Sunday, September 22

deep freeze

My foe, a cybernetic madman you called himself Cold Dead Hans, faced me down in this crater where the civilization that preceded New Babbage met its end. Now, after several interruptions, Hans had me in a death grip...just as the power core that moves his massive frame suffered a breach.

The blue orb spewing a fountain of frost into the air was a cold fusion reactor. It is something alien to this time and place where Steam works miracles. My son Koen escaped from the Wastelands, where the remains of dead cities are laid to rest, to tell me that this is the very event that would wipe the smog-shrouded metropolis of New Babbage off the map if we do not stop it. If we did not freeze to death first.

Hans had a backup plan should his juggernaut frame have just this sort of failure. Koen's young companions were desperately chasing down Hans's brain jar that grew spidery legs and scuttled away. I stared at the blinking device that controlled the core. Not a gear in sight.

Blue and Sprog were still following me closely as Koen had ordered. But a white fog was blurring away the landscape. The Wastelands they came from was a radioactive desert. The poor girls had never known even a mild day in their short and desperate lives, much less the glacial temperatures that were expanding out from where we stood. Before I even turned to check on them they had already collapsed from the cold.

I was sweating profusely in my old army uniform before all this madness took place. It bore me perhaps a few precious moments of insulation before I would freeze solid. I reached down and lifted Blue's rust-pitted axe from where she had dropped it. I raised it high, preparing to smash the controls. Cut the wires. Something.

Just as I prepared to strike, a shadow passed over me. I felt a chill in my soul that not even absolute zero could inflict upon me. I knew that feeling before, several times. A feeling like you're a marionette and a puppeteer is not manipulating you, but brutishly seizing your strings to rip you away from the script you had planned.  Yes, it was the Founder of the Mason line. Bloodwing had shouted an order in my brain that made me drop the axe and scream in agony.


Thursday, September 12

before hell freezes over

Cold Dead Hans gloated as I dangled helplessly several feet from the ground in his iron grip. The haze of cold that poured out of him onto the ground grew even thicker.

"I will not turn the screamer machine on again, Doctor Mason...because I want to hear you plead for your life before I CRUSH it out of you! And if your little friends think they can swarm me again..."

As I was noticing a thin web of frost stretch up the struts of his arm, a sword blade sprung from the wrist in his other hand. One of those wavy two-handed models.

"Hans. Listen to me carefully..." I struggled to keep my head up and not pass out as I fought for every ragged breath that exhaled as a white cloud. "Your reactor is faulty. If you don't power down immediately this entire region..."

"SILENCE!"  He shook me so hard my neck nearly snapped. My goggles were beginning to frost over as well.

"Even now you try to ferret your way out of you doom!"

I think he meant "weasel".

"Look up!" He lifted me high into the air as I heard a pop and a hiss below me.  "Look up so my airship crew can capture your face one last time before..."

His diatribe was drowned out by the rush of white gas blossoming from his back. His grip relaxed and I fell to the ground.

"Damn you, Hans! I warned you! Somebody help me up!"

Koen reached under my shoulders and scooped me back to my feet, ushering me to the flashing blue orb in the chest cavity of Hans' great failing frame. Recalling what I read of his blueprints, I flipped open the hinged black metal box under which the knife switch to shut down the reactor was meant to reside. However...

"What the hell is this?" I squinted at the squares of off-white plastic inlayed on chrome, and the blinking red lines in a small glass bar above them.

"That's a digital keypad, Dad..."

"DIGITAL?!? HANS! This isn't Steamlands technology! Is this reactor even from..."

As I shouted at his brain-jar, the cylinder suddenly spun in its casing. An array of long, thin spikes of metal expanded from the collar and bent on smooth joints downward until they latched onto the beams where the neck met the shoulders. The joints flexed and smoothly lifted the brain jar from its housing.

"Now how come I never thought of that...?"

I heard the rip of a needle digging into a wax disc that began to spin in the base of the jar, and a tinny echo of his previously booming voice hissed through static. "We shall meet again, Doctor. If you survive, that is."

With slightly less coordination than I would expect, the jar - brain and all - scuttled like a crab off his shoulders until it dropped to the ground.

"CATCH HIM!" I screamed. "We need the code to power down this reactor or New Babbage is DOOMED!"

Koen bolted after him, leaving me to fall to the now-frozen ground as his small army rushed behind.


Tuesday, September 10

clash of the lanterns

I expected something dramatic when I invoked the power of the disc. A sudden change of costume, verdant explosion of fireworks, anything really. But no, I was just standing there using all my strength to keep my son's very heavy mechanical hand lifted towards my brother, who floated in in aura of sickly yellow fear.

Marcus scoffed. "You? A Green Lantern? Ludicrous! You think any fool can just pick up a power ring and..."

Somehow I found the strength to raise my arm and fire an emerald bolt from my power disc. It went a bit wide, missing him by inches.

Some cautious applause rose from the young savages behind me.

"You were saying?"

He grit his teeth as he hovered closer.

"Perhaps you have a drop of Will, but your skills are poor. Not that your green ring could even effect..."

My arm jerked to the side. The disc spread an arc of light and a duplicate of the mechanical claw Ash had used solidified again. With a shriek of simulated hinges the claw rotated and clamped down on a fallen column massive enough to support the Babbage Town Hall. My arm flailed back in Marcus' direction, slamming down where Marcus was levitating with such force that the ground trembled and threw up clouds of dust.

I pushed the opening to my gas mask over my face with my free hand as I heard the young ones coughing behind me.

"Yes, the green light can't affect the yellow light. I know this. We have a Justice League in Steelhead, you know! But you're still susceptible to very large blocks of stone, as you can see!"

I heard one of the tykes calling out between coughs. "E' went poof! Jus' like when he trew 'is frisbee at th' green bot! All was lef' was his..."

I stared in disbelief at the gauntlet as I held it to my chest. Whatever just happened, it was not my doing. Either my subconscious is a force in itself or...

The index finger of the gauntlet began stretching and contracting by itself. It tapped the disc it held tightly. Morse code...?

With a deafening crack the column snapped in half. The section further from us slowly rolled away into a ravine. His glowing outline was visible through the settling dust.

"Nice try, Darien."

"Oh SHUT UP you lunatic!" With a mighty spin of my arm (which I am certain strained every muscle I had on the right side of my body) I hurled the emerald disc at Marcus. He flinched, and blinked to the other side of his own golden disc. We both watched the bright green artifact crash on the other side of the ravine. I thorough down the gauntlet (literally and figuratively in this case) and threw down my gas mask as well.

"I don't even NEED a radioactive pie tin to deal with YOU, Marcus!"

A chorus of "DAY-UM!" giggled behind me.

"I refuse to be a pawn in some extraterrestrial wargame!" I continued. I tried to point at him, but my right arm aching and slow to respond. I used my left finger instead.

"Put down that PISS-STAINED TOILET SEAT and fight like a MAN!"

I heard collective gasps, followed by laughter. I turned around grinning to see the feral tykes clutching their sides, rolling in the dirt with beet-red faces and screaming incomprehensible things like "LAWL" and "ROFFLE-MAU". They seemed to have dropped Koen, but from what I could see of the rise and fall of his chest, his breath was strong, but irregular.

"Oh Bast...It hurts when I laugh! Oh! Oh! Hee-hee! You owned him Dad!"


I cast Marcus a sidelong glance. Indeed, his body seemed to be flickering. Even transparent.

"Oh, I forgot," I interrupted, "you CAN'T fight man-to-man because you're just a GHOST! You trapped your OWN SOUL in that disc, didn't you? You're not even really HERE! You're just projecting an ILLUSION of yourself from the disc! YOU ARE THE DISC! YOU'RE A PISS-STAINED TOILET SEAT!"

That's when the taunting started. "Toilet seat! Toilet seat! Marcus is a toilet seat!"

He seemed to having even worse trouble keeping his posture than I did. The disc was wobbling and inverting Marcus' image for a few instants. "STOP! STOP THIS! I'LL DESTROY..."

"Your nursery rhymes won't scare anyone! No one here is even AFRAID of you! Did you hear me you BAT-SHIT BELHAVEN BUFFOON?"

With that, the figure in yellow circuitry popped with a with a flash, like one of Mr. Edison's failed light-bulb experiments. His disc clattered down the ridges of the column he had sliced open and finally lodged in the gravel below.

Koen rose slowly to his feet. "Nice'd you do it?"

"Well, the Yellow Lantern Corps, as I understood it, draw their power from the fear in others around them. We have demons in the family tree, so you know how these emotion-eaters work... I just used our instinctual sibling rivalry to degrade him to the point where even the children weren't afraid of him anymore. No fear, no power."

Miss Lacroix raised her rusted axe, pointing upwards and behind me.

"Are we still s'posed t'be afraid of HIM?"

A huge metal claw wrapped around my torso, pinning my arms to my sides. Cold Dead Hans bent his wrist inwards to pull me up and stare at me with widening metal irises through his brain-jar.

"Yeeees...yes you should..."

Sunday, September 8

Mason vs. Mason

Marcus Gabriel Mason. The brother I had grown up never knowing about. Like myself, a clone of my father Jeremiah. As bizarre as my upbringing was, I was the control for my father's unspeakable experiments upon him. Like myself, he had the Spark to build powerful devices by instinct, as well as the occult know-how to unleash dangerous magic.

The results of my father's experiments were truly terrifying. He had the ability to possess any living thing or machine. And unlike me, he was completely devoid of conscience. Even my father in his madness sought fit to destroy him for being too powerful for him to control. In my brother's twisted yet brilliant mind the world - and especially his family - had betrayed him, and revenge was his to take.

The Wastelands children crowded behind me. A few of them carried Koen on their backs, using his hoverboard as a stretcher. They were terrified, yes, and I could feel Marcus drawing power from their fear. However, they also kept the will to stand together.

"So you've met Cold Dead Hans, I see? I recognize him from the roster. There's an exception for family grudges in the Guild rules, so they'll probably give him a mulligan. Maybe he can take on Baron Wulfenbach or the Caledon Catgirl Air Corps..."

Yagi rose up behind the crumbling wall holding the dimensional conduit above her head. She aimed it towards us, using the medusa-like alteration of her hair to keep it balanced.

"YAGI! No! That won't..."

She flipped the switch and the brilliance of a searchlight shone on Marcus. He screamed! He was fighting the pull of the conduit switched in reverse! But that shouldn't have worked. He was native to the Steamlands, so there would be no attraction back to the Digital Grid unless...

A stream of light spread from Marcus's disc to create a massive floating tool composed of solid yellow light. I could swear it was a giant spatula!

"You want to send someone home? Here! One short stack of Green Lantern SCRAP!"

The tool ground deep into the gravel under where Ash's unpowered form lay. The child-army behind me covered their faces and I dove for cover as a shower of small sharp rocks went flying everywhere.


Yagi screamed Ash's name as she released her tentacled hold on the conduit. I could not tell if the device was powered down as it was facing the ground, but Ash smashed into it and shattered it like a huge mirror.

"Well that was easy!" he chuckled. He floated back towards the children as the shining implement faded to nothingness behind him.

"Alright, where's Darien? Cough him up! Is he hiding under that board?"

"No you fool! I'm right here!"

I had thrust my own arm into the shell of Ash's severed forearm, wearing it as a gauntlet. I had seen enough to recognize how the disc worked. I held the alien artifact high as I improvised an Oath of my own:

Emerald Disc of shining force
By Will I tap your power source
To vanquish foes without remorse

Saturday, September 7

the third wave

"You wretched little scamps! I warned you!"

And at that moment a sound like a thousand fingernails scraping across a chalkboard ripped through the air. Oh dear Lord, I thought. Please don't let Hans have a Deadly Ringer weapon! Even as far away as we were, poor Sprog curled up on the gravel beneath us covering her ears and screaming.

"Sprog? Surely you've heard a siren before...?" The boy whose wounds I was dressing began convulsing.

"Red Fire!" I luckily had some small wax globes stashed away in my bandolier. A must for anyone who works near artillery. I pushed a pair of the globes into Ryan's ears and the convulsing stopped. Then I struggled to pull Sprog's hands away from her ears long enough to give her healing protection as well.

These screamer weapons are loathsome. At best they're adequate for crowd control at the very lowest settings. At worst their vibrations rattle the brain in its skull and rip through flesh. They should be banned, I tell you!

I stood up to watch the tribes of Wasteland youth scatter as Hans rose to his feet. What was left of him, actually. Somehow those children managed to pry most the armor off that metal colossus! His reactor core, pulsing a deep blue and spilling with icy mist, was exposed in the construct's chest. But still none of the tykes had ripped that stupid semblance of a beard off his face.

I shouted for Koen, even though I knew it was useless. I dove for cover just as I saw my son careening towards me in his hover board. He sped over me and crashed into the hill, rolling end over end. The poor boy, his neko ears must be even more susceptible to the audible onslaught than the other children.

I glanced to the other side of the crater by the fallen column where Yagi had lay wounded. She, and the chain gun, were gone. What the blazes...?

And that's when she tapped on my elbow. I spun and there she was, with the massive empty weapon in her hands, looking up at me with the utmost concern. Concern, but no pain...

Yes, of course! Shapechangers were immune to Deadly Ringer effect because their inner ears would always bounce back, and never shatter, from the force of the vibration.  I pulled another blueprint from my chest pocket.

"Build this!" I said. She nodded and took the plans.  She bounded over another crumbled wall and threw down the chain gun, and literally leapt onto it! I stood in amazement. Her features blurred as she molded herself around the gun. No wonder she could build so fast!  I give her a blueprint with an exploded view and she pulls the original object apart inside her and reassembles it!

It was time for another old Capper Brigade trick.  I stood at the top of the hill and tossed a rock at him. It bounced off his head, sadly not breaking the filthy red plumage on his helmet. His neck rotated at an unlikely angle. I pantomimed screaming at him. I wasn't going to wreck my vocal chords over the racket he was generating. His false jaw flapped up and down in response but since there was no read his lips (he had none) I didn't even try to guess what he was saying. I continued to silently castigate him like a preacher in one of those flickering penny-booths. (The arcades always install it in one machine as a prank to non-frequent customers. Don't ask me how I know this.) I began rattling off imaginary points of order on my fingers when he finally turned the screamer off.


I smirked. The trick works every time.

"Why don't you try picking on someone your own size?"

Gravel crunched beneath his massive metal feet as he started up the hill towards me. I noted a flash of green light followed by a momentary flicker of yellow from where Yagi was hiding with her newest project.

"You're the closest thing to that, Mason. You have time for a quick prayer before I pulverize you!"

I kept my composure when I felt the chill of his cold fusion reactor core as he stopped within reach of me.

"With all due respect, Hans, I strongly urge you to look behind you."

"HA! I am not falling for such an immature-"



A figure in a black bodysuit radiating an emerald light landed behind him with such force it made the broken ground shake.

He outstretched his arm which held a brilliantly shining disc. The light emanating from it congealed like molten lead into a mold, forming a huge mechanical claw. The claw slammed tight around Hans. With a quick spin of the disc with his wrist, Hans was raised in a powerful arc and slammed cranium-first into the ground.

A roar echoed through the crater as Koen's ragtag army of savage children crawled from their hiding places and scrambled closer to witness the triumph of the Green Lantern.

"Greetings, Father."

"Nice to see you, Ash. Did you kill him?"

"Kill? Subject is a User?"

"User? I would use the term Cyborg."

"Analyzing subject."

He drew the arm upwards again. Hans' which I mean the ridiculous freon tank bucket with a feather decoration and the hinged metal jaw crudely decorated with a merkin false beard was gone. Only the clear cylinder with a floating brain and connected ocular sensors that was underneath remained.

"Life-sustaining equipment is still functional. Subject..."

He was interrupted by a blinding flash. I heard a rush of wind inches from my face followed by a heavy thud. My eyes recovered. Hans lay on the ground where he had been previously suspended. The circuitry on Ash's armor flickered out and he collapsed at my feet.

"Ash! What?"

That was when I saw Ash's arm a few feet away, severed below the elbow. It was still clutching his power disc. Handfuls of gears and springs spilled over the ground from where the limb was cut away. The edge of the cut was still glowing from the heat of the deadly instrument.

The crowd of children began to back away slowly. Their attention was focused on something behind and above me. This could not possibly be good. I spun around to see a floating silhouette wreathed in golden circuitry, brandishing a yellow disc. I could sense an aura of dread pulsing from his weapon.

"Hello dear brother. I see it's story time. Would your little friends like to hear a nursery rhyme?"

"In brightest day, in blackest night
See Terror forged in circuits bright!
All ye flee before the sight

Tuesday, September 3

Goodbye Shanghai

Velvel sighed as he stood at the edge of the pier, watching the sun set over the bay. He would miss the incessant chug-chug-chugging of Miss Thoughtwerk's vending robot. It did a wonderful job of scaring the rats away. He'd miss the lovely little shop Mayor Lunar built for him. He's even miss the squalid slums of...oh wait. That's an aqueduct. They already evicted the slums and built an aqueduct? He really should have gotten out more, he thought. No wonder business was dead. Come to think of it, all the other stores in his row on the pier were gone as well. Within a week everything else would be torn down, he was told. Even the aqueduct.

He felt guilty about being such a poor tenant. He was a poor businessman too, he was ready to admit. He couldn't even make a profit smuggling! But Lunar in debtor's prison? Such madness! Maybe it was that new Mayor's doing, Jobias Bottlemess or something. He was one of those villainous types he was told, the kind that snuck around in a tall black hat and cloak and twirled his mustache while laughing. They were an embarrassment to criminals like himself who were just trying to make a living without getting noticed by the Law.

He drew a pen knife from his pocket and pressed the point to his hand. He heard a rush of air and a thump behind him that made the pier shake.

"VELVEL! What are you doing?"

A rotting board near the merchant's feet snapped and fell into dark waters of the bay. He glanced back at the demon.

"Calm down...calm just a tradition from my village." He bit his lip as he felt a hot rivulet trail down his thumb. "I did the same after I buried my family in the Old Country. When you are going to leave a place and never return, you leave seven drops of blood behind. It confuses the evil spirits into not following you. No offense."

"What will become of you, Velvel?"

Drops of crimson left small circles on the decaying planks. One drop fell between the wood and hissed imperceptibly when it struck the water.

He shrug. "Who knows? I camp out in the woods, I suppose."

The demon snapped his wings as he craned his neck. "Did you feel that?"

Velvel didn't look back. "The angel did. The mystic link is cut, he said."

"Another one of those wretched bombs they use in New Babbage to flush out the supernaturals. I thought they spent the last one years ago...."

"Koen is back." The angel was speaking through him again. "You cannot approach, but you must help how you can."

"I will. Xavael, I..."

"Later, Bloodwing. Later. He has much work left to do."

"I understand." A rush of mighty wings, and then the demon was gone.

Velvel wrapped a bandage around his hand,  then slowly shut the sliding metal door to the loading entrance for the last time. He would spend last fitful night sleeping in a bedroll on the second floor.

The glow of the oil lamp in the window of Shanghai Bazaar 's tower faded out. Under the pier where he had recently stood, the water bubbled and churned. A gaunt and pallid arm stretched from the depths and wrapped a bony hand around one of the sturdier boards. A silhouette pulled itself onto the pier and rose to its feet, but not fully erect, for it remained hunched over from weakness and hunger. Crimson eyes shone into the darkness, searching for a living vessel to feed upon.

It is said that the tears of an angel can heal the living. A similar adage not shared by mortals is that the blood of an angel can restore the undead. The ashes of Aliester Louis Mason had been drawn into the workings of his airship, the Bloodwing's Revenge, when he was caught by the rays of the sun. Those ashes had scattered into Steelhead Bay when that same ship was wrecked in the battle with the Illumiautilus. 

One drop in the bay was all it took.

Sunday, September 1

the patient

As I attempted to crawl to a safe hiding place I heard the scrape of metal underneath me. I looked down to see the end of the neko's vehicle, painted faded yellow and black stripes and lit with red signals blinking commands unknown to me.


I was unceremoniously flipped upwards. I spun head over heels like a pancake and landed on the red tiger's shoulder.

"OOF! You're heavy with all this crap on! For Bast's sake, why do ya keep trotting out that old uniform? It smells like mothballs and bandages!"

"It's nice to see you too, Koen..." I tried my best not to flail about as he skimmed through the jagged terrain. "I assume you have an explanation?"

"Okay, in a nutshell, that guy's reactor is gonna explode big enough to take all of New Babbage with him!" I caught sight of the feral horde of children surrounding Cold Dead Hans like a pack of wolves before the flight unceremoniously jerked to a stop. The inertia threw me off my son's shoulder, and I was again introduced to the dusty gravel that made up the floor of the crater.


"Koen, really..." I methodically rose to my feet and made a vain gesture at brushing my uniform clean. "I'm quite alright..."

"Yeah you are, but this kid isn't. We need your help with this one."

"Wounded?" I rushed to where two scruffy urchins were crouching over a third. I realized they were both girls when they raised their grubby faces to me. I froze in my tracks. They were both strikingly familiar!

One of them had only recently completed her internship at my New Babbage laboratory. "Why Bleue! Miss Bleue Lacroix! I thought you moved to Steelhead!"

"I've been doing a lot of traveling, Doctor." She rose to her feet, drawing a corroded axe from her belt. "And believe it or not I can fend for myself in places even harder than the Wastelands!"

"I'll take your word for it..." I remarked as she rushed past me to join her brethren. I could hear Hans protesting from the other side of the hill of debris.

"Stop this at once! The Guild hands out demerits for killing children!" *KLANG!* "You! Put some clothes on!" *KLANG!* "Get off me! Stop soiling my uniform!" *KLANG!*" Put that crowbar away this instant! Go find some PARENTS to run home to!"

I turned to the other girl...

"Kira?'re younger...?"

"She reincarnated. We call her Sprog now. Ryan here is in her tribe."

Sprog turned back to the boy, who was horribly jaundiced. He was gasping for air, but his mouth gagged with a stretch of cloth.

"He got bit by a ghoul. We thought it was dead after we shot it but it jumped up..."

I knelt next to the boy and reached for my medical kit.

"Well first of all he needs to breathe..." I snipped the cloth away with a pair of scissors. The boy's wound was at the base of the neck. It was already starting to fester. I opened his eyelid, his eye was already turning into a featureless silver orb. "If he can't breathe that hastens death, which leads straight to undeath." The boy screamed pitifully as I swabbed the wound with alcohol.

"Do your best, Dad. I gotta join the others." I shielded Ryan from the cloud of dust as Koen's board lifted again into the air and sped off.

I prepared a syringe of reanimation serum and injected directly into the wound. I counted the seconds quietly, as I felt for a pulse on the other side of his neck. I did my best to ignore the continued outrages of Hans as the child-warriors were shouting heave-ho and ripping the plating from his chassis.

Thirty seconds. I reexamined the wound. I glanced back up at Sprog.

"No change. Whatever this is, my serum has no effect."

I shook my head and began to dress the wound.

"I can't save him..."