Episode 3: A Convocation of Shards

Charles Jury trudged through the canyon with a frost of cool static in his mind.

The young man’s trousers were worn through at the knees, T-shirt torn off at the shoulders, a solid black dagger tattooed down over his right forehead and cheek. A thin blue cord ran from his left temple, behind his ear, and threaded through his long copper hair to disappear into the heavy darkness of his backpack. The blaze of dawn outlined the crags around him, but he was heedless of their beauty. Though he’d never even been outside his home town of New Tulsa before the Phalanx Flood, he walked with the gait of a seasoned climber, as if he’d traveled this desolate desert path a thousand times.

He had no conscious knowledge where he was or where he was going. He tried not to think about that too much.

The artifact bounced against the small of his back with every step. Charles could feel it, a brittle roundness slightly larger than a cantaloupe. The static in his mind increased slightly with each bounce. Maybe a loose connection or something, he thought. Maybe I should stop and check …

No. No stopping. Not this close to his goal.

Charles Jury had no idea how close or far away he was from his “goal”, but he accepted the thought for what it was and kept trudging.

A gloomy pall fell over his thoughts. Charles had never wanted to go on any quests. He just wanted to sit at home, use his parents’ platinum card, and fill his room with occult relics. He only had a smattering of the Power, if any; to tell the truth, he just thought all the weird symbols and tomes and stuff looked really cool. And Monger, an ancient dark-skinned woman who ran the Wild Imaginings talisman shop in the old part of town, was only too happy to take his money. She constantly said the relics she sold him were items of Real Power, but he wasn’t a picky shopper. He just got the darkest and most foreboding things. “Black” magic, “white” magic, technomancy, he didn’t care. He didn’t really believe any of that hokum. It was just a way to keep his parents out of his room.

But then, just a few days before the Phalanx Flood swallowed his hometown whole, Monger showed him this fragile thing, all blackened and wire-covered and with a hole in one side …

Charles came to a T-junction in the canyon and took the right turn without hesitation. As he did, however, he started to feel a certain wrongness in the air, a cold electricity he’d never felt before. His feet grew heavy and his sense of purpose ebbed. He began to wonder where he was, and whether he could find his way back through the twisting canyon behind him. For the first time since he stowed away on the gravhauler bound for Arizona, he doubted.

Something made him look around for a cause. On the ground nearby lay a small metal rod, maybe twenty centimeters long and four centimeters across. A dim green light wavered along one side. Charles peered at it uncertainly. He’d never seen anything like it before.

A thought came to him unbidden, as from a great depth: Ludgate rod. Used to … to what? … to bleed off magical powers. A dim image swam through his mind, of daggers shattering against invisible barriers. He felt a distant and detached emotion, anger perhaps, but there was no conviction behind it.

He tried to think of a way to deactivate the rod, but nothing came to him but whispering static. For a perverse moment he thought about picking up the rod, dumping it in his backpack with the artifact, and getting the hell out of here. When he looked back at the canyon walls behind him, though, he realized he’d be stranded in the middle of a great wilderness with no way to get back. Well, shock it then. He yanked out a small pulse gun he’d brought for protection and blew the rod to shards. Green energy arced and sizzled from the remains, then dissipated.

Charles instantly felt much more confident and self-satisfied. Small-minded pusbags, he thought with real anger. Herod tried his best, but even his SHIELD goons can’t keep a good mage down. After all this time, he was getting close to home.

That thought pulled Charles up short. Home? His home was a thousand shockin’ miles away. But still, this did seem like home in a strange way, like he was seeing it through other eyes. He shrugged and gave in to the feeling. Better than being lost, anyway.

The canyon spilled out onto an enormous desert plain. Outlined in the sun’s glare stood the remains of an enormous house, like a Gothic mansion on stilts, dark and lifeless. Scorch marks rimmed several windows. Jagged chunks of metal and concrete lay scattered all over, the only remains of a tower which had obviously exploded. Something about that caused a deep and inexplicable sadness to well up in Charles’ chest.

He felt the wrongness again. Now that he knew what to look for, it didn’t take him long to see the Ludgate rods, stuck vertically into the ground on short posts, arranged around the house in a strange and complex pattern. He kept his distance and studied the arrangement. A standard Haakon-Pharr pattern, he thought, not knowing how he knew. Tricky but not impossible to disrupt.

He paced just outside the Ludgate influence for about a quarter circle, then lay down on his stomach and sighted along the barrel of his pulser. His finger twitched of its own volition. The pulse bolt streaked through the pattern, shattering three Ludgate rods in a straight line.

Green arcs of power flooded outward, lancing from one rod to the next, exploding them all like a string of firecrackers. Charles stood up and watched the dancing fireworks. Wow, he thought. Didn’t know I had it in me.

After several seconds the explosions subsided, and he continued on through the thin acrid smoke. A cautious jubilance filled his mind as he approached the tottering shell of a building. He was home again, returning home to a place he’d never been before. Charles Jury stared up at the door of the mansion, six meters above.

Shock. So how would he get in?

The stairway led down into the depths of the ocean. Miguel O’Hara trod lightly on the watery steps, wondering just what he’d gotten himself into this time.

Then again, why keep his questions to himself? “This, um, this is all very impressive, Domo,” he said to the homonculus of water that glided down the stairs in front of him.

“Domo3, please, Mister O’Hara,” the creature reminded him. “The Master created all of this, and myself, through the use of nanotechnology. Nanites are polymerizing the water, keeping the form of my body and of the stairs, even extracting oxygen for you to breathe as we descend into the ocean.”

Miguel stared around, amazed. “You mean Doom wasted that much nanotech just to make this one staircase?”

“Hardly wasted, Mister O’Hara,” Domo3 replied in a slightly nettled tone. “Nanotechnology was child’s play to one as brilliant as the Master. Once a single nanite is created, it can be programmed to create others, possibly many others with many different functions. Nanites are so small, they can even affect matter on such a level that different atoms can be created —”

“Thank you, Domo3, I know what nanotech can do.” Sheesh. If I’d wanted to be lectured on the joys of science, Miguel thought, I’d have stayed in high school.

“Very well,” Domo3 replied with a small apologetic bow, and continued downward. Miguel felt himself warming to this insufferable waterspout. In some ways, it reminded him of Lyla.

The stairs descended steeply, with a slight curve to the left. Soon Miguel saw the end of his journey below: a strange black tower ascending from the murk, with a vaguely almond-shaped chamber at its top. So this was the infamous Point, Doom’s home away from home. Rumor said Doom only resided in this amazing piece of nano-engineering for one day before returning to Latveria to rule a country of decimated humans and monstrous mutates. Why he didn’t say longer, or for that matter how any of his populace managed to survive being drenched in Herod’s necrotoxins, were mysteries Doom took to his grave.

Soon they stood before a man-sized portal in the side of the Point’s upper chamber. Domo3 slid forward, then rearranged itself to face Miguel. “Please understand that your movement within the Point will be restricted to authorized pathways, for security reasons. Follow the green corridors only. If you stray into a yellow or red area, the automated security response will be … extreme.” The portal thunked, then split horizontally, spilling dazzling light into the dimness. “Welcome to the Point,” Domo3 added.

In light of Domo3‘s dire warning, Miguel took its greeting with a grain of salt, but entered anyway. He found himself in a large, brightly-lit oval room with corridors branching off in all directions. Most of the corridors glowed with an ominous yellow or red pulsation; only one glowed green. Well, at least Doom made this easy, he thought, and set off.

The interior of the Point seemed to Miguel to be little more than a maze of haphazard warrens tunneled through a crystalline material he didn’t recognize. Scattered facets in the ceiling, walls, and floor bubbled from behind with some sort of green luminescent liquid. As he approached, the facets slowly brightened to white, then faded behind him to a murky red. No going back, he thought. He hoped Doom’s computers realized he and Gabe would have to get out again.

Gabe. Frag it. Miguel remembered the last time he’d seen his younger brother, wearing some ludicrous green-and-purple getup and calling himself the Goblin. True, Miguel’d had his own costumed identity at one time, but he fell into the Spider-Man name by accident. He could hardly imagine anyone, let alone his own brother, doing super-things of their own volition … especially in the identity of the original Spider-Man’s most terrible foe. Around the time the Goblin made his first appearance, Gabe had just broken up with that girl Kasey over her insistence that Gabe was really Spider-Man, and Miguel was certain Gabe drew parallels to when Miguel “stole” Dana away from him …

Miguel shook his head violently. Even he got confused by the tangled webs in Spider-Man’s personal life. Pun not intended.

Soon Miguel reached a Y-junction. The left fork glowed brilliant crimson; the right, scintillating jade. Still worrying about his brother, he turned right.

Bolts of blinding light scorched the air all around him. One clipped his upper arm, sending a shock like a hammer blow through his body. Without thinking, he let his spider-enhanced reflexes vault him backwards into the Y-junction. He landed lightly on the balls of his feet and crouched, ready to face his attacker.

Nobody there. The corridor was empty.

Miguel slowly straightened up and glanced at his arm. The fabric of his jacket smouldered slightly, but the bolt didn’t penetrate. Already the tingle was fading from his fingers. Just a warning shot, then. But who was doing the shooting?

He turned his attention to the corridor ahead of him. The lights glowed green with such intensity they almost sparkled, brighter than any he’d traversed so far. Miguel looked on with deepening suspicion. It was almost too inviting.

Time for a test. Miguel cupped his left hand just below his right fist and tightened his right forearm muscles. A thin stream of webbing spurted into his open hand. Soon he’d created a sticky web-ball about the size of a softball, which he then lobbed down the “safe” corridor.

Light panels flared with green energy. Slashing beams divided the web-ball into halves, quarters, eighths, sixteenths with rapid precision. By the time the beams subsided, nothing was left to hit the floor but a few cinders.

O-kay. That certainly fit Miguel’s definition of an “extreme response.” So much for Door #1; what about Door #2? Miguel released webbing from his left arm into his right hand, balled it gently with taloned fingertips, and lobbed.

If anything, the red energy beams were more vicious than the green ones. A thick organic smoke wafted back into the Y-junction, making Miguel’s eyes water.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Miguel stood in the junction and considered his options. He couldn’t go back, since the corridor he’d just passed through was currently glowing a dim red; and apparently he couldn’t go forward, either. What more could happen?

A deep subsonic rumble, felt more than heard, thrummed off the walls. Miguel dropped into a crouch, prepared for anything, while sighing on the inside. I should know better than to ask that, he thought.

The corridor behind him suddenly gushed with water, barreling forward like a shockwave. Miguel stared at the onrushing wall in utter disbelief. He knew he only had seconds to decide which of the two corridors was the correct one, but at the moment any fear or panic was subsumed by a single thought: Give me a shockin’ break. This new disaster just shot his suspension of disbelief all to hell. Things like this just don’t happen, he thought, even as the water roiled at breakneck speed toward him. It was more like something out of a B movie, something you dream about after a big Italian dinner. A dream, a hoax, an imaginary story …

Of course. All the tension flooded out of Miguel’s body as an odd calm diffused through him. His sense of self-preservation screamed at him to step aside, but he ignored it and faced the deadly wall of water head-on. He even crossed his arms.

The wave crashed down over him but never touched him, instead exploding into a burst of circular icons which dwindled to nothing. With an all-encompassing fuzz of static, the corridor returned to normal with nary a puddle to mark the water’s passing. Miguel turned around. The right fork, the one which had once been green, now glowed a deep crimson; and in the other —

“Very good,” said the oddly garbed figure in the green light. “You saw through my illusions more quickly than I’d expected. Most people don’t shake off the Goblin’s effects so easily.” He grinned then, a ghastly smile on a purple-hued face. “But then, you always were the smart one in the family … my dear brother.”


“Hang on!” Edward Beethoven Osaka shouted, clawing at the soft earth of the Savage Land. “We’ll be right there!”

Shock it, he knew this would happen sooner or later. The humans of the Last Refuge had gotten desperate over the past few weeks as resources dwindled. A few hardy souls decided they would dig for the Kree technology everyone knew still lay, albeit inactive, under the Savage Land, and see if they could use that technology to somehow extend the land’s habitability. Eddie, like most of the mutant faction, hadn’t agreed with the humans’ plans; it seemed folly to him to stay in this sinking ship while liveable land was appearing everywhere else in the world. But the humans insisted on their course of action anyway. Typical.

And now a handful of humans were paying the price. Eddie had been with Rosa and Joaquim back at New City when news of the cave-in reached them. As many as fifteen people were trapped in a tunnel section which was rapidly filling with water. Only the superhuman power of mutants could possibly reach them in time. Mutants like Eddie.

Eddie took a moment to adjust his radio headset. “Can you still hear me in there?” he asked.

His earpiece hissed with the sound of rushing water. “We’re here,” someone said. “Barely. We can feel the top of the tunnel about half a meter over our heads.” The voice sputtered and spat. “And the water’s rising fast,” he added.

“Don’t worry,” Eddie grunted. “I’m faster.” His large metallic hands bored out huge chunks of dirt, which he tossed over his broad and gleaming shoulders. Behind him, fellow mutant and X-Man La Lunàtica worked to keep the tunnel shored up and clear. Eddie set his jaw and worked harder. A song lyric flashed through his mind: “John Henry was a steel drivin’ man …” With his metallo-mimetic abilities, Eddie made that lyric literally true.

Behind Luna’s pale form, worried human faces peered down into the tunnel the two mutants had dug into the earth. “How’re you holding up, Eddie?” she asked.

“Not — umph!” tree roots popped like firecrackers as he tore out a particularly stubborn hunk of earth “— too bad,” he finished. “Didn’t Korny Kat dig a tunnel through the planet like this in one of his episodes?”

Luna actually almost smiled. “If you watched Korny Kat’s vidshow, you’re younger than I thought.” She picked up the gigantic clod of earth with one hand and tossed it easily several meters out of the mouth of the tunnel. The faces vanished in panic, but reappeared.

Eddie shoved his hand into the earth. “I’m just full of —” A dull thud sounded, and the painful shock of impact traveled up Eddie’s arm. “Owch!” he cried. “What the hell … ?”

“About twenty centimeters of headspace left,” someone shouted on his headset. Splashes and gurgles followed. “Jenkins! Get up on that —” Interference crackled; the rest was lost.

Eddie tore out as much earth as he could grab, revealing sheer grey stone. “Shock!” he spat. “Granite! We’ve hit a strata of granite!” He balled his fists together and brought them down on the rock with all his might. Thunder sounded. Chunks flew in all directions, pinging off his metallic skin. Luna shouted and dove for cover.

Despite the sizeable crater his strike created, the rock wall stood fast. “Oh man, this is not good.” Eddie figured he had maybe two more meters to go. Two meters through solid stone. Shock it. “Where the frag’s Xi’an?” he muttered angrily. “We could really use his corrupting touch here.”

Luna shook rock fragments from her white mane of hair. “Last I heard, the bossman’s out of pocket, and the mining lasers are still en route. We’re it, Eddie.”

Water burbled in Eddie’s headset. “Ten centimeters now. I can’t see Jenkins or Morelli. Get down here, you shockin’ genejokes!”

That did it. “Get out of here, Luna,” he growled. “This might get messy.” He brought his fists together and turned back to the wall. He could feel La Lunàtica’s reluctance behind him, but ultimately she knew she wasn’t as invulnerable as Eddie. Her footsteps receded in the loose earth.

Eddie flexed his considerable brawn, lifted his arms high, and roared. Swing after swing, he pounded madly at the wall of stone. The sound was beyond sound. Chips whizzed in all directions. Flecks got in his eyes, nose, mouth. Still he swung, and swung, and swung, steel muscles against stone obstacle, all sense of caution gone now. Minutes passed. His headset squealed with screams and gurgles, thuds and madness, humans coughing up water, fading desperation, burbles, silence, and still Eddie pounded, pounded, now one meter through the wall, now a meter thirty, now a meter fifty —

And then he was through. Water gushed into the tunnel. Eddie tore insanely at the remains of the wall, letting more of the black water out. “Hold on!” he shouted. “Help is here! Just hang on!”

Mining equipment flushed through the gaping hole, glowing minelights and laser pickaxes. Eddie stumbled into the cavern beyond, hands down, searching for bodies. Maybe we can get to them in time, he thought.

La Lunàtica splashed into the thigh-deep water behind him, but paused. Her eyes glowed a feral red as she scanned the cavern. “They’re gone,” she finally said in surprise.

Eddie looked up at her incredulously. “What’re you talking about? Help me here!”

Luna looked around once more. Human workers gathered in the tunnel behind her. “No scents,” she said. “They’re not dead. That has a … distinctive smell. But they’re not here, either.”

“What the shock is she talking about?” said the mining foreman, a sour man named Hull. “Men, get in there and find them!”

Workers splashed in behind Eddie, some shooting Luna dirtier looks than usual. Eddie, however, had gained a modicum of respect in their eyes, though they still afforded him a wide berth.

Eddie and the workers thoroughly searched the cavern. There were no human-sized exits anyone could find, in walls, ceiling or floor. Luna looked on with cool assurance, refusing to help as pointless.

And in the end, she was borne out. The workers eventually filed out, their faces masks of confusion. The two X-Men followed in equal amazement.

There were no bodies.

Charles Jury was amazed the machine still functioned. Oh, the skulls which he somehow knew had once festooned the listening posts were long gone, but the Bone Machine itself stood intact, only superficially burned by the fire which had ravaged the rest of the mansion. It only took a couple of flipped switches and crossed wires to get the thing up and humming again on its emergency generator backup. Whoever owned this place before had spent a lot of money to keep the machine fail-proof.

The artifact’s influence was especially strong in this room. Charles could just almost hear a voice in his thoughts, a discrete influence, a force of independent will, instead of the vague impressions and emotions and impulses he normally sensed in the mental static. He still didn’t have any real idea why he was here, but he supposed the artifact wanted to be attached to this machine somehow, and the artifact didn’t seem to disagree with his suppositions.

A few connections later, he knew it was time. Gently he shrugged off his backpack and unplugged his datajack. The cool static vanished; his mind was his own. Again he had the impulse to run away, but simple morbid curiosity kept him here. The artifact didn’t seem to be malign, and Monger herself had said it contained “great power for good.” So what would it hurt to finish the job?

Charles gingerly retrieved the artifact out of the pack. Covered with wires, blackened by flame and with a gaping jagged hole in the left temple, the skull looked much older than it really was. But in the world of magic, and especially the world of technomancy, looks can be most deceiving.

Charles lifted the skull and gently placed it atop the metal pole. Even before he managed to snap the connectors into place, he could sense the artifact was active, moving through the electrical current of the Bone Machine with easy familiarity. Then he plugged in the last plug, and it was there with him.

Holo-emitters flickered to life. A refrigerator-sized volume of trid interference resolved into a vaguely humanoid form. The resolution was lousy, but Charles could see that it was an image of a male, young though still older than Charles, with a mop of blonde hair and a dragon tattoo covering the right half of his face. The center of his chest swirled with cold electric static where his heart should have been.

Charles had seen this man before, on the famous trid broadcast back on the Night of Long Knives. Monger had called him the most powerful technomancer of the 21st century. He was like a rock star of magic, the Duke Stratosphere of technomancy, the best of the best. Anyone who’d dabbled in the Power knew his name.

Metalscream. Shock me solid, Charles thought.

The image opened its eyes slowly, as if afraid of what it would see. It scanned the charred and empty room with sadness. Then its attention settled on Charles and its mouth moved, accompanied by a lost whisper like a radio stuck between stations: “Thank you.”

Charles stared at the electric ghost for several seconds before he realized he should probably answer it. “Umm … no prob, man,” he finally said. “What … I mean, how … ?”

The spirit of Metalscream let forth a distant chuckle. “With a little instruction, you could probably be one hell of a technomancer, Charles Jury. Not many people would be able to feel my influence in the field your little Bone Machine creates.” It gestured to his backpack. “Hooking my skull to a cyberdeck. Someone has a sense of irony.”

“Probably Monger,” Charles Jury muttered. The old hag, he continued to himself.

Metalscream nodded. “Probably. The old hag.” Its resolution wavered, then strengthened. “But enough ancient history. I recall from your memories — thank you for their use, I’ll pay you back for them one of these days — that I’ve been out of commission for a long time, and I need to check up on the state of the Art.”

“How?” Charles blurted, then immediately regretted it. The spirit turned icy eyes his direction and raised one eyebrow. Despite himself, Charles carried on. “I mean, everything’s toast. Trid, the Net, sats, telcom, everything. There’s no way to glom any outside info.”

Metalscream’s ghost suddenly grinned. “So speaks a true unbeliever. Follow me.” The image wafted across the room. “The holo system runs off the Bone Machine’s power. I can move around inside the house, anyway. I hope.” He floated through the open door.

Charles ran to catch up. “So, like, where we going?”

The image turned toward the central stairway, burned but still useable. “Follow me upstairs, Charles,” it said. “It’s time for us to visit the Gallery.”

The thin black-clad figure wandered among the shiny white equipment. Here was the harmonic phase inverter; over there was the divergence scanner he’d requested. And off to one side, incredibly, stood the tachyon pulse transducer he’d been trying to lay his hands on for years. Not even Alchemax R&D had stuff this good. He tried to keep from giggling.

Ahhhh, machines. Halloween Jack didn’t know how he could live without them.

A gaggle of blue-skinned scientists watched Jack apprehensively. They all wore form-fitting white jumpsuits in the Atlantean manner, since it was too easy to get entangled in flowing cape- like garments underwater. Jack had been forced to cut back on the length of his coattails. He’d been enjoying the way they clung to his legs a little too much.

And distractions were something he could do without. Not when the fate of the free world was at stake. Oh, all right, the fate of Las Vegas. That was all that mattered to him right now, anyway. Queen Whisper of Atlantis had been most generous in donating both equipment and manpower to Jack’s newest cause celebre, the analysis of the so-called Vegas Anomaly. And here, only a few meters from the edge of that same anomaly, he intended to put those resources to good use.

The Atlanteans muttered among themselves in their native tongue. Jack could just imagine what they were saying about their skinny, green-skinned, tatterdemalion boss. Some people have no sense of style, he mused. Well, time to nip their expectations in the bud. He rounded toward them, drawing to his full impressive height and spreading his long arms wide. All conversation ceased.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he grinned through needle-sharp teeth, “let’s get started here, shall we? I’d like to begin with a three-tier quantum scan through all the upper harmonics, followed by a high-energy pulse reading and, oh, say, a molecular dispersement analysis. From there, we can work into a Pym-Richards dimensional distortion schematic.” He paused to enjoy the look of consternation on the scientists’ faces. Despite his current clownish demeanor, he was still one of the finest minds in the dimensional engineering field. “Well?” he said with an edge in his voice, and clapped his hands. “Chop chop!”

The Atlanteans, to their credit, went straight to work with efficiency. Jack, never a straw boss, pitched right in, and for a time lost himself in the pure joy of scientific endeavor. Why did he ever leave field work, if he enjoyed it so much? Then he remembered: Alchemax came along and turned him into their version of Loki. Oh yeah. Never mind.

For most of the day they worked, compiling as much practical data as they could about the great glowing half-sphere which covered Las Vegas like a snow globe. And by the end of the day, they’d discovered —

“Nothing!” Frustrated, Halloween Jack swung his arm through the holographic display of the day’s findings, causing the colored graphs and charts to dissipate in static. “There’s nothing here! No conclusive evidence about the anomaly at all.”

A white-haired Atlantean scientist named Doroga cleared her throat. “You can’t dismiss our work today so easily, Mister … er … Jack,” she said. “If nothing else, it’s told us what the anomaly isn’t.”

“Oh, yes, that’s helpful,” Jack grunted. “Let’s see …” He punched up the display again. “It’s not a force field, phase shift, or time variance. Nor is it solid, liquid, gaseous, plasma, or energy. It also doesn’t appear to contain protons, electrons, neutrons, positrons, negatrons, or quantum particles at all. It’s just one big impenetrable nothingness. Fah!” He smashed his fist down on the pedestal-sized holo-emitter they were all gathered around. “What a waste of time!”

“Could it be a manifestation of the Virtual Unreality waves you released in Las Vegas several months ago?” another scientist asked.

“Don’t you think that’s the first thing I thought of?” Jack snapped. “But VU waves have a specific dimensional resonance. There’s a tiny residue of VU energy in the rocks surrounding the anomaly, which is to be expected after all the time Vegas was under my influence, but nothing in the anomaly itself. Oh, this is pointless.” Jack waved his hand dismissively. “Go back to your homes and families and little — little lives. We’ll try a different tack at dawn tomorrow.”

The Atlanteans shrugged at each other and swam into the deepening gloom of twilight, leaving Jack alone with his thoughts. They were not pleasant ones.

He stalked to the edge of the green dome and placed his hand on it, as he had a dozen times before. Nothing. It was as if he was resting his hand on air, or water as the case may be. No matter how hard he pushed, he never felt the palm of his hand flatten against anything. It didn’t have any temperature differential, either. At first the effect was fascinating, but now it was just getting on his nerves. In a fit of pique, Jack kicked at the dome. His foot just stopped at the edge. He didn’t even get the satisfaction of a stubbed toe.

Halloween Jack started to turn away, but paused. He was standing on a small rock shelf which protruded partway into the anomaly. Maybe it was the sudden movement of his kick that did it, but the outer rock was now twisted just slightly out of kilter with the rock inside. The edges didn’t match up. Jack blinked.

He crouched down, all spidery knees and elbows, and peered at the stone. The outer rock faded into the inner one like two holos that didn’t quite fit together. He wrapped his large green hands around the end of the rock, set his feet as best he could into the soft sand, and pulled, straining. The shelf rocked slightly, then slid a good forty centimeters backward. Jack stumbled with an arm-whirling “Whoa!” and fell flat on his bony rear end. Silt swirled up from the impact.

Holy shock.

Jack scrambled to examine the stone. The portion of the rock which had been inside the anomaly seemed all right. Inside the anomaly, however, that same portion of rock appeared to sit unmoved, fading into nothingness. After a few minutes of strain and leverage, Jack managed to pull the flat rock completely out of the anomaly; still its ghostly twin stayed.

Well, slap me silly with a Mr. Fizzee doll, Jack thought. The apparition started right where his hand stopped when he “touched” the anomaly. He looked up with longing at the wobbling, pulsating city of Las Vegas just a few blocks away. Was it some sort of illusion? Who would play such a terrible, cruel prank on him?

No, that couldn’t be right. It didn’t explain the non-tactile force field, for one thing. His Las Vegas was back, jammit. It had to be. Anything else was just too horrible to contemplate. Plus that would mean he’d been hanging around Atlanteans for nothing. They all smelled like shrimp to him. Pee-yooo.

First things first. He turned his attention to the rock he’d just extracted. Maybe the portion that had been inside the anomaly contained some answers. He was in the mood for an all-nighter anyway.

Amazingly enough, the very first test he tried revealed stunning results. Earlier in the day he’d cobbled together a hand-held resonance scanner, which stimulated a yellow glow in anything permeated with VU energy. The outside section of the rock glowed dimly in the shaft of light, just like all the rocks nearby. The inside section, however, was pitch black wherever the beam struck it. Something within the anomaly, or maybe about the anomaly, had leached out all the VU energy.

But how was that possible? Jack stared up at the Synge casino deep within the green hemisphere. He could see what appeared to be his VU projector on the roof, merrily spewing distortion waves. If that really was the Virtual Unreality projector, he mused, the area inside the anomaly should be super-saturated with VU energy. He could see it, right there. He could see …

He squinted. He could see figures moving around on the roof of the casino.

Instantly, Halloween Jack morphed his feet and hands into flippers and rocketed off the sea floor. Since the Atlanteans had discovered the anomaly, no one had seen any inhabitants, human or otherwise, though signs of habitation were many. Maybe now, finally, he would find some answers.

Jack followed the curve of the anomaly to its very top. Above his head, the ocean waves were merely two meters deep; before long the anomaly would be exposed to air. Jack’s attention, however, was focused on what he saw below, which both amazed and dismayed him. On the roof of the casino stood his old pal Henri Huang and old nemesis former President Victor Von Doom, engaged in deep and engrossing conversation with … Halloween Jack.

Jack shook his head in confusion. Below, his counterpart conversed blithely with the president as if not even noticing his identical twin crouched mere yards overhead. A sinking feeling penetrated Jack’s stomach. He watched where Doom, Henri and … well, himself … were standing. He didn’t want to admit it, but he knew it was true: he remembered this conversation. This was the beginning of it all, back when he’d first activated the VU generator and turned Las Vegas into a much more interesting place.

Then something very weird happened, even by Jack’s standards: Doom gestured toward the building’s edge, and a huge muscular figure suddenly burst up out of a crater in the street below and landed on the roof. A flash of light sizzled from the monster into Doom’s gauntlet; the beast stumbled backward to the edge and hauled himself over the side. The hideous form began climbing down the side of the casino; the conversation continued above as if nothing had happened. What the fraggin’ shockin’ frag?

Then it hit him: Lytton Synge. During that particular conversation, Lytton Synge climbed up on the roof of the casino and charged Jack in mind-addled hatred. Doom, being the swell guy he was, blasted Synge over the side of his own casino and into the street below. Halloween Jack had just witnessed that very same historical event … in reverse. Apparently someone had pressed the rewind button on reality. Or unreality, as the case may be.

Jack watched in fascination as the conversation regressed. His twin made some very funny costume changes, until Doom decided he’d had enough and lifted off, flying butt-first toward the outskirts of the city. Henri and Jack-2 walked backward to the VU machinery. Meanwhile, the VU projector pulsed with light and power, almost totally obscuring the shadowy human figure within.

That deserved a double-take. There was someone inside his VU projector. Jack thought back as long and hard as he could, but he was pretty darn sure he hadn’t put a body in the projector before he’d turned it on. That much flesh would have messed up the wave symmetry, for one thing. Henri wasn’t the killer type; maybe Doom … ?

Meanwhile, the spectacle below him, the original activation of the Las Vegas VU projector, was winding down (or up, depending on how you looked at it). Henri zipped around backwards, making first-minute adjustments. Jack-2 was looking mighty smug, as well he should. The VU waves began receding from the edges of the city; in moments, they would arrive back at point zero. The vague humanoid figure in the projector didn’t seem in the least concerned. In fact, he looked pretty relaxed, lying on his back in the projector, like he was just some errant sun-tanner soaking up rays.

Soaking it up. Jack’s eyes widened. Oh shock.

The first final VU waves converged on the projector. The illusion of the restored Vegas was gone now, sucked up along with the VU energy which had once permeated the area, revealing the dark pile of rubble Jack had expected to find in the first place. Henri, Jack-2 and a last few square yards of the casino roof vanished in an inversion of light. Nothing remained but a floating humanoid figure, the distressingly familiar figure of an armored, one-armed man holding a pikestaff. The man looked up with glowing white eyes, then made a casual gesture with the staff.

The world dissolved in a rapidly expanding ball of light. A shockwave slammed into Halloween Jack, and he knew nothing more.

Illusory attacks assaulted Miguel O’Hara on all sides. Whenever he would swing through one image of the Goblin, another would land a punch to his jaw, his stomach, his back with stunning strength.

When all the illusions vanished at once, Miguel was certain it was a trap. But then the Goblin dropped to his knees, clutched his head, and shrieked, a scream far higher than the human register could possibly go …

Charles Jury and the ghost of Metalscream wandered through the Gallery. Magical paintings flickered and changed randomly as they approached, pigments actually running from one part of the canvas to another, forming new shapes and images.

Metalscream threw his arms wide, and the painting rearranged themselves. One after another, they all changed, each one a different impression of the same symbol, the sigil which had recently haunted Charles Jury’s nightmares:

Omega. Omega. Omega. Omega. Omega …

The white-haired man, looking very old, squinted into the western sky. He knew he’d have to face him again one day. He wondered if he was ready, then supposed he had to be.

“And so,” the Net Prophet sighed to no one in particular, “it begins again.”

Next episode: Dimensions torn asunder! Humanity on the brink! Battles raging from Myridia to Mars! More action, more drama, more happy (and unhappy) returns! Face facts, True Believer; you’ll have to be back here in thirty-ish!
DISCLAIMER: 2099 (including all prominent characters and the distinct likenesses thereof) is a property of Marvel Comics Group. Used without permission, but with the greatest admiration. “2100: The New World” and original characters are © 1998 Chris Casey. This text is freeware. No part of this text may be sold or changed in any way without the express permission of the author. Comments and e-mail should be addressed to Christopher Casey.