Lost Children
by Mike Cocker and Paul Cocker


February, U. S. Naval Advanced Base and Hospital, Milford Haven, Wales.

The mist loomed over Milford Haven like a death shroud.  It clung to the land's rolling hills and slate-fenced homes.  The mist was especially bad this season as the Welsh even complained about it, and on first hearing they sounded more like people talking backwards.  Across the St. George's Channel, in Ireland, the fog was coming up pink, because the blood on the battlefields evaporated with the morning dew.

The blood that saturated the moors and peat-filled landscape made soldiers slip, and if an infantryman fell face first, he was at risk of drowning in the gore of his brothers.

As Old Glory walked through the grounds of the hospital, patients in smock-like pajamas and doctors in surgeon scrubs turned to stare at him.  He was used to it.  Granted, the men before Old Glory were heroes in their own right, but they were essentially reservists who had joined the Armed Forces to acquire a free education.  If they had any inkling that they would be involved with such a tragic and horrific counter-attack on the Royal Elite, these men would have never considered being a soldier.

Old Glory ignored the men's slack-jawed stares.  To them, he was the ultimate soldier and war hero, a living legend, a man who had just recently survived a full-fledged fight with the almighty Avatar.  Festooned in a form-fitting uniform of stars and primary colors, Old Glory was also a symbol; he was the standard bearer who had waved in America's involvement in Ireland.  He was an inspiration to each and every soldier, an icon to stare at in dazed fascination.  Which these soldiers did; these men who had been mutilated and mangled.

It was February, and the conflict in Ireland was getting worse.  Milford Haven was one of the hospitals that received the military war wounded.  The place was a bit nostalgic for Old Glory, as this was one of the naval bases and field hospitals the U.S. were stationed at during WWII.  Some things have changed since then.  But some things were all too familiar as well.

The wounded, both physically and mentally, lined the halls in stretchers.  Despite the field doctors' best efforts to manage a practical triage system, dozens of soldiers sent to Milford Haven to be bandaged and operated on were beyond reasonable recovery.  Old Glory marched by the incinerator room and gave those that stared at him a salutary nod.  Many were in wheelchairs or on crutches, and those that walked scuffled about like creatures from a Hammer film.

Old Glory sighed.  Ever since Avatar was unmasked as one of Autocrat's newest recruit, morale was at an all-time low.  Avatar, the demi-god and Earth's greatest protector, in cahoots with the Royal Elite.  Old Glory couldn't stop Avatar, and neither could Omega.  The press was even comparing the Allied troops to England's herd animals suffering from foot-and-mouth disease.

Cattle getting slaughtered and sent to landfill sites.

Soldiers like cattle sent to the slaughter.

Old Glory thought this was a defeatist attitude.  There were causes worth dying for.  And if he wasn't such a top-tier, nigh-invulnerable super-soldier, he easily could have been in one of those wheelchairs -- or jammed in an incinerator, like others -- long ago.

Granted, this opinion was far from being existential dogma, but that was the extent of his philosophy.  The Tyrian Project, a subsidiary of the Department of Defense, had assigned him to help put a stopper to the Royal Elite.  He planned to carry out his mission and get the hell out of Great Britain.  The fog was miserable.

The overall air, worse.

Old Glory neared the wing of 1F, the psych ward.  The Director of Psychiatry's office sat just on the other of the door, granting the doctor immediate access to his patients.  Old Glory seemed a little surprised, as shrinks tended to distance themselves, having the patients come to them.  A corpsman looked up from his booth in the outer office and swallowed hard as he went for a double-take.  He then rose at ramrod attention, saluted, and said, "Old Glory, sir.  Captain Wesley's expecting you."

Old Glory said nothing.  The corpsman -- who was young enough to be his great grandson, or the son of his great grandson's for that matter -- crossed the room and knocked on a door.

"Yes."  The voice was calm.

"Dr. Wesley, Old Glory has arrived."

"Please ask him to come in, Private."

Old Glory crossed the room, the hard leather soles of his flared boots making noise on the linoleum floor.  Back in 1943, the floors were of wood tiling.  He had no idea when the hospital was actually built.  It felt old.

But then again, Old Glory felt old.

"Ah, Old Glory."  The doctor looked up at the craggy features of the super-soldier, and as he rose from his chair, he still had to cant his head back slightly.  They certainly broke the mold when they made him, the doctor thought -- a combination of Arnold Schwarzenegger's body, Clint Eastwood's jawline, Frank Sinatra's eyes, and Paul Newman's hair.

And the doctor was no slouch either.  He stood a good six-feet-tall, with an athletic build and a GI's bearing.  He was far from the average psychiatrist.

Old Glory tilted his head.  "Captain Wesley."

The doctor looked over the brawny war hero's shoulder at the corpsman.  The young soldier nodded and left Old Glory and Wesley to discuss matters.  As soon as the doctor's office door closed, Wesley's facade faded.  Wesley drooped into his chair and massaged his temples.  He seemed to age fifteen years in the span of a few breaths.

"I can't thank you enough for coming," Wesley said.  "Please, sit down."

Old Glory sat.  He got himself comfortable even, leaning back in his chair and placing his boots up on the doctor's desktop.

"Shit," Captain Wesley said.  "Do you drink?"

"Only coffee or alcohol."  A smile surfaced across the opening of Old Glory's half-mask.

Wesley slid open a drawer and withdrew a bottle of whiskey, and two glasses came clinking down beside it.  He filled the glasses and passed one to Old Glory.  They both slugged the whiskey back.

"Welcome to Hell."  Wesley bared his teeth as he felt the bite of the whiskey.  "I suppose you hear that a lot, being the veteran you are."

Old Glory reached for the bottle and poured himself another shot.  He downed the shot and then stared at the doctor.  "Pretty much."

The captain nodded, and in turn poured himself another glass of whiskey.  "I'm not sure if you've read about me in whatever reports the Defense Department has compiled," he said in between sips.  "But I'm certain the literature is out of date."

"What is it with you headshrinkers?" Old Glory asked.  "A few months ago, a so-called therapist from Purgatory Prime pretty much introduced himself the same way."

Wesley put on a weak smile.  "Sorry.  I guess I try to validate my profession by creating a sense of intrigue."

Old Glory cocked a brow as he sifted a hand through his silver hair.  "I don't know if I'd call it intrigue.  You root out the fruitcakes."

The doctor sighed.  "Kids diced to ribbons.  Bodies fragged from explosions.  Burn victims.  Amputees.  Most of them joined the corps because the damn commercials looked so exciting.  Most of them are... well, kids."  His voice was hushed, strained.

Old Glory made no comment, just looked at the good doctor.

"But you're right.  My job is to essentially sort out those that are sane from those that are too crazy to be trusted with a weapon.  To help who's shellshocked, and to have the frauds patched back together and sent back to fight."  Wesley sounded disgusted.

"Well, I'm not sure if it's any consolation, but the Russians have said ‘peace is the daughter of war.'" Old Glory's tone sounded matter-of-factly, which made what he said a bit callous.  But then again, philosophy wasn't one of his stronger suits.  Old Glory frowned, and asked, "Why did you have me summoned?"

"I've got a case.  John Doe.  Found during a recent recon mission about the fringe of the Wexford concentration camp.  After my initial review, I classified him as a catatonic.  The cessation of motor skills, the dilation of pupils -- it all led me to believe him to be in some sort of fear-induced trance."

"Makes sense, considering the GIs found him on the outskirts of one of Autocrat's death camps," Old Glory replied.  "He's most likely an escapee."

"That's what I was willing to accept too.  That is, until I decided to schedule John Doe for a more thorough examination.  And soon, I discovered that he was suffering from a schizoid embolism."

"English, Doc," the super-soldier said bluntly.  "A schizoid embolism?"

Doctor Wesley opened a manilla folder.  "John Doe underwent a battery of tests.  PET and CAT scans showed an excess of neurotransmitter formation, but no brain damage or shrinkage of cerebral tissue was evident."

He closed that one, laid it aside, and opened another folder.  "An MRI revealed enlarged, fluid- filled ventricles in his frontal lobe."

Old Glory shook his head.  "Captain, you're starting to kill me with this medical babble."

Wesley closed the folder.  "John has the negative symptoms of acute schizophrenia."

Still, Old Glory had a blank expression on his face.

"I believe something or someone has forced John Doe into this motionless, zombie-like state -- a condition we call a ‘flat affect.'"

Old Glory took that in, then furrowed his brow.  "Forced?  You mean someone messed with his mind.  A telepath maybe?"

The psychiatrist shrugged.  "Yes.  It's too difficult to formally conclude.  But you've experienced people under the influence of telepathic persuasion.  I've even picked up from the rumor mill that you've been the victim of hypnotic suggestion during the Nazi's rise to power."

Old Glory nodded his head, a hard expression etched on his face.  "That would be the Spellbinder's doing, one of Hitler's lackeys.  A goddamn pederast and all-round sicko.  He ultimately wanted me to lead the Führer's Brownshirts, but I managed to snap out of it.  In good time too, since I could've easily been one of those unlucky storm troopers that got executed in 1934 -- you know, ‘the Night of the Long Knives.'" Old Glory paused, and Wesley swore he saw him shudder slightly.  Then he continued. "I had a few encounters with lightweights throughout the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, namely Mesmer of the Russian mob and Cagliostro of Pablo Escobar's Medellin cartel.  Then I haggled with four Draughtsmen under Vox's spell, back in ‘88.  And of course there's my run-in with Avatar."

Old Glory looked at Wesley and smiled wryly.  "Look, if you think John Doe is under the same mind-warp as Avatar, think again.  Avatar not only mopped the floor with me and the Nighthawks, he was quite eloquent with regards to Autocrat's ideals.  So, sorry, you can't compare him to some spud you found by one of the Elite's camps."

The doctor shook his head.  "No, John Doe wasn't discovered in a trance.  He was very much active.  The field leader of the recon team said he was actually trying to reenter the concentration camp.  It was only when he was constrained by the team that his schizophrenia was triggered."

"Triggered?"

Wesley nodded.  "Of course it's only a hunch, but let's just for one minute assume that Autocrat is having the prisoners mind-controlled, perhaps hypnotically persuaded to do his crazed bidding.  It's possible that John Doe was a straggler that somehow got off the premise of the camp, then tried to get back within.  It's also possible that the prisoners have some sort of psychic fail-safe, just in case of a rescue.  My guess is that John Doe's schizophrenia is an example of this fail-safe, turning a potential informant essentially tableau rasa."

"A blank slate," Old Glory muttered.

Wesley flipped open another folder.  "Because there's no evidence of a lobotomy, I'm supposing a telepath did do this.  And a damn good one too -- real good one."

"Well, it's obvious Autocrat has powerful telepaths working for him."  Old Glory paused.  "Brainchild and Harbinger.  They're both young, and like your standard computer hackers out there, they'd probably get their rocks off reprogramming a friggin' brain, setting up some firewalls in some schmo's mind.  Christ, look what they did to Avatar -- and he doesn't exactly have the most malleable psyche."

The doctor placed the folders on his desk and looked at Old Glory.  "You're right.  But John Doe's case is hopefully less severe.  Acute schizophrenia can be treated with therapy.  I've placed him on Clozaril, which has helped reanimate him."

"Wait a second," Old Glory asserted.  "John Doe's no longer a vegetable?  Can he talk?"

Wesley frowned, then pressed a finger down on his intercom.  "Please bring John Doe in, Private."

In silence, the two men sat, each with his own thoughts.  Old Glory guessed the captain pondered over the patient.  The patriot's mind was on the whiskey, wondering if he needed another shot or not.  A good seven minutes passed until they could hear a jingle and a shuffle in the hall.  Wesley looked up.  Old Glory kept trying to read the report that was peaking out of a manilla folder on the desk.  The report was upside down, with most of it swathed in measurements and scientific jargon.

And then he noticed the words "Class 1 hypnosis and psychic surgery."

"John," Dr. Wesley said.  Old Glory was a little surprised by the warmth in his tone.  "This is Old Glory, John.  Remember?"

"Y-yeah," John Doe stammered.

Old Glory turned around.  The patient was a black man.  Middle-aged, willowy, with crazy white hair that looked like steel wool.  A scar ran down his left cheek.  His legs were shackled, his hands cuffed.

Old Glory looked at Dr. Wesley and said, "I want to take him to the cafeteria.  Just us two."

The captain considered the idea for a moment.  Old Glory's brow creased as he gazed at him.

Wesley gulped, then made his decision.  "John, Old Glory is going to take you to the cafeteria.  Okay?"

"Y-yeah," John Doe said.  Tears glazed over his eyes, his mouth trembled.

Old Glory stood.

"The cafeteria's just off the ward," Wesley said.  "The private will show you."

The private's name was Morehead; Old Glory read his name tag.  He escorted Old Glory and John Doe out of the office and onto the ward.  What stood out the most about the ward was its silence.  Maybe it had to do with the super-soldier's presence, or maybe it was the meds the patients were on.  They went into the cafeteria.  A few plastic chairs were splayed about the small room, and John Doe slumped into one of them.  Tears beaded down his face.

As soon as Private Moorehead left the cafeteria, Old Glory said, "Don't worry, I'm not one of the bad guys."

"It's not you," John Doe whispered.  Strangely, he spoke with an American accent.  Harlem maybe; a tourist back-packing Europe perhaps.  "I was in this port city, not sure how I got there.  It was like a ghost town.  The people were fenced in at some camp close by.  It had watchtowers and weird steel robots with guns.  I tried to entered the camp, but I couldn't."

"They've got Pepsi in the pop machine," Old Glory said.  "Orange Crush and root bear.  That's it.  Do you wanna pop?  It's on me."

"Pepsi, please," John Doe said.  He let out a harsh sob, but he immediately stifled it.  "I don't remember the last time I had a Pepsi."

Old Glory placed fifty pence in the machine and punched the button with his finger.  He handed the pop to the patient.  John Doe took a swig.  He leaned back in his chair and a Niagara of tears flowed.

"It's not a big city," he said.  "Many of the buildings are rubble, with the odd church or fort still standing.  The people look unhappy at the camp."

"Why didn't you run away?" Old Glory asked.

"People walk in circles all day.  So do the robots.  There's this pier--"

"Why didn't you run away?"

John Doe wrapped both hands around his can of Pepsi.  "Did you know," he questioned shrilly, "that some of the people are sorted out and marched into a strange-looking building.  A few days later they come out of the building as monsters."

Old Glory remained silent.

"I had to see!" John Doe shouted.  "I was told to!  Told to!"

The patient threw his can at a nearby wall.  Cola exploded everywhere.  Two corpsman rushed into the cafeteria with restraints and a needle, and then John Doe shrieked and struggled.  Nothing he screamed made sense, save for the screaming itself.

And John Doe could scream, Old Glory gave him that.

Old Glory was escorted back to Captain Wesley's office.  The doctor came following in a minute later.

"Sorry about that," the captain said.  "It was the Clozaril.  It made him uncontrollable and overreactive, essentially acting as an amphetamine.  We had to sedate him.  If you want to wait a while, he'll come around, and I'll adjust his dosage.  I'll sit in too."  Wesley looked tired and frustrated.

Old Glory shook his head.  "I'm gonna go.  Need some fresh air and to stretch my legs.  Ireland is as good a place as any."

******

Old Glory preferred cigars to cigarettes.  He enjoyed a good stogie when he was relaxing, and leaned to the Marboros when he was on a drinking binge.  But while on the job his taste depended on the given situation.  In other times and other stakeouts, the super-soldier had learned never to fire up a "cancer stick."  The blaze of a lighter, the rise of smoke, they were like beacons.  But bad habits die hard, and if Old Glory wasn't such a seasoned commando and counter-intelligence agent he'd have been a corpse.

Hunkered down in his perch atop a dilapidated tenement building, his hefty frame protected by the strewn rubble and patches of ivy, Old Glory extracted a cigar from a compartment along his combat belt.  Keeping an eye on his map, he placed the pre-cut Cuban in his mouth and lit it with an igniter.  He smoked with a distracted enthusiasm as he compared points on his map to his high- vantage survey of Wexford.

It had been a city once.  Now it was a patch of dusty, charred shapes.  Not the first site he had seen like this, and certainly not his last.

Old Glory continued to survey the area as the sun set.  The fog came up, but he barely noticed.  He didn't care.  In the dark, he crouched, listening to the creeping through the bushes along the ridge.  It was human, of that he was certain.  Also, alone.  It was edging towards the ruins.  All Old Glory had to do was wait, and the person would come to him.

A few minutes later, the moon shone down on an old man in a dirty white shirt and ripped trousers.  He was stooped with age, his eyes bulging.  He looked placid and dazed.  He probably escaped from the nearby concentration camp.  But instead of running for his life, he sifted through the ruins of Wexford, as if looking for someone or something.

From his perch in the thick, moist shadows, Old Glory stepped out to allow the moonlight to touch his garish costume.  But the old man didn't notice the star-spangled soldier.  Powered by his suit-generated gravity field, Old Glory floated off the building then touched down by the man.

Debris crunched under the super-patriot as he struggled for purchase along the ruins and congealed earth.  Strangely, the old man seemed oblivious to the terrain's effects.  Old Glory raised his hands, showing that he was unarmed.

"Hello there," Old Glory said.  "I'm here to help you."

But the man said nothing in return.  Didn't even acknowledge Old Glory's words.

Old Glory waved his hands, then snapped his fingers, trying to get the man's attention.  It was to no avail

He stepped forward to help him, to get him out of this city.  The man only brushed him off with his insistence to continue on looking about.

Old Glory's considered just grabbing the man, but held back.  He immediately thought of John Doe, back in Wales, and how his schizophrenia was possibly triggered by being abducted by the recon team.  Something about the old man wasn't right.  Old Glory had seen brave soldiers stand up to certain death all the time; it was the sight of this valor and courage that sustained what idealism he had left.  But this old man wasn't being brave.  He just didn't care, and that wasn't right.  He wasn't acting suicidal either.  He was looking about the grounds, yet his search lacked any analytical or deductive consideration to what he observed.  He had the mannerisms of a sleepwalker.

"Yoohoo, mister.  Wakey-wakey."

Then suddenly, as if he had momentarily closed off his own senses, Old Glory looked elsewhere with a start.  He became aware of a quick rush of air, heard something evocative of static, followed by a metallic clacking and the advancing of footfalls.  Then, rounding an upended double-decker bus, came two figures.  They stayed together, which Old Glory thought only tactical morons would do.  Then again, the two most likely concluded they had nothing to fear. And as they moved in, clearing free from a wisp of fog, Old Glory recognized who they were.

"Rook and Proctor," Old Glory said.

He had read the dossier on them.   Both were bears of men, standing over six feet, with massive physiques.  But that's where their similarities stopped.  Garbed in a dark green uniform, steel- plated jackboots, Rook was an older man, with thick, cabled bionic arms and long white hair that he kept tied back to reveal his war-beaten features.  Proctor looked more like a Renaissance painting brought to life than a rugged survivor of wars.  With his squarish jaw, stark blue eyes, long blond hair, regal garb, he seemed like the very antithesis of Rook.  He was nevertheless an imposing figure, to be sure.  Emissaries, diplomatic enforcers, shock troopers.  It didn't matter what title Rook and Proctor went by -- they all spelled bad news.

"You made a grave mistake," Rook said, a wicked smile surfacing on his face.  "Coming here and traipsing about on our property.  Did you not hear about our attack in New York?  We thrashed that slut Knock-out and that aristocrat named Maestro."

"Yeah, England's Ministry of Metahuman Affairs briefed me," Old Glory answered.  "It must be a little embarrassing though, considering Knock-out and Maestro are teenagers."

"Not really," Rook informed.  "Just like it's not going to be embarrassing for the two of us to thrash you, all by your lonesome."

"Wait, Rook," Proctor said, and Old Glory was stunned to hear him taking up for the opposition.  "We came for the old man, not for battle.  Autocrat wants this one to be examined by Harbinger."

A smile etched itself across the super-soldier's face.  He then pointed at the old man, who was still aimlessly meandering about.  "What's up?  You can't keep us simple folk locked in your pound?"

"Hardly," Rook spat.

Proctor acknowledged the old man.  "We were informed of this one's snooping about.  Third sighting this week."

Old Glory's brow arched.  "Third?"

"At first we thought it might by one of your uncultured schemes," Rook added.

"Schemes?" Old Glory asked.  He then pointed at the old man to stress his point.  "Oh, I see, you thought this old man was a spy.  What gave away that he wasn't, the fact that he's a friggin' zombie?"

Proctor shook his head.  "No, the fact that he wasn't in a giant wooden horse."

Old Glory laughed.  "Well, I'm hoping you're a little more tactful than the Trojans."

"Why?" Rook asked.  "You're obviously less cunning than the Greeks."

"Look," Old Glory huffed, "I really don't care what you idiots think.  That old coot isn't part of a plan."

Old Glory then looked at the estranged man, who was now peering through a broken window at a nearby storefront.  Rook and Proctor implied he wasn't a slave of the Royals.  It was possible that he was a stray civilian, not swept up by slave drivers.  Old Glory's mind went back to John Doe and the fact that soldiers had found him much like he found this old man.  What's he looking for, both here and at the camp?  And who placed him under the spell he's in?  Third sighting this week, he reiterated to himself.  This was too weird.

"I got three things to tell you fascists," Old Glory said.  "First off, you're not taking the old man.  Second, Autocrat's little attempt at conquest here is temporary, and nobody's gonna recognize him as the ruler of anything."

"Look around you, plebeian," Proctor said.  "Do you actually believe you have a chance of stopping the Royal Elite?"

"More than a chance," Old Glory answered.  "There's no other acceptable outcome.  No matter what it takes, you and your kind are going down."

"You're outclassed and outmatched," Rook said.  Then he laughed.  "We're going to crush you and your American idealism.  Even your name -- 'Old Glory' -- is so appropriate right now.  To me, it implies how antiquated you people really are.  Your days of so-called glory have long since passed."

But even as Rook spoke, Old Glory considered the words.  There was a distinct possibility, given the Royal Elite's power, that he and the others that opposed these blue-blooded oppressors would fail.  Old Glory glared at Rook and Proctor.

"You think we're the scum of the Earth," Old Glory said.  "You get your rocks off pretending that you're better than us, that you're some prim and proper class.  You've incarcerated a country, experimented on its civilians as if they were lab rats, and still you claim to be noble and aristocratic."

"You dare to condescend us?" Proctor said.  "You who represents a country where only the rich prosper and the upper class dominate.  You who represents a country that embraces segregation."

Old Glory grunted.  "Just so you don't call me a misguided, self-loathing hypocrite, let me start by saying I'm not here to debate about the poor.  Right now, let them eat friggin' cake.  But that doesn't mean I'm gonna stand at the wayside and watch national and individual freedoms get traded like baseball cards.  It took centuries of war and revolution to pry such liberties from unaccountable aristocrats.  Yeah, the world's not perfect.  Yeah, the world has its crosses to bear -- and feudalism is one of them."  Old Glory crossed his arms before his chest.  "So, what makes you think that we're just gonna bow to you snot-nosed elitists?"

"You have no say in the matter, you insufferable chimp," Rook spat.  "You lack the sophistication and class to know what's good for you.  It's nature's decree that we stand as the next stage of evolution.  We're the higher class -- we're the higher order."

"Maybe you'll be the next link in evolution's chain," Old Glory replied.  "But did you really think the United States was gonna allow Autocrat to speed up nature's course?"

"Allow?" Proctor laughed.  "Autocrat needs no allowances.  His role has already been established."

"And your simpleton of a president can send in all the soldiers and weapons he has against the Royal Elite," Rook added.  "They will still kneel before us and respect our reign."

"Oh, you think so?"  Old Glory gave the two a cocky smile.  He then withdrew a folded paper from a pouch along his belt.  He unfolded the paper, opening it up to reveal a map of Ireland.  "Don't think for a second we don't have counter-measures."  Old Glory proceded by lighting a corner of the map with his lighter, and then dropped the burning map to the ground, watching the flames devour it.

"Go ahead use your nukes," Rook dared.

"That's an amusing threat," Proctor said.  "But I really doubt even you commoners are stupid enough to launch your nuclear bombs.  The world is far too important to just destroy it."

"You underestimate us commoners then," Old Glory retorted.  "We're a proud, willful and arrogant bunch."

"A bluff," Rook barked.

"Come, Rook," Proctor said, giving Old Glory a dismissive gesture.  "We don't have time to entertain this plebeian any longer.  Grab the old wanderer and let's be off."

Old Glory shook his head.  "You two don't listen.  I said I had three things to tell you.  The third was, just because you don't want to throw down doesn't mean I don't."

And like that, Old Glory stretched his hands in Rook and Proctor's direction, the delicate micro- circuitry within his power-suit sending out a forceful gravity beam.  The invisible blast lanced through the air, distorting the ambient light it passed through and making reality seemingly bend for a second, and then the ground exploded in front of the upended bus.  The double-decker rolled forward, metal moaning under its lofty weight as it fell on Rook and Proctor.

Old Glory's body pulsed as he shot himself forward and flew into a freestanding wall by the now toppled bus.  He shoulder-tackled the wall and it fell almost in one piece, a tidal wave of debris that shattered completely as it struck the bus.  Bricks exploded and dust belched up in the air as mushrooming clouds.

"That was easy," Old Glory said with a satisfactory nod of his head.  He then turned to see where the old man was at, and saw that he was roaming about at the far end of the town.  "Okay, old man.  It looks as if we've outstayed our welcome."

But then Old Glory turned to face his downed opponents.

Nothing hid the crimson and gold form as Proctor erupted from the rubble.  Unscathed by his own escape from beneath twisted metal and shattered brickwork, Proctor appeared almost angelic as he came to view.

"You'll have to do better than that, old man!" Proctor roared, streaking like a torpedo toward Old Glory.  He slammed his gauntleted fists into the patriot's chest with enough force to send him careening half a mile, to land into the side of an old oak.  Despite how he felt, Old Glory smiled.

He was a combatant, after all.

"Nice shot, Goldielocks," he said.  "Now I'm pissed!"

"We didn't come to fight, primate."  Proctor glared at Old Glory, reaching out with surging hands of pure psychokinetic force.  "But try your best!  I stand ready!"

Waves of gravity and force-generated powers tore the air between them, filling the nightly Wexford sky with the booms of thunder.  Shells of buildings suddenly collapsed.  Abandoned cars exploded.  Heedless of their seismic might, neither Old Glory nor Proctor wavered in their resolve to overwhelm the other.

"Damn you, you hellish do-gooder!" Proctor raged.

Proctor's hands crackled with energy.  The force-bolts that he loosed glowed brighter, became more powerful by the second.  The psychokinetic onslaught drove Old Glory to take a defensive stance.  The super-soldier dove for cover, tumbling and somersaulting out of Proctor's line of fire.  Then Old Glory popped up from behind a heap of rubble and unleashed another gravity beam.

The invisible beam furrowed through the fabric of space, bridging the gap between Old Glory and Proctor.  So intense was the attack that Proctor willed up a force-shield.  The gravitic attack buffeted the shield, causing it to buckle, then shatter, and Proctor went flying backwards with curses on his lips.

Old Glory shook his head.  "Phew, that was fun."

He hovered over to where Proctor was sprawled out in the middle of an alley.  Knowing that the blue-blooded meta could take far more punishment, he lashed out with a powerful wave of gravity, ensnaring Proctor and pinning him to the asphalt and gravel.

"That should hold you for a bit," Old Glory said.  "Now, back to the old man -- uhnff!"

A streak of energy suddenly ripped through the sky, to strike Old Glory full in the chest.  The patriot grunted, releasing his gravitic hold on Proctor.

"You dare?" Rook shouted.  "You dare threaten and attack nobility?"

Rook's eyes narrowed on the patriot, his thick, steel arms flexing as his hands tightened around an ornate staff.  A nebulous glow crackled from the end of the staff, its ominous sound mirroring its wielder's dark mood.  The air filled with the stench of burning ozone.

"Ah, Rook," Old Glory said.  "You know, you shouldn't scowl.  It gives you wrinkles."

Time seemed to stop, as Old Glory and Rook faced each other down over fifteen feet of hellbent road.  They surged forward.

"Only the strong will survive our Great Conquest," Rook snarled as his staff streaked toward Old Glory's face.

"Guess you're shit out of luck then, huh," Old Glory said, sidestepping the glowing staff.

Sneering at his advantage of facing the unarmed adversary, Rook raised his staff again and charged.  Old Glory crouched, his fingers outstretched and wavering like a wrestler at the ready, waiting for the right opening.  Then he saw Rook shift the staff in his hands and realized where the strike was coming from.  Scrambling to his right and then tumbling to his left, the super-soldier let the energized staff graze his back.  Then he shot out, driving his elbow into Rook with enough force to pulverize concrete.

As it was, Rook spun with the attack and threw Old Glory over his hip -- and that was the opening the bionic blue-blood needed.  Before his adversary could recover, Rook stabbed the butt of his staff into Old Glory's stomach, again and again.  Eventually, Old Glory managed to grab the weapon's shaft, stopping the attack.  Old Glory scrambled, sweeping Rook's legs out from under him with a kick.  Rook stumbled, almost fell, compensated, and braced himself as Old Glory came up behind him and pulled the staff into his throat.

"You're good," Old Glory said.

"And you're dead," Rook retorted.

Rook struggled, servos in his bionic limbs silently moaning.  The two danced around in a circle.  Rook managed to hook a foot around the super-soldier's ankle.  The hero stumbled, loosening his grip on the staff, and he was thrown over Rook's shoulder.  Old Glory fell and tumbled, then
rebounded as if his legs were compressed springs, and threw himself at Rook.  A red boot smashed into the Rook's jaw, hard enough to make his head and entire torso snap back.  Effortlessly, Old Glory lifted the Royal and threw him against a heap of rubble.  The felled bionic man smashed through plaster, bricks, and beams, and lay silent.

Old Glory turned around to find the wandering old man.  He was nowhere to be seen.

"Damn..."

He noticed Proctor getting to his feet slowly, as if he had no care, and the Royal dusted himself off.  Sixty feet away, Old Glory kneeled downed and pried the exotic staff from Rook's stiff, cybernetic grip.  Old Glory moved slower than Proctor, but not for the same reason.  He twirled the staff in one hand, and strangely it possessed no special properties while in his grasp.  Still, he held the weapon with proficiency.

Proctor noticed from the way Old Glory nursed his back, it was apparent that he felt the brunt of Rook's attack.  "So you've downed Rook," he said.  "But it's clear he had the better of you."

"There's still plenty of me to go around."  Old Glory tried to smile.

Proctor and Old Glory launched themselves at each other.  While Old Glory swung the staff, the Royal ducked and struck the patriot so hard that the sound echoed like a thunderclap.  Old Glory then swayed, as he was struck with a combination of attacks.  Punches and force-generated bludgeons twisted his head halfway around.

Old Glory winced and grunted, advancing through Proctor's onslaught like a man fighting an avalanche.  Inch by inch, he closed in on Proctor.  Finally, Old Glory grabbed hold of Proctor, and rocketed both of them through a nearby building, bricks exploding outwards as four-stories of steel and mortar collapsed.  Proctor continued to struggle, willed psychokinetic fists to hammer down on Old Glory.  But even under the constant assault, Old Glory pressed on, now seizing Proctor from behind and pulling Rook's staff into his throat.

His head swimming, his body aching, Old Glory choked Proctor with the staff.  The stunned Royal fell back, shaking and coughing, now smashing his elbows and force-attacks into the super-soldier like pile drivers.  But Proctor's consciousness was also ebbing, and he eventually dropped within the rubble, no longer moving.

Old Glory heaved himself, stumble-footed, from the demolished building.  Rook and Proctor posed a serious threat, but it was moot at the moment.

Footsteps came rustling through the nearby woods.  Weapons clacked and radios crackled.  Old Glory heard animalistic howls and robotic voices, and they were advancing his way.

"Shit," Old Glory cursed.  He shot himself into the air, staff in hand, and flew away to regroup.

******

A few days later, Old Glory sat in Dr. Wesley's office.

"How's John Doe, Doc?" the patriot asked.

"He's regressed back into his catatonic state."  Wesley sighed.  "I can't seem to reanimate him with the Clozaril -- the schizoid embolism has resurfaced."

"Hmm."  Old Glory scratched his chin.  "Well, I don't think he was an escapee from the Wexford death camp.  I bumped into another potential John Doe, but a run-in with two Royal Elite members put a stopper on me extracting him from the town.  They seemed to think he was one of our spies."

"A spy?"

"That's what I said."  Old Glory shook his head.  "I mean, the guy in Wexford was a total zombie.  He was snooping about the grounds, but he was completely out of his mind."

"Just like when the recon team found John Doe..."  Wesley looked at Old Glory.  "Most peculiar."

"Well, I gotta go, Doc.  Back to London; back to the mission at hand.  I don't know what to tell you about John Doe and the other schizo.  Maybe they're somehow linked to this whole mess in Ireland, or maybe they're a set of isolated incidents.  Who really knows?  Just see what you can do with John Doe, and if I find others like him I'll try to bring them back for you."

Old Glory went out onto the ward.  A ward nurse escorted a young patient -- a very young patient -- down the hall.  Old Glory let out a tired, disheartened sigh.  Good soldiers, innocent victims, lost children.  The world was full of them.  People like the prisoners at the concentration camps in Ireland, like this patient the nurse escorted.  Like John Doe and the other old man in Wexford.

Old Glory walked by the patient and smiled.  "How're doing, soldier?"

The patient smiled.  "Good, I've just been clinically discharged."

"Guess you've got family waiting for you at home."  Old Glory took a quick glance at his discharge papers the nurse was holding, and saw his name was Cooper.  "Where's home, Cooper?"

"Denver, Colorado," Cooper replied.  "But I'm not going home yet."

"No?"

Cooper shook his head.  "No.  I've been given a clean bill of health.  I'm staying in Britain, and helping the fight."

Old Glory had met extraordinary people who fought and protected and tried to wrest liberation and rescue from battlefields.  Though his strong-arm superpowers didn't include any form or foresight, a lifetime of fighting in the skies and in the streets had left Old Glory with a sort of heightened perception.

Right now, there was a flicker of hope in Old Glory's eyes.
 

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