, then returns it to his anvil and continues pounding. When the Row lets go of the bellows, the smith speaks without looking up: "I didn't say you could stop." Setting his jaw, the Row goes back to pumping.
The banging and pumping go on for a while before the smith asks, "What sort of favor?"
"My people need jobs," the Row says, getting right to the point. "Can I send some of them to you?"
"You could," the stoker allows, his broad flat shovel digging deep into the loose pile of coal. "But then they'd be my people too," he points out, thrusting the heaping mound of black lumps into the hungry mouth of the furnace. "We'd have to share. You okay with that?"
The Row nods grimly, scooping up his own shovelful and heaving it into the flames. "If that's the way it's gotta be... yeah."
The stoker nods, firelight glowing on the faces and edges of his dark bronze skin. "What else?"
"I got a power plant too," the Row says, choosing his words carefully. "Coal-fired. Maybe I could... spell ya sometime, take a little load off?"
The bronze man laughs as he turns the crank of the humming generator like an oar. There's the sharp smell of ozone in the air and the occasional fat blue spark leaping to the walls as the massive coils of copper wire spin in their housing, rotating against lines of magnetic force to make lightning in a bottle. "Thanks, but I've got that covered. I make all the power Paragon City needs - what's left of it - and the War Walls too. Don't need anyone's-- ungh!" The giant winces in pain, though he doesn't stop cranking the generator.
"Oh... nothing... just the Sky Raiders again, or maybe the Freakshow." For the first time, the Row notices the hundred ghostly lines and snares wrapped around the tall bronze figure, like Lilliputian cables. "Always trying to bring me down, but the heroes... ah, there we go." As the Row watches, the thin strings go slack or snap and disappear. The pitch of the generator's hum rises as the giant's strength returns. "See? Nothing to worry about."
"Well... if you're sure you don't need any help," the Row says awkwardly, looking around for a second crank or something. There doesn't seem to be one.
"I don't. Thanks."
The Row sighs and nods to himself. "Guess I'll be goin', then. Nice meetin' ya."
The Row turns, his foot on the first step. The man of bronze now looks like an alchemist or sorceror, his cauldron bubbling over with steam and emitting a weird green glow as he stirs it with a long rod of dark metal. The eerie radiance plays over his features as he peers into the cauldron, watching the reaction closely. He raises his head to look the Row in the eye. "If something ever does happen to me... I feel better knowing you're ready to back me up."
The Row considers this, then smiles and nods. "You're welcome." It's a small thing to take with him on the long climb back to the sunlight, but it warms him inside.
He finds the old man sitting on a dock, leaning up against a lamppost, with his bare feet in the water. His head is dipped toward his chest and loud snores issue from his long white beard. A fishing pole with an unbaited hook is held slackly in his almost skeletal hands. A tricorn hat and musket have been set nearby, within easy reach.
The Row simply stands there for a few minutes, uncertain how to proceed. Clearing his throat does not change the steady in-out rhythm of the snores. Finally he puts a huge mitt on the old man's shoulder and gently shakes him. The elder awakens with a start, jerking upright and nearly fumbling the pole in his excitement.
"Got one! I got one!"
The Founder gleefully yanks his line out of the water, only to scowl at the empty hook. Muttering grumpily, he lowers the string back into the canal. Only then does he seem to notice the figure looming over him; he turns his head, squinting up at the newcomer. "Eh? Who are you, sir?"
"I'm the spirit of the Row. Some folks..."
"You must speak up," the Founder interrupts, jabbing a finger at his ear. "My hearing is not what it was."
"I said some folks call me King," the Row repeats in a louder voice.
"King?!" The old man in the brass-buttoned coat recoils, glaring. "I've no use for kings, not anymore. So be off with you, George or Louis or whatever your name is, before I put a ball in your backside!" The Founder grabs his musket and leans on it to pull himself to his feet, then points it at the interloper. "Go on!"
"Whoa, easy there," the Row says, holding up his empty hands with palms out. "I'm not really a king, that's just a nickname, see? I'm the spirit of a place, same as you."
"Town spirit, eh?" The Founder still regards the Row with suspicion, but lets the weaving muzzle of the musket droop to a less threatening angle. "Which are you, then? Fossburg? Eastgate? Baumton? Aye, you're big enough to be Baumton..."
"Nah, none of those. Like I said, I'm Kings Row - part of Paragon City, same as you."
The Founder looks the Row over again before declaring testily, "Never heard of you." He bends down and reclaims his hat, plunking it on top of his wispy white hair. "Paragon what? You really must speak up, boy!"
"Paragon CITY," the Row grumbles as the Founder brushes past him. "You don't talk much to the others, do ya?"
"I prefer peace and quiet. And I have found few worth listening to," the Founder replies, climbing the short flight of steps to a cobbled plaza, using the musket as a walking stick. "Woodvale isn't so bad, but the rest - oh! Especially that rude fellow who's moved in to the north. No respect for his elders, that one. Intolerable."
The Row chuckles. "Guess we agree on somethin'."
"I said I was in the neighborhood, and thought I should pay my respects!"
"Ah!" The Founder smiles and pats the Row on his thick bicep. "That's good of you, lad, very good. Courtesy has not been completely forgotten." He sets off at a brisk walk along the canal. "You may accompany me on my rounds!" The Row hurries to follow, especially when it looks as if the old man might march right off the promenade and into the water.
"I walk the length and breadth of my estate each day, making sure all is as it should be," the Founder explains as he leads his guest through narrow back alleys between buildings - many of them hundreds of years old - placed with little apparent rhyme or reason. Guardian statues, their hands folded over the top of their shields, watch them pass without comment. The canals are crossed by arched foot bridges and lined with docks for tying up boats. "Can't have any trespassers disturbing the peace. No no, won't allow it."
"Uh..." says the Row, stopping to stare at a squad of Rikti loitering on the cobblestones in broad daylight. The aliens and their hovering nautiloid drones look like lost tourists, gathered around their leader - the only one wearing battle armor, or anything more than wrinkled pink skin - who is consulting a datapad. The Founder does not pause, and the Row has to run to catch up. "Hey, did you see...?"
"-- particular about the sort of people I allow to walk my streets," the Founder is saying, having taken no notice of the invaders or of the Row's brief absence. "Why, I don't even abide one of those newfangled trolleycar stops. Imagine all those ruffians and rum-runners from up the coast riding down here to cause trouble. No, I only want solid members of the community: hard-working craftsmen, landowners, gentlemen and ladies of good names and breeding, like--"
"Crey!" the Row shouts, as the pair emerge from another alley to find themselves facing half a dozen men in dark suits, blue uniforms, and power armor. They've set up some kind of security checkpoint and are inspecting the identification of passing civilians.
"Yes, the Comtesse du Crey's men have been most helpful, most helpful in looking after things for me," the Founder acknowledges absently, peering at the sign above the entrance of the nearest building. "Could have sworn this was the silversmith's... perhaps the next street over?" he murmurs, then shrugs and starts off again. "Hurry along, lad! Much ground still to cover!"
They haven't gone far, no more than a few blocks, when the sound of an explosion echoes down an alley at them; briefly seen between buildings, a mushroom-shaped plume of green smoke rises into the air. It's followed by another seconds later. The Founder is furious, waving his musket and shouting at the miscreants: "NO FIREWORKS! I expressly forbid fireworks except for celebrations of Independence, and that's not for... er..." He tries to count on his fingers, then abandons the attempt and grips the musket tighter. "Stand forth and present yourselves!"
"How about you let me take care of that for ya, gramps?" the Row suggests carefully, having a pretty good idea of what he'll find at the end of the alley.
"Really?" The Founder blinks at him in mild confusion. "Well... if you want... I suppose." As the Row starts forward, balling his hands into fists, the old man warns, "Be careful, boy - they may have knives!"
"Oh, I bet they do," the Row mutters as he plunges into the dark alley. There are sounds of a scuffle, a short blast of fire, and then silence. Presently he returns, leading a young black woman who's just had the scare of her life.
"Did you put them to rout, then?" the Founder demands. "What about their rockets, their pyrotechnics?"
"They, uh, used them all," the Row explains to his companion. "They was holdin' this one... you'll be okay now, miss."
"Mm, yes," the Founder says kindly, looking to the rescued woman. "Run along to your master's house now, girl." She stares at him for a moment in mute shock and anger, then turns and runs off.
There is the sound of stone on stone as the Row palms his face in dismay. "You really ain't kept up with the times, have ya?"
"What do you mean?" the Founder asks, his bushy white eyebrows drawing together.
The Row has made up his mind. "Come with me. I got somethin' to show you."
"But, my rounds..."
"We ain't leaving your domain, just goin' up to the lookout in the park."
"Hrm. Well, I suppose that's all right, then." The Founder starts to follow, then stops and points, beaming. "Ah, here, that's the kind of thing I like to see in my town: a young married couple walking their dog." The Council soldier, vampyr, and warwolf stare back in confusion, then move along quickly when the Row cracks his knuckles.
It's a long steep climb up into the green hills that surround the town, especially since the Founder insists on stopping frequently to rest (often muttering about his hip), to point out the picturesque Blackstone Falls (of which he is obviously very proud), or to complain about the terrible state the groundskeeper has left the hedges in (as one of them attempts to claw the Row's face off). Daylight fades and night comes as the sun sets. But at last they achieve the summit, where a monument park of four lions on pedestals guard a group of stone angels atop a central pillar and an overlook offers an unparalleled view of the surrounding city. Even through the shimmering forcefield curtain, the city lights shine brightly.
The Founder removes his tricorn and holds it over his heart as he gazes raptly at the earthbound constellation. "Ohhh," he sighs in wonder. "Would you look at that. Oh my."
"That's Paragon City, gramps," says the Row. "Ain't it somethin'? And it all started... right here."
"I... we made that?" The Founder's eyes are suddenly full of tears. "We... we did good, didn't we?"
"You sure did, gramps. You got us all off to a great start."
The Row stands silent and proud for a long time, looking out at the great tapestry of which he's a part. Eventually he becomes aware that the old man is leaning against his arm and shoulder, snoring quietly.
Not human, not anymore, save in the vaguest of outlines. Her eyes are too large, too dark, too luminous; her limbs are too long and lithe, moving as no mortal ballerina could. Her long flowing hair crowns her and cocoons her, woven through with flowers and ivy. She is of the earth, yet unearthly; inhumanly beautiful and terrible to behold. She is the wild wood. And she dances.
She is ringed by a faerie court: thorny trees and rock piles and red-capped mushroom men, a Silly Symphony conducted by Giger. They sway and caper to the same music as their mistress. She is their queen and goddess, and they dance in worship of her, here in the depths of the wood.
A stranger appears outside the circle. He is not of this soil, yet he is kindred, and so the dancers allow him to enter. Branches and stones scrape the ground as they bow politely.
The lady of the wood turns to greet her guest, her dance changing tempo - slower now, her steps and gestures smaller. "I know you."
Her tiny mouth moues in a smile. "You are the one they call King. You could be no other." She glides forward across the grass and moss, leaving no track, to brush her thin fingers over his chest; a willow's caress. "Your heart is stone... weathered by storms, but strong and rooted. Unyielding."
"And you're Woodvale."
"I was. Now I am Eve, and this..." She steps back, spreading her arms wide like boughs as she pirouettes. "This is Eden."
"Eden, huh?" The stranger takes a good look around, hands on hips. "I gotta admit, it's pretty... 'cept for all the monsters."
"There are no 'monsters' here," Eve chides her guest gently. "All live in harmony with the Will of the Earth."
"Riiight." He crosses his arms over his chest. "That include Crey, or the marchin' band?"
The smaller creatures cringe and cower theatrically as the music matches their lady's sudden anger. Her motions are quick and sharp now, lashing the air. "They are a blight. But my Lord will deal with the poisoners and the King of Brass soon enough."
"Yes, Hamidon, blessed be his name. My savior." The dance changes again; the circle sways in harmony, raising their spindly or stubby arms high to suggest something much larger than themselves, bending forward in obeisance to it. The one in the middle mirrors them, her rage of moments before entirely forgotten. "I call him lord, but in truth, he has freed me. He can do the same for you."
The Row thinks of revival meetings, and of streetcorner preachers wearing televisions on their heads. "Thanks. Think I'll pass."
Eve just laughs and takes his hands, drawing him toward the center of the ring. "Come, King. Dance with me. Be like me. Cast off your bonds and be free."
The Row wavers as the dance swirls around him. He hears the music now, not just the deep and clattering percussion but the whole melody, thrumming through his being. Eve leads him through the steps, and he finds he already knows them; she nestles against him, so alive she quickens his stone heart, anima to his animus.
And yet, something holds him back.
Somehow he finds the strength to push her out to arm's reach. "No, I... I can't. I've got people who need lookin' after."
"People?" Her laughter is as merry as a babbling brook, as scornful as a thistle. "What need do we have for people?"
"What need...?" He glowers at her, brows drawing together. "People helped make us what we are! Their lives, their dreams, what they built... those things become part of us, even after they're gone."
"People corrupt the earth. They poison it, pave it, smother it. We're better off without them." Her voice is like honey, sweet and earnestly seductive, coating him in amber. Ivy wraps around his wrists and begins to climb up his legs.
"No." His denial is as flat and hard as a cliff face; she flinches from it, the ivy's progress halted. "You're wrong. That ain't how it is."
"Let go of me," Eve murmurs, her upper arms held fast in his big hands.
"You had people too, people you took care of," the Row presses. "Families. Men, women, children, old people. They lived here, went to school, went to church... had barbecues and yard sales, played and laughed and cried and loved. They loved you! Woodvale was one of the best places to live in the whole damn city!"
"Not... Woodvale," she protests, shaking her head slowly.
"Bull!" says the Row. "I dunno what that Ham guy has filled your head with, but you're still a part of this city, and it's a part of you. All the people who lived here... they're still in you, if you just listen for their voices..."
The cry of anguish blasts out from the center of the ring like a shockwave, shredding the wicker men and the fungoids, shattering and scattering the boulders. When the echoes fade, all that's left is a man of stone cradling a broken, weeping thing in his arms.
"Damn you, King," she sobs. "Why... why did you have to make me remember?"
"I'm sorry," he says, and means it.
She lifts her head like a doe scenting danger, eyes huge and moist. "My Lord approaches. You must go."
She pushes him away, strength returning to her graceful limbs. "GO!"
Humbly, the visitor departs, leaving the lady to her grief and her new lord. She will forget; for that is the way of the wild, to have no memory. She will dance again, free of care or sorrow.
But now, alone in the wood, she weeps for her loss.
TUESDAY 11:02 A.M.
The first punch comes out of nowhere, catching him on the jaw as he ducks through an alley. Staggered, King tries to roll with the blow. He fetches up against one wall, feeling old mortar crumble under his hand as he pushes off and faces his attacker with fists raised.
The mook who sucker-punched him is about his size, with dark ruddy brown skin and a bald (or shaved) head. His eyes are hidden behind a pair of sunglasses with thick black plastic rims. The mouth under his brush moustache is set in what looks like a permanent scowl. He wears a black uniform very much like a PPD captain's, but with a big bronze shield for a badge and another for the belt buckle. Hanging from the belt is a riot baton the size of a Louisville slugger, a pair of shiny steel cuffs made for wrists like his or the Row's, and a holstered revolver that could probably put a hole through an engine block. He fills the end of the alley, blocking the Row's path.
"Who the hell are you, comin' into my yard without asking?" the Warden demands.
"The name's King," the Row answers warily, resisting the urge to rub at his sore jaw. This guy hits like... well, like a ton of bricks.
"Ah. Indy talks about you, yeah." The Warden doesn't move. "What are you doing in my part of town?"
"I've got business in Venice."
"What kind of business?"
The Row's face hardens. "My own."
"That so?" The Warden cracks his knuckles. "People who don't want to talk about their business... they make me suspicious." He leans forward on the soles of his polished leather shoes, thick fingers flexing in anticipation. "We can do this the easy way or the hard way."
"I've never been much for the easy way," the Row replies, setting himself likewise.
"Me either." The corners of the Warden's scowl creep upward, turning it into a savage grin.
They face off for a long moment, like two gunfighters about to slap leather. Then the Row rushes forward - the Warden braces himself to meet the charge...
And the Row vaults up and over the surprised Warden, leapfrogging the obstacle and landing on the sidewalk beyond, adding a few more cracks to the concrete.
"Hey! Sonofa... get BACK here!"
The Row grins under his scarf as he runs across the street, thinking he's gotten away clean... until he's tackled from behind. Their combined momentum carries them over the curb and into the middle of a small square of untended greenery, more weeds than grass, in the middle of the intersection. A few Council soldiers who were using the tiny park to harangue passersby are scattered like bowling pins.
They roll around together, mashing the grass a little flatter, until the Row manages to get in a couple of good body blows. The Warden backs off, guarding his middle and giving the Row a chance to get to his feet. He's lost his sunglasses; they came off during the scuffle and were crushed. He doesn't look happy about that.
"This is MY town, King. You go through here, you go through me."
The Row brushes himself off and cracks his neck. "If that's the way it's gotta be."
This time it's the Warden who charges first, arms raised to grapple. The Row meets him head-on, and their hands lock together in a classic test of strength. They strain and struggle, each trying to force the other to give ground, to yield, to submit.
TUESDAY 3:43 P.M.
"You should know," the Warden says as he strains against the sinews of his opponent, "I've never been defeated on my home ground."
"Really." The Row does not sound greatly impressed.
"Every now and then, one of those big Freaks calls me out. I rip his stupid metal arms off and hand 'em back to his buddies." The Warden's grin is positively feral.
"That's nothin'," the Row answers. "You ever hear of the Clockwork Paladin?"
TUESDAY 10:14 P.M.
Under the golden sodium glow of the streetlights, the wrestlers continue their struggle. Neither has moved more than a few inches back or forth since this began; they are too evenly matched.
"How long do you think you can keep this up?" the Warden asks.
"As long as it takes," the Row replies through gritted teeth.
"You don't think you can win." As he speaks, the Warden begins to push forward again.
"Ain't about winnin'," the Row grunts. "It's about not losin'."
WEDNESDAY 8:27 A.M.
"Ever hear of a city called Babylon?" the Warden asks as the sun climbs into the sky behind him. He'd hoped that the dawn might distract or blind the Row and finally break this deadlock, but no such luck.
"Only from the Bible. Didn't have much nice to say about it."
"It was one of the first cities," the Warden patiently explains. "And its god, Marduk, was one of the first of our kind."
"Mm-hmm," the Row responds. "Any particular reason you're tellin' me this?"
"What, you got someplace else to be?"
"Tough. Anyway... Babylon was also a city of brick." Despite his rictus of effort, and the tendons standing out on his bull neck, the Warden manages to sound smug.
"Mm." The Row thinks for a moment. "I guess the cities of straw and twigs didn't do so well."
The Warden has no reply to this.
WEDNESDAY 6:55 P.M.
"Aren't you tired?"
"I don't get tired. Neither do you."
"Right. So how's this gonna end?"
"You could apologize..."
"Not. Gonna. Happen."
"That's what I thought."
THURSDAY 2:01 A.M.
The distant explosion catches them both by surprise. The Warden flinches; the Row counter-flinches; and as the sirens begin to wail their warning song, the two find themselves standing yards apart, arms twitching at their sides. There's another explosion, and a column of smoke rises from the looming stepped pyramid, silhouetted against the city's nightglow and the auroral curtain of the War Wall.
The Warden curses and smacks his fist into his palm, then turns and points at the Row. "I have to go. That's more important than you."
The Row nods. "Yeah, I figured. Good luck."
"Thanks." The Warden produces another pair of sunglasses from his shirt pocket and puts them on as he steps back into the shadow of the monorail's elevated track. "Just so you know... I was winning."
Maybe he melts into the darkness, or into the bricks themselves. Either way, a moment later, he's gone.
With a chuckle, the Row resumes his walk to the security gate. "Right."
He is running for his life under a black and moonless sky, down long roadways flanked on both sides by grey-green water, through pools of jaundiced sodium light. His pursuers are legion: hunting packs of psychic monkeys and their alien masters, the tin soldiers of Nemesis and Countess Crey, wild-eyed men who've traded sanity and limbs for chromed steel. And now comes something else, forcing its way through the tangle of rusty pipes and catwalks like a giant brushing aside trees, stepping over smaller buildings and shaking the ground with its footfalls.
He is the Row, and his odyssey is nearly at an end.
His plodding steps have the slowness of nightmare. Normally he would be able to travel faster by melting into the earth and reforming his stone body elsewhere. He tried that once soon after arriving in Venice, better known these days as "Crey's Folly"; it was like standing hip-deep in battery acid. The soil here is toxic, polluted and poisoned, hostile. He is beginning to fear the same is true of its spirit.
He ducks through a narrow alley between tall buildings, once part of the city's water treatment plant. His plan - his hope - is to try to shake some or all of his pursuers and double back toward the gate. Emerging from the alley, he finds himself in a small parking lot; a few cars and trucks have been sitting here since the first Rikti attack. Their tires are long since flat and rotted out, their windows streaked with unhealthy-looking grime. A large swarm of insects, boiling with constant internal motion, hovers in the cone of a still-functioning street light. They shouldn't be able to penetrate his rocky hide, but he avoids them anyway, trusting nothing in this place.
Peering around the corner, he sees no signs of pursuit, and lets himself hope for a moment that his luck has taken a turn for the better. Then he feels the cracked pavement shake and shimmy under him, and realizes it hasn't changed at all.
Something formless rears up out of the polluted water in front of him, backlit by the shimmering War Wall that glows only faintly through its murk. It towers over him, thirty or forty feet high, a foaming mass of water and chemicals with 50-gallon drums and old bones and other trash swirling inside it.
"yOU SHouLdN't HAve cOMe heRE," it roars, in a voice that's rushing water and tortured metal and great turbines and pure madness.
Then it lunges forward like a tsunami, sweeping the stone man off his feet, carrying him down to the bottom, to darkness and dissolution.
All over Kings Row, people awaken from nightmares of drowning. A few don't wake up at all.
A chemical fire sets a hundred-year-old building ablaze. A bridge support gives way, rendering the span unsafe. Dozens of new potholes spontaneously appear in the streets.
The industrious Clockwork pause briefly in their scavenging, many tilting their heads as if listening to some faint and distant sound.
The Row will survive, somehow. In time, it may even find the strength to form a new avatar to protect itself and its people. But the portion of its spirit that was devoured by Venice is gone forever... and the Row as a whole is diminished by that loss.
"Sure it's the real thing." Fracture smiled reassuringly under the permanent grin of his mask. "Real Dyne - make you strong, make you fly, just like the supers. But it's got flavor now, see? Strawberry, lemon... I can even get you coconut if that's your fave."
"C-can I try the lemon?" the older of the two boys asked. The other hadn't spoken at all, looking down at the ground or at his friend rather than at the young man in the black pleather jacket and Skull mask, standing with his back to the wall of the trash-strewn alley a few blocks from their middle school.
"Hmm, I shouldn't..." Fracture said, pretending reluctance. "This is a cash business, y'know? But okay, you can have a taste. Just so you can see what it's like."
Fracture didn't see the huge hand emerge from the brick wall like it was water, matching its color and texture, or the thick arm it was attached to. The first he knew of it was when it closed around his head like a player palming a basketball. He froze in shock.
A deep voice spoke from behind him. "You boys get along home, your moms iz worried about ya." Wide-eyed, the kids did as they were told, running off like Thorn demons were at their heels.
By now, the Skull had recovered enough of his wits to say the only thing that seemed appropriate: "What the #%&*?!" He tried to pry away the stubby stone fingers with one hand while going for his nine with the other. Neither effort was successful; another big stone mitt seized his wrist and squeezed until he cried out and dropped the gun. Then both hands dragged him backwards, Converse heels skidding along the pavement, to the wall - and through it.
It was dark there, completely pitch black, darker even than the chill wisps of shadow that the Bone Daddies summoned with their powers. He couldn't see his assailant or himself, or anything else. That voice spoke again from the darkness, sounding amused. "Heyyy Fracture, long time no see."
"You're DEAD!" the Skull shouted into the void, fists balled at his sides. "Papa Oc told me hisself, you're dead! You're just some old ghost who got shanked by a bigger one!"
"Occipital said that about me? Guess I should go pay him a visit after I'm done with you. You wouldn't happen to know where I can find him, eh?" The darkness seemed to gain substance, pressing in all around him, like being buried alive. Fracture gasped, his heart beating faster with claustrophobic panic. Finally it released him, drawing back. "Naah... you're too stupid. Stupid enough to sell that stuff on my streets. That's okay, I'll find him myself. Maybe tell 'im it was you who ratted him out."
"Y-you can't do that!" Fracture protested. "He'll eat my soul!"
"Kid, here I can do just about anything. You got bigger things to worry about right now than your boss." The feeling of pressure returned; the Skull fought it this time, but it was like trying to push a dump truck, or move a mountain. "Which leads me to my next question: what am I gonna do with you? I could just leave ya in a holdin' cell, but... I got a better idea."
There was a sharp yank at the collar of his jacket, as if he'd been grabbed by the scruff of the neck. Light returned, making his eyes water; when they finally adjusted, Fracture found himself high above Police Plaza. Several bystanders and a Freedom Corps trainer were staring up at him in surprise. There was something hard and cool pressing against his back, and his jacket was bunched up under his arms... He started to turn his head to look, then froze again, suddenly realizing his predicament.
"Don't squirm too much," a voice murmured from the air beside him. "Ya wouldn't wanna fall and break somethin'." There was a grinding chuckle which faded like an echo, or a memory, leaving him alone on top of the flagpole.
It's been a while since he stood here, more than halfway up the side of the Gibson Building, and looked out over his domain - his streets and alleys, his brownstones and warehouses and towers and yards and empty lots, his schools and churches and hospital, his aqueduct and lines of power both electric and mystic, his people, his past, everything that makes him what he is. For almost a year after that fateful encounter with the corrupted spirit of Venice, the Row lacked the strength to manifest like this. Almost a year of silently, helplessly watching and listening, spending all its remaining energy on holding things together around here while it slowly gathered power to take material form again. A long, hard year of crawling back from the brink.
The city's changed a lot in that year, and yet, in some ways, it hasn't changed at all. It's a city that still needs heroes... especially the kind who live right next door and never put on a costume. Heroes who work, build, teach, heal, raise families. And heroes who protect.
The Row was hurt, but the Row survives. Knock the Row down, and it gets back up again. And now, after almost a year of being unable to do more than unlock doors or loosen bricks or whisper in the ears of the sensitive and the dreaming, it can act. It can stand and fight.
Over the last few minutes, the sky above Kings Row has been filling with menacing storm clouds. Now, almost on schedule, a section of the force field curtain sizzles with energy discharges and flickers out. The stone figure on the high cornice shakes its head ruefully as it gets to its feet, the cold wind tugging at its scarf and fedora. If it ain't one thing, it's another.
Facing the War Wall and the approaching Rikti dropships, the spirit of the Row bellows out his challenge to the invaders.
"YOU THINK YOU CAN BEAT THIS CITY? YOU THINK YOU CAN BEAT ME?!
WELL COME ON, THEN! LET'S SEE YOU TRY!"
Special: White Plains
RIKTI WAR ZONE, PARAGON CITY
41°35' N, 71°33' W
2120 ZULU (1620 EDT)
First Lieutenant Robert Grant, U.S. Army, ducked behind the remains of a cinderblock wall and held his breath, ignoring the hard edges of the ceramic body armor digging into him through his uniform as he listened for the distinctive buzzing hum of Rikti teleporters. His heart pounded in his chest, half from exertion and half from raw fear and adrenalin. He'd been running for his life since the ambush that wiped out the rest of his patrol.
They had been making their way up Washington Avenue when the Ricks popped in all around them. Cody and Powell went down in the first salvo, star-hot plasma bolts burning afterimages across retinas and holes through armor and men. The rest of the squad got to cover and returned fire, only to be picked off one by one over the next few minutes. Meyer was still trying to get a signal through the jamming when three drones converged on his position and blew him apart. Outnumbered and outgunned, Grant had ordered the survivors to retreat while laying down suppressive fire. Then Casey ran into a headman with a sword and got cut in half, and Jackson was hit in the leg and went down. Grant had gone back to try to carry or at least drag him, but Jackson - teeth gritted and voice hoarse with pain - refused.
"I'll slow you down, and then they'll get us both." With some help from Grant, the sergeant had managed to twist and drag himself into a firing position, leaning on the leg that wasn't a bloody roasted drumstick. "Get out of here, sir. I'll hold them off as long as I can."
The sound of M4 fire hadn't lasted long at all, but the guilt was still with him.
Grant risked a quick look around the edge of the wall. He had no idea where he was; for the last several minutes he'd been running from one bit of shelter to another, heading in what he hoped was the general direction of the nearest firebase. Most of the buildings in this part of the war zone had been reduced to ruins and rubble, years of neglect finishing the work of the initial attack.
He took a deep breath and broke from cover again, keeping to the sides of the streets and hopping over loose chunks of debris. His armor rattled as he hustled, and he imagined the Ricks could hear it for blocks. At the next intersection, he froze and flattened himself against the wall: a formation of drones was sweeping down the cross street, low and slow, coming this way. If they managed to catch him in the open, he was dead.
Grant nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard a human voice call out to him from across the street. "Hey! You, soldier boy!" From the door of what used to be a Starbucks, a man beckoned. "In here!"
There was no time to be surprised or to ask questions; Grant hesitated only long enough for another peek around the corner at the approaching drones before running across. The man hustled him through the door and behind the counter of the wrecked coffee shop. The big windows were long broken, with only a few dirty plates of glass still in the frames; dust and ash lay thick on the toppled furniture and dead plants.
"Shh!" Grant's rescuer silenced him with a hand on his chest and a finger to his own lips. As they waited together for the drones to pass, the lieutenant had a chance to get a good look at the man. He looked to be toward the older end of middle age, like Grant's father, with steel-grey hair that had grown out into a full beard where it wasn't tucked under a dirty baseball cap. He wore a khaki vest made for a hunter or fisherman, its many pockets stuffed with God-knows-what, over a threadbare plaid flannel shirt and long-sleeved undershirt; his loose-fitting trousers were camo-patterned and he had on a pair of scuffed hiking boots. There was a hunting rifle with a scope in his hand, a .45 at his belt, and Grant could see the hilt of a knife sticking out of the top of one of his boots. Despite the gravity of their situation, there was a twinkle in his eye when he finally sat back. "Now, you were saying?"
"There aren't supposed to be any civilians in here," Grant explained. "It's a restricted area, military and heroes only."
"That's right." The man produced a half-empty glass bottle of dark amber whiskey from behind his back and offered it to his guest with a smile.
Grant chuckled and accepted it. "Where'd you find this?" He unscrewed the top and took a swig, gasping and sighing as the liquor burned its way down his throat.
"Around." The other man shrugged. "I'm good at finding things. Used to know these streets like the back of my hand... now it's all messed up."
Grant shifted to a more comfortable sitting position. "You lived here, huh? Before?"
"Yeah." It was just one word, a simple acknowledgement, but the way he said it and the look in his eyes...
"Damn. I'm sorry." Grant wiped at the mouth of the bottle with his sleeve and handed it back.
"Me too." He looked mournfully at the bottle, then had a long drink of his own.
"My name's Bob." Grant held out his hand. "Lieutenant Bob Grant, 10th Mountain Division."
"Nice to meet you, Bob." The other man shook it, smiling sadly. "I don't really have a name, not anymore. Those bastards took that away from me too. You can call me Willie Pete if you like."
"Willie Pete, huh?" Grant grinned. "You like to light 'em up?"
Willie nodded, his smile widening a fraction under the beard. "Still a lot of gasoline and propane in storage tanks around here. Siphon some off, make some Molotovs... they burn just the same as men, I'll tell you that."
"Damn." Grant laughed. "You're a piece of work, Willie."
"You should have seen me in my prime," the old man demurred, lifting the bottle to his lips and drinking deep. "But I've still got some fight left in me. Now, if I could just get into that damn ship of theirs, I could do some real damage. Then you'd see some fireworks."
They sat together for a little while in companionable silence, passing the whiskey back and forth, before Grant got up the nerve to ask his next question. "So let me get this straight. You've been holed up in here, fighting the Rikti all by yourself, for the last... five years?"
"Almost six, now." Willie met his eyes with a level stare, his voice quiet but very serious. "Where else would I go?"
"I..." Grant tried to form a reply, but the words wouldn't come. The faint sound of breaking glass made them moot. He tensed, knuckles white on the grip of his carbine.
Willie had heard it too. "You stay here," he whispered. "I'll check it out."
"Like hell," Grant husked back. He'd already been forced to abandon one man today; there was no way he was going to let another, a civilian, take point while he hid. "Look, you... you find a place where you can cover me with that rifle. Any Rick sticks his wedge head out, you put a bullet through it."
Willie nodded solemnly, and then there was nothing more to be said. Grant edged out from behind the counter, the muzzle of his carbine sweeping the abandoned store. The crash and tinkle came again, a little closer this time. Keeping his head down, he crept to the side door he'd entered by. A pair of Rikti - common infantry, judging by the style of their body armor - accompanied by a single drone were making their way down the street; one was breaking the few intact windows with swings of its plasma pistol, apparently just for the hell of it.
Two Ricks and a drone, that I can handle. Grant took a deep breath and held it as his finger squeezed the trigger. Sparks danced across the chestplate of the nearer Rikti soldier, making it jerk like a puppet in the hands of a spastic; the alien had just started to collapse when Grant ducked back into the doorway to avoid return fire. To his surprise, none came. After a moment, he dared another look. The drone was still hovering beside the other Rikti, who had not drawn his weapon but was busily tapping at a keypad built into the armor over one arm.
Grant's guts froze. Oh shi-- The second Rikti wasn't infantry at all: it was a comm officer, and he'd just given away his position. Any second now, reinforcements would start popping in through a portal.
Grant grabbed his last M67, primed it and threw it in the general direction of the Rikti, not bothering to yell "Frag out!" as he ran back into the Starbucks. The noise of the explosion followed him. "Willie, come on, we need to get out of here! We're about to get a whole..." He skidded to a halt, looking around wildly. "Willie? Where are you?" Damnit, where'd he go? Maybe he's in the back... "Willie, don't shoot, I'm coming back there!"
But the back of the store was as empty and silent as the front, a little cleaner but also much darker. It smelled of must and coffee and faint lingering sour odors of things that had been left out and gone bad years ago. Grant swore again. Crazy old man!
He'd just come up front again when a much larger explosion just outside knocked him to the floor. Hot wind licked his face as the pressure wave washed over him, and tiny shards of glass pattered off his uniform as he struggled to his feet. The buzz-hum of incoming portals had stopped; all he could hear, as if from a great distance, was the roar of the flames. He staggered to the door and looked out.
The street had been consumed by an inferno. Rikti bodies, cooked in their shells like lobsters, lay where they'd been flung by the force of the detonation in their midst. The stink of dead Rikti monkeys mingled with a smell that Grant slowly recognized as natural gas.
The scrape of hoof on pavement tore Grant's attention away from the fiery spectacle. A naked and wrinkled Rikti conscript - the kind they used to call "pinkies" back in the days before the second invasion - was climbing unsteadily out of one of the other storefronts. It looked around in a daze, its beady eyes passing over the fire before settling on the human soldier. It started to raise its plasma pistol.
With the crack of a rifle shot, a single bloody flower appeared on the conscript's ribcage. The alien looked down at the wound in surprise, then at Grant, as if asking for an explanation. Then its legs locked at the knees and it toppled over.
"Nice shot," he murmured. Then, louder: "Great shot, Willie, you got him! You can come out now! Willie?"
Only the crackle of the fire answered him.
They found him like that a few minutes later, wandering around the crater that the broken gas main had left of the street and calling for someone. The Black Hawk touched down a prudent distance away, so that its rotor wash would not fan the smoldering flames back to life, and the men of Bravo Company established a perimeter around the LZ. They were unable to find any trace of the partisan that 1st Lt. Grant identified as "Willie."
The official after-action report concluded that 1st Lt. Grant's grenade had ignited the remaining natural gas in the pipe and set off the secondary explosion which wiped out the Rikti assault force. The Article 32 hearing also absolved him of blame - officially at least - for leading his squad into an ambush. He had trouble accepting either finding.
On some nights after that, when things were relatively quiet, Robert Grant would go up to the battlements of Fort Bastogne with a flask and drink a silent toast to his rescuer. He would look out over the ruined cityscape and wonder if Willie was still out there... if he was okay... and if he'd ever see him again.
Special: Alpha Strike
The Row is burning.
The air is full of smoke and flying cinders. The streets are full of rubble and wrecked cars. Flames crackle, sirens wail, and distant screams go unanswered. The ground itself shakes under the heavy footfalls of giant war machines, their cyclopean heads taller than some of the old brownstones. Smaller automata with sculpted, impassive faces march before and behind them in perfect squares.
The Row is fighting.
The roughly man-shaped figure is in the thick of it as usual, laying about him with his big fists and the blocky hammer that grows from them. The hot coals that serve him for eyes blaze with fury under the brim of the battered fedora, but the ragged scarf wrapped around the bottom half of his face hides the rest of his expression. He is brick and stone and bits of glass and cloth and rusty rebar; his foes are plastic and ceramic and gleaming metal. Compared to him, they are fragile but seemingly numberless.
These "Clockwork" are nothing like the sparking scavengers he knows. They all speak with the same voice, repeating the same recorded, amplified platitudes. It is the voice of Marcus Cole, but not his Cole; the words are those of tyrants. He's heard them before, when the lights started going out across Europe and stayed that way for fifty years.
Do not resist. Stay in your homes. The Leader will protect you and make your lives better. His armies are here to keep you safe. It's not like you have a choice, anyway.
The Row is bleeding.
Thin red streams run from cracks in the stone form, dripping to the pavement. It is the blood of police lying on the plaza, of firemen buried under fallen buildings, of ordinary citizens who took a stand, of parents and of children. He feels all these wounds, and they fill him with pain and grief and a terrible rage. Later, he will mourn them. Today, he fights to avenge them and defend those who still live.
He does not see the laser-drawn crosshairs at his feet until it is too late. He does not have time to move before the orbital lance strikes, like fire from heaven. It shears off his left arm at the shoulder, burns deep into his side, and cripples his leg. He screams, and the air screams with him, blasted aside by the beam's passage - a sound of thunder.
The Row is falling.
One hand and two knees land hard on weathered asphalt, thick fingers digging deep as if it were only clay. The street starts to grow up toward the ruined shoulder, but slowly, too slowly. Once the Row might have withstood even this assault, but the Rikti invasion and years of follow-up attacks have left him with little strength to draw on. The sick squirmy feeling in his gut isn't helping. (They probably have something to do with that too.)
The War Walker is a mindless, soulless tool of its makers, existing only to do their will. It does not feel joy or triumph as the target falls, nor anger as it raises a foot to stamp out this stubborn point of resistance and grind it under its heel.
Blasts of flame and focused sound and pure energy strike the giant's chest, knocking it off balance; a sudden gale springs up to push it back. An agile wraith flits about it, cutting here and there with flashing blades. Over the next minute, while the Row pulls himself together, the War Walker gets taken apart. He looks up to see his saviors.
Heroes. A few are familiar to him, the rest anonymous in their colorful costumes. It doesn't really matter who they are, or if they have any idea who or what he truly is. The one in the lead asks if he's okay, extends a hand to a fallen comrade.
The Row is proud... but not too proud to accept help when he needs it.
He takes the offered hand with his good one, feels their strength surge through him, lifting him to his feet to continue the fight.
Weeks/months later, as Kings Row begins to rebuild after the initial Praetorian assault, a new set of posters has begun appearing around the neighborhood. Some are in black and white, others plain color copies, not glossy. They feature a lineup of eight people of all races, with angry, determined expressions:
A PPD sergeant in his department jacket. A paramedic, her hair pulled back tightly. A young man in a dark jacket and T-shirt. A stout man in a shirt and grocer's apron. A bum in dirty flannel. A middle-aged woman in a plain dress. A truck driver in denim and baseball cap. A fireman with his helmet and turn-out coat.
At the top of the poster: Hold The Line
(Slightly below this, at an angle in a different script: For Your Homes - For Your Families)
And at the bottom, in bold block capitals:
The Row was hurt, real hurt, and still is. But the Row's also mad. Fighting mad.
You come into the Row and start that *(&#, you'd better be able to back it up. Or the Row will beat your punk @$# down.
Galaxy City (Redux)
SEPTEMBER 13, 2011
The air is thick with smoke, sounds of combat and cries for help. The sun struggles to shine through the amber haze. A grey shroud - dust, ash, pulverized concrete - lies over everything.
He looks like a palooka on his last legs, a noir detective in the third act, after being roughed up a few times by the crime boss's goons and the cops too for good measure. There's a strip of plaster across his nose (which looks like it was broken, again) and another over a cut on his cheek. Under the shirt and long coat, there are enough bandages around his ribs and left shoulder to wrap a mummy. And someone might have stepped on his hat.
But the gamine with the gams curled up in his lap, tiny and pathetic like a broken doll, is even worse off. Her pretty heart-shaped face is a mask of bruises and soot and thin rusty trickles; her short hair is a dirty tangle. One of her arms, left bare by her fab sleeveless dress and covered with small cuts from falling glass, hangs by her side at an unnatural angle. Her nylons are in shreds and her shoes and jewelry nowhere to be found, save for one pearl earring. And the aforementioned slim, stylish dress is soaked with blood.
This sort of thing isn't supposed to happen to city spirits. They're not supposed to be bloody or burned or pale and shocky. And they certainly aren't supposed to have heat-blackened stone shards embedded in their chest, dangerously close to their heart, giving off a sick, unearthly green glow. (He'd pulled another one, long and wickedly sharp, out of her leg when he found her; he hadn't liked the look of the veins around the wound, red and green mixing to make a black spiderweb under her pale skin.)
The Row speaks softly to his fellow spirit, urging her to wake up. His heart lifts a few notches when she finally opens her eyes (one only partly, thanks to a beaut of a shiner) and manages a ghost of a smile at the sight of him.
"King. You came."
"Soon as I heard," the Row acknowledges in his gravelly voice. "How ya doin', kiddo?"
"It hurts." Her eyes overflow with sudden tears. "It hurts so much. Everywhere."
"I know. But I'm here now, and so are the heroes. Ya gotta hold on until they can fix this... like they always do."
Her head rolls to the side on her limp neck, looking away from him. "I don't know if I..."
"Sure you can." He squeezes her shoulder, very gently. "Listen, I got tore up pretty bad when those big robots came through, but here I am. And Sky, she lost a couple a' bridges to those earthquakes, but she's... she's gettin' by. Steel's back on his feet, too, though he's still leanin' on that fancy cane, playin' for sympathy."
"I'm not... as strong... as you." Her breaths come quick and shallow.
"Don't say that. Just... just hold on, okay? Stay with me. Please." The Row's big hands hold her like fine china as he begs, trying to lend her some of his strength. Trying not to let on how bad it is, though she must already feel it.
The warehouse districts are on fire. Spiders have taken most of the park, their glossy black fliers squatting on the grass where picnickers and off-duty heroes once relaxed. Cygnus Medical filled up hours ago; now it's emptying out again, as doctors and staff try to evacuate patients to Atlas Park or anywhere that will take them. A hole's been knocked in the dome of the arena, off-center, with black smoke rising from it. The streets are full of craters, abandoned cars, and bodies. Most of the tall office and apartment buildings along the Orion Beltway have collapsed or have gaping wounds where meteors struck; on the upper floors, trapped civilians take deep breaths and step off... into the waiting arms of flying heroes. But there aren't enough of them, and the Longbow perimeter around Freedom Court and the hospital is barely holding under heavy assault from Arachnos and meteor-spawned monsters.
She stirs in his arms, looking past him. "it's getting dark..."
"That's just the sun goin' down," he assures her. "Soon the stars'll be out. Ya always did love the stars." For the stars she was named, and now her ruin has come from them, the fists of Shiva... He pushes the thought from his mind. She'll make it through this. She's got to.
He doesn't notice, at first, when her slight weight in his lap becomes even slighter. But there's no missing it when she starts to fade like a dream, crumbling like a sand castle, slipping through his grasp. The dissolution is swift; in mere moments, his arms hold only air and memory. He scrabbles desperately at the dirt, trying to wring her essence from it, but she's gone.
All the color drains out of the world. There's nothing under his knees but rubble, chunks of concrete and lifeless stone. Even the distant sirens have stopped.
The Row only cries when no one is watching.
(with the Watchmaker)
The man known in this city as the Watchmaker sat on a bench and contemplated the fused lump of glass and metal and wiring in his hand. An hour ago it had been a tool of sublime power, like Archimedes' lever, which could move the Earth in the right hands - or the wrong ones. Now it was a paperweight.
Like so many others, including his own counterpart and nemesis, he had been drawn here in search of that slumbering potential. At first he thought that he had found it in young Miss Yin - but she was only part of the equation. The rest lay buried much deeper, not just in earth and rubble but in schemes and double-crosses, unreliable memory and questionable sanity. He'd finally uncovered the truth and brought it to light; for an achingly brief time he'd held it in his hands, a glittering jewel, ready to make his thought and will into reality.
But in that moment of triumph came despair, as he realized it could never be. He was too flawed, too mortal to be a god. He had seen the fate of the device's creator and knew the same awaited him if he dared to claim it for himself; the seeds of madness were in him too, even now, like a cracked wall that had merely been painted over. What mistakes would he make, what horrors might he accidentally conjure? Limitless power had been within his grasp... and the only thing he could do was give it up to be destroyed.
With a curse, he flung the useless thing into the nearby fountain. It sank with a hollow plunk.
"Make a wish?"
The question startled him; he'd been so intent on the ruined device that he hadn't noticed he was no longer alone. The speaker was a woman about his own age, late forties or early fifties, her face lined with wrinkles and dark hair shot through with grey. She wore simple, loose-fitting clothes - a blouse, sweatpants and sneakers - and sat in a wheelchair. There was a slight tremor in her hands, but her brown eyes glittered with humor.
Recovering from his surprise, he let out his breath in a bitter sigh. "Too late for that now."
"Never too late to make a new start. At least, that's what they tell me." Her smile was wan but sympathetic.
"'They' being the helpful, well-meaning doctors and nurses," he grumbled. The woman offered no demur. "Let me tell you something, my dear - they're nowhere near as certain or as all-knowing as they pretend to be."
"Who is, really?" she answered with a shrug. "I take it you've spent some time in a hospital."
"For a few months, yes. I was... not myself." But I was. I am he and he is me... He shook his head, dismissing the distracting thought.
"And now you're someone else. Not quite the same person as before." The woman sighed, leaning back in her wheelchair and watching the fountain bubble. "Some days you're not sure who you are. You have a box full of pieces of a life, and you try to put them back together, but they don't all fit anymore and some are missing. You look in the mirror, or at old photos, and you see an unfamiliar face. But the hardest part..." She swallowed. "The hardest part is being around those you knew, and all their expectations of how you should be. And you wonder how to tell them that the person they miss... isn't coming back. Not all the way."
"... yes," he finally said, stunned by this stranger's understanding and insight.
"I'm Brooke." She extended a hand; he took it, stilling the tremor, and brushed his lips across the back, making her smile. "A gentleman, mm?"
"I've been known to play the role," he smiled back. And a fool, and a king... stop it!
"Ah, but who are you, really?" she asked kindly, then held up a hand before he could respond. "I'm not asking for any secrets. I'm just saying, that's something you need to know for yourself, down in your gut. Until you do, you're standing on shaky ground. Never know when it might give way."
He relaxed and nodded. "Just so. I have been having trouble finding my footing of late. I keep tripping over things." His rueful smile turned serious as he considered Brooke again. There was something odd about the psychic impressions and feelings he was getting; they seemed to come from all around, not just the spot beside the bench. There was something there, but it was indistinct, elusive, hard to pick out from the background - shielded, perhaps? He concentrated...
The first and only time he'd tried this with Penny Yin, it had been like looking directly at the sun. This was more like gazing into a bottomless chasm, including the overwhelming sensation of vertigo. "Who... who are you?" he asked dazedly, drawing back from the edge before he fell in.
"I can't answer that. I'm still figuring it out myself." Again that sad, frail smile. "What you really mean is, 'what are you?'" She spread her arms. "Another broken soul, like you. Just a little... bigger."
"Impossible," he muttered, still shaken by his glimpse of the abyss.
"'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,'" Brooke quoted wryly. "The evidence is before you; will you deny it?"
"... no," he finally said with an effort, pulling himself together. "Very well, I acknowledge your existence."
"A gentleman," she repeated. He didn't need to look at her with his eyes to know that hers were twinkling. She tilted her head, regarding him closely in turn. "I can tell you're not from around here. You had another life, before you came to this city. Do you want to go back to it?"
"Not really," he found himself admitting. It seemed so small and lonely now; he'd had his books and his tinkering to occupy him, but since stepping through that portal, he'd discovered not only a new world but new aspects of himself. The desire to explore - not just places to see and things to do, but finding the extent and potential of his own abilities. A need for companionship, and an awareness that while much of humanity was petty and venal and selfish, there were also those worth knowing and even admiring. And perhaps most surprising at all to a cynical old misanthrope, a wish to help others, to be of service... within reason, of course.
"Then you need to... need to..." She trailed off, looking to one side. Several seconds passed before she seemed to become aware of him again. "I'm sorry, what?"
"I need to do something," he suggested.
"Yes! You need to figure out who you are. Once you do that, the rest will follow."
"Easier said than done," he observed dourly.
"Don't I know it," she replied. "But it'll work out, you'll see. Never too late to make a new start."
He chuckled, a bit sadly. "I think this is where I came in, my dear." He took her hand again and squeezed it gently. "Thank you. I'll take your words to heart."
"Good." She squeezed back. "Do you have to go right away? I was going to watch the sunset, and I wouldn't mind some company."
"Of course. There's nowhere I'd rather be."
He settled back on the bench, noticing for the first time how long the shadows had grown while he'd sat there, lost in his regrets. The sun was already veiled by the shimmering curtain of the War Wall, tinting everything in sight - the plaza, the trendy new apartments, the construction yards and the donut shop - a warm amber. Soon it would pass behind the distant buildings and be gone entirely. But for this golden moment, even with an uncertain future before him and no clear path, he was at peace. He was content.
And though a casual observer might have seen him sitting alone, he was not.
Finale: Curtain Call
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And - like the baseless fabric of this vision -
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
-- Prospero, The Tempest
The curtain rises, revealing the familiar backdrop - a cityscape rendered in painted wood and canvas - and the cast take their places for one last hurrah.
First to take center stage is the city official with the thinning hair and rolled-up sleeves, his tie now undone and sporting a round "33" campaign button pinned to his dress shirt; he places his hand over his heart (see, he does have one!) and bows to the audience in humble gratitude. He is flanked on the right by a brunette in a gown of deep cherry red, and on the left by a Hispanic woman of vibrant middle age in a floral print dress; they both applaud, then take their bows in turn.
The big man in the trenchcoat and fedora is next, of course, with a broad smile belying his usual grim demeanor. He raises and pumps his big fists in the "victory" pose as the audience cheers. He also is grouped with two women: the perky gamine in the sleeveless cocktail dress (looking much healthier than the last time we saw her), and the blonde in the sparkly disco gown, who's traded her skates for an ordinary set of heels. He embraces one, then the other, and then all three join hands; he lifts one of theirs in each of his, and they bow deeply together.
The tall, thin man in the grey suit pushes the woman in the wheelchair (still in her simple out-patient clothes, but much more alert and focused, with a bouquet of roses in her lap and no tremor in her hands) onto the stage. He steps to one side and bows to her graciously, then to the audience, a faint smile passing his lips. As he guides his companion to the side of the stage, he and the big man playfully shadow-box for a moment, then shake hands in fellowship.
Next up are the burly longshoreman and the man of bronze. Both bow, applaud and receive their accolade, with the metallic giant pointing to members of the audience who've fought to protect the reactor and finishing with a "peace" sign. When they join the others, the detective and the dockworker share a back-slapping bear hug.
DJ Zero and the short man in the cream 80s suit take the stage; without his sunglasses and sneer, the latter seems much less ferret-like but still full of energy, rushing forward to the very edge and miming his love for everyone. He spends a couple of minutes working the crowd's flagging applause back up to a new crescendo, pointing at his fellow cast members and calling for more, then taking his place among them. Throughout the rest of the curtain call, he can sometimes be seen popping up behind the taller ones as if on a pogo stick. Zero, for his part, merely smiles and waves before fading off to the other side of the stage.
The Founder, standing straight and tall now with his long white beard groomed and the brass buttons on his revolutionary coat polished to a shine, and the Warden, his black PPD-like uniform immaculately pressed and creased, bronze shields gleaming, are next. They bow solemnly to the audience and to each other before moving aside.
The last and possibly unlikeliest pair are the grey-bearded partisan in flannel and the doe-eyed dancer of the wood. They clap and wave to the crowd, and she even does a little pirouette beside him before they take their bows.
Rather than walking off, the final duo are joined by the rest of the cast at the front of the stage. Everyone holds hands and bows again, and again. Some are visibly weeping by this point, but they all smile, even through the tears. They bow again, and raise their arms together, and step back as the curtain finally falls.