The alluring Olivia makes her debut on the Katbox After Dark (Mature audiences only) Click here!
Venture into the beautiful, mad world of The Sprawl! Look into it's darkness and the horror deep within! (Mature audiences only) Click here!
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"A duel it is, then," you say, and bow graciously. The first knife goes whizzing over your head and embeds itself in the front of the stopped bus. From between your legs, you can see the bus driver frantically cranking the destination sign to "OUT OF SERVICE." You feel a second knife thud into your butt, but you're wearing enough butt armor to stop armor-piercing rounds, and this barely registers. As you bend back upward, you palm a fistful of sneezing powder from one of your many coat pockets.
"Are you ready for fun?" you ask The Magician.
"Are you ready for death?" he snarls in reply. You both move at the same time.
You bob your head to the side, dodging a third knife, and throw the cloud of powder at him. He starts sneezing immediately, causing him to turn into a pony and then back with each sneeze. The people who had been running away slow down; a few of them turn back to face you and applaud politely.
"I'll - HATCHOO - neighhh - HATCHOO - get you..." It might take him awhile to get that threat out. You look around.
Down the street, the kite assassin is sticking his head out of the door at the kerosene center and talking urgently into a portable radio with a six-foot antenna. You guess he doesn't think you're KGB anymore. In the distance, you hear sirens.
You pull a few bouquets of velveteen roses out of your sleeve, toss them at the crowd, and jump back into the crashed taxi. It's still running. If you can get back into traffic before the cops get here-
Half a dozen patrol cars and an elderly policeman on horseback thunder around the corner. With the bus blocking your other avenue of escape, you're boxed in. What do you do?
You lock the brakes, which isn't hard, and as the taxi skids to a halt you casually step out. The Magician is advancing on you, pausing with each transformation. You've got only a couple more cycles until he reaches you. Fortunately, you also have a rocket launcher.
You give the Magician a theatrical toodle-oo wave, waggling all your fingers, and fire the rocket launcher into a section of asphalt between the two of you, planning to use the dust as escape cover and hoping your body armor can take the shrapnel. What you've forgotten is that rocket-propelled grenades have a timer fuse to prevent the operator from doing suicidal stuff like this; this flying bomb cares more about your safety than you do.
The rocket hits the ground and, instead of exploding, ricochets off the asphalt and hits the Magician in the stomach, picking him up and carrying him. You hear him faintly yelling "I'll get yoooooooou" as the rocket carries him off into the distance. After the appropriate one-second pause, there's a distant explosion. The crowd applauds.
"Excuse me," says a voice, and you feel a tap on your shoulder. It's the cop on horseback. He's poking you with the tip of a sabre. "Was very good show, da, but we must be arresting you now." He looks over his shoulder back to the guy at the kerosene center, who gives him a thumbs up with his non-walkie-talkie hand. "I am very sorry. Was good time."
"Ah," you say, dropping the rocket launcher and tugging your gloves tight. "Would you care for majestic balloon animal? Perhaps squirrel?"
"No," he says apologetically. The other cops are flanking him, still in their cars. One guy has his turn signal on for some reason.
"Ah, well, is very big shame," you say. You pop into a crouch and slam the lid of a nearby manhole cover. Your knowledge of mano de risa means you know all the pressure points for manhole covers. You deliver a masterful blow to it with the heel of your hand, and the 50-pound cover goes flying up into the air, spinning over and over. The entire crowd watches its ascent, and you move quickly.
There's a ladder descending down into the darkness, and you do that super cool thing where you grab onto the outside of it and slide down instead of climbing. Your coolness is mitigated somewhat by your nose twanging off every rung as you descend.
Darkness returns with a crash as you reach the bottom; the manhole cover has slammed back down the way it came. You are now in the Moscow sewer system, in total darkness, and you have about 10 seconds before the police come down after you. This quick and brutal change of fortune from the applause of moments before reminds you that nobody ever truly loves a clown, no matter how much they clap.
You're on concrete, so you take a testing step forward and run into a metal railing. With the rushing sound and awful smell from in front of you, you can tell that you're on a platform next to the actual flow of sewage. You can run left, right, or stand here and fight the policemen, who outnumber you six to one and have a horse.
You make the snap decision to run left and sprint into the darkness, keeping a hand on the rail to steady you. In the darkness behind, you hear angry yelling and angrier whinnying as they lower the horse down.
It's hard to tell, but you sense that your path is curving, and this feeling is borne out as a dim, flickering light begins to emerge from around the bend. The glow reveals details of the stonework in the sewer system, which is about what you'd expect. It's stonework in a sewer system. No reason to get excited. Abruptly, you lunge around the last few feet of the curve and the tunnel straightens, terminating in... you stop, trying to figure out what you're seeing.
The pathway ends in a concrete pad with some sort of ramshackle settlement on it. This isn't the first subterranean hobo camp you've been to, and the usual stuff is here - oil drums with blazing fires inside them, tables made out of cable spools, an abducted soda machine that thieves have lost interest in trying to break into. But there's also an old American flag pinned up on the wall, one of the ones with 48 stars, and a model of the Statue of Liberty made out of rusted machinery. Her head is a propane cylinder with the teeth from a backhoe scoop welded onto it as the spikes for her tiara. You really hope whoever made this emptied the propane out of the cylinder first.
You're taking in some of the finer details, like how the Statue of Liberty is wearing crossed bandoliers of machine gun ammo and has breasts made out of hubcaps, when someone casually steps out of a hovel made out of what appears to be feed bags stretched over a helicopter fuselage. You're just wondering how they got a helicopter down here when the figure moves into the light and you realize it is not human.
It's a wolf - a wolf in the shape of a man! Or at least, enough in the shape of a man to wear really ill-fitting clothes. But they aren't just any ill-fitting clothes; this wolf is dressed like Evel Knievel, but with a bandana over his eyes. The eyeholes in the bandana don't quite line up with his eyes. There's a lot to take in here.
Suddenly, the wolf sees you and yells, in English: "Hey dude! You must be that clown the commies are looking for, huh?" He has a voice like a Minnesotan impersonating a California surf bum, if both the Minnesotan and the surfer were wolves.
"What," you say, "the hell?"
"Oh this is SO COOL," the wolf says. "Let me get the guys!" He scampers back into the helicopter yurt, briefly dropping to all fours, and emerges seconds later with three other wolves. The second one is dressed as Elvis Presley, firelight glinting off the rhinestones of his filthy jumpsuit. The third is dressed as Captain Kirk, his gold Starfleet uniform molding to the lupine contours of his torso in ways the garment makers were not prepared for. The fourth is dressed like a dock worker, and is smoking a cigarette. All of them have ill-fitting bandanas over their eyes, in different colors.
The first three look at you, then each other, and start wagging really hard before regaining composure. The fourth looks less enthused.
"Dude!" the first wolf says again, "I'm, like, Johnny. Johnny Motorcycle!"
"I'm Johnny Pompadour," says the second wolf.
"I'm Johnny Spaceman," says the third wolf.
"I'm Vladimir," says the fourth wolf, "the smart one." He crosses his forelegs like he wants you to make something of it.
"And together," says Johnny Motorcycle, "We're the Lupine Sewer Resistance Wolves!" All four of them sound exactly the same, and suddenly a thread of potential sense appears. You grab onto it frantically.
"Are you from the ROSPLOSION plant?" you ask Johnny Motorcycle. You were briefed as thoroughly as possible before arriving in Moscow, but the Agency has limited knowledge of what goes on in there. No scientist truly knows - or, at least, will admit to knowing - what happens if you punch a wolf a thousand, ten thousand, one hundred thousand times. Maybe they start walking upright and dressing weird.
"We used to be!" says Johnny Motorcycle.
"We were part of a secret project," says Vladimir, cutting in sternly. "There was a plan to deploy us among American wolves, to turn them communist. But-"
"They told us about America!" says Johnny Pompadour.
"America rules!" says Johnny Spaceman.
"We broke out and moved underground," says Vladimir, looking annoyed that he isn't going to get to tell the full version of his story. "We got funding and arms. Sadly, we cannot fire guns with paws."
It takes you a second, but you realize that you and these wolves are on the same team. You're about to say something to this effect, but then Johnny Motorcycle pipes up again.
"Do you want pizza?" he asks. All of them start wagging at the idea of pizza, even Vladimir. Johnny Motorcycle trots over to a pile of dirt and digs it up with his forepaws, revealing a heavily mildewed pizza box. He opens it, revealing a hexagonal pizza dressed with apple slices and candy corn.
"Did you make this yourselves?" you ask, after a moment.
"We made this ourselves!" says Johnny Spaceman. "Mm-hm!"
"Maybe I'll have some later."
"Suit yourself, dude," says Johnny Motorcycle, and reburies the pizza box under the heap of dirt.
This feels like a good moment to change the subject to something more productive, which would be almost anything, but then you hear shouting and hoofbeats coming down the tunnel.
"Those men are after me," you say, by way of exposition.
"Harsh," says Johnny Pompadour.
"Mega-bogus," agrees Johnny Motorcycle.
"Hold my cigarette," says Vladmir, "I will tear out their throats and draw sustenance from their fallen bodies."
Do you stay and fight the police with the wolves, or ask for directions to the TV station through the sewers?
"Which way to the TV station?" you ask, relieved to use English for a change. "I have a, shall we say, 'explosive' date with Comrade Bozonov."
"You used air quotes!" says Johnny Motorcycle. "Keen! If I had fingers, I'd do that too!"
"Are many uses for fingers," says Vladimir. Or at least that's what you think he said; he's trying to load the clip for an AK-47 with his teeth.
The hoofbeats grow closer. You're running out of time. "I'm running out of time," you say. "The TV station?"
"Left!" says Johnny Spaceman
"Right!" says Johnny Pompadour. Vladimir is saying something too, but then he accidentally swallows a bullet and goes into a coughing fit.
"Never mind," you say, "we'll figure it out after the fight."
"You're gonna help us?" says Johnny Motorcycle, starting to wag again.
You look into his sunken yellow eyes and see the hope there. That hope invigorates you, because you know what it's like to need a friend in Russia. You know because you need one right now. The only person a clown can truly trust is another clown, but you'll give a pass to these wolves. Behind your greasepaint, you smile.
"You bet your all-American ass I am, kid."
"Extremity!" says Johnny Pompadour.
"Distant!" says Johnny Spaceman.
The policeman on horseback rounds the curve, his saber raised in one sclerotic arm. Behind him is a phalanx of regular police, most of whom are trying to stop their huge belts from riding up their jackets as they run.
You whip the spray-on garotte wire out of your clown pants. You tried using this stuff in the lab and almost killed yourself, so you try reading the label this time. By the flickering light you can make out the words STEP 1: Point nozzle away from face. Ah, there's the problem. You're trying to find a way to change the thickness of the wire when the guy on horseback closes the gap and hits you with the sword. It's about as sharp as a letter opener, so all you feel is a stinging slap as you're knocked to the ground, but the spray-wire goes flying into the oil drum.
"Halt!" says the mounted officer. He opens his mouth to say more, but then he looks around and has to take a moment. "What-?" he starts to ask, and then the propellant in the spray can explodes. The horse rears and whinnies in alarm as the air is filled with a huge plume of what looks like steel wool.
The other policemen have caught up, but the explosion gives them pause, and when Vladimir pulls the trigger on his AK-47, which is lying on the ground because he can't pick it up, they turn around and run, followed by the horse. The guy on it still wants to fight you, judging by his cursing, but the horse caries him away before he can get off. The Johnnies applaud, which is absolutely adorable to watch.
You thank them profusely for their help, and then have to excuse yourself. There's nothing weirder than a clown hanging around after a show's done.
You've successfully fought off a contingent of policemen, but they know about you now; your cover is blown. You're down one weapon. And you need to choose which way to go next: left or right?
You duck-foot your way back down to the intersection and go left. Light comes in intermittently from storm grates, along with the sound of sirens. The police are regrouping up there.
"The won't find you," says a haunting woman's voice. You stop in a shaft of bitter communist sunlight and spin around, looking for the speaker. In the tubular echo chamber of the sewer, she could be anywhere. "But I already have."
You quickly rifle through the list of Bozonov's female underlings. This isn't Comrade Mime; she never talks. Best Sniper would have killed you already. It can only be-
"Kombayn!" you yell. "Not much wheat to harvest down here!"
"True," says the voice, as glittering shapes approach you from the shadows. "But I can only go where they send me."
Nobody really knows where Kombayn came from, or who she was before the accident. She is a cyborg, and in rebuilding her broken body, Soviet scientists resurrected the Stakhanovite goals of the 1930s. Why couldn't one person mine 102 tons of coal in six hours? Cut down two hundred acres of wheat in four? Kill a thousand men in one?
Kombayn's body is permanently encased in a welded shell of rebar and sheet steel, braced by hydraulic actuators, powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator originally designed for isolated lighthouses on the Bering Sea. Her left arm is fitting with a nasty bucket claw that curves over her hand. Her right arm has been replaced with the whirring rotary blades of a combine harvester; it was these you saw flashing in the dark. The atomic cell that powers her is mounted over her heart, and has been fitted into a heat sink shaped like the Soviet State Emblem. The hammer and sickle glow a dull red in the dark. Kombayn's face - raked hard by parallel scars on one side, and partially hidden by welding goggles, breaks into a smile as she sees you taking her in.
You go through your repertoire in your head, looking for a pun that will work in Russian.
"You seem like scientific woman," you say. "I will tell you science joke."
"Very good," she says, idly inspecting the blades on her combine arm. There are so many of them that if she actually uses that thing on you, they're going to be fighting over which one kills you. While she's distracted, you gently reach into your clown pants and palm the tiny molotov cocktail.
"Once in Russia," you begin, "in a physics exam, professor writes equation E-hv and asks student: 'What is v?'
"'The length of the plank.'"
Kombayn laughs, a ha-ha-ha where the pauses are punctuated by loud clicks and hisses from the mechanical regulator that controls her breathing. "Is very good joke!" she says. "I have not heard that one before. Woo." She uses her hand to wipe a tear from her eye. "So, we fight now?"
"Yep," you say cheerfully, and throw the ampule of kerosene at her.
Your aim is true, and it hits her square in the glowing hammer and sickle. The glass shatters and the kerosene vaporizes a split-second later, the fire flashing over her chest. She looks down in annoyance.
"Ugh, not again," she says, and then takes a step forward. It's a big step. "Thank you for joke. You die now."
She brings up her combine arm, rotary blades spinning up into a blur of flashing death, and is just starting to bring it around when something slams into her. The blades make a screaming sound as they hit the concrete, kicking up a spray of yellow sparks. On top of her is a wolf in a leather jacket.
"Hey buddy!" he says. "We heard you telling a joke and didn't want to mi-"
With a yell, Kombayn throws him off and picks herself upright. Her goggles fix you with a critical stare.
"It will take more than fire and wolves to keep me-"
Johnnies Pompadour and Spaceship lunge out of the darkness, knocking her back down in a crash of metal and a string of expletives. Vladimir trots up and examines the situation.
"This looks pretty under control," he says. "Do you have a cigarette?"
"No," you say in exasperation. "Can you just tell me which way to the TV facility?"
"You're on the right path," says Vladimir, as Johnny Motorcycle, looking no worse for wear, trots back over and jumps on Kombayn. "About another kilometer this way and you'll be there." He looks at Kombayn. "Do you have a cigarette?"
You can hear her cursing as you sprint away into the darkness. You need to decide whether to keep going down here, in a low-profile but also low-light area, or surface and try your luck with the cops.
Mr. Ivanovich's joke furnished by A Random Walk in Science (1973), originally from Physicists Continue to Laugh (1968).
Vladimir is clearly the smartest of your very questionable friends. You decide to stay underground, hugging the curving walls, embracing the darkness. You are death in the darkness, and the only thing ruining it is how loud your shoes are squeaking.
Fortunately, you can use the squeaks to echolocate, like a bat. A bat with clown shoes. You received echolocation training from Helvetica Neue, the mime assassin who had to retire when she developed an allergy to white pancake makeup. At the time, you thought it was ridiculous, but she'd be saying "I told you so" if she were here now, and also if she talked.
The improbably twisty sewer labyrinth mirrors your own byzantine mental paths. Initiate flashback? [Y/N]
It was a night not unlike tonight, except that it took place on the side of a mountain range in Canada and also it's day now. It was two weeks after the Belgrade op was over, and you needed some time to think. You'd heard stories about Helvetica Neue, embodying a higher form of physical comedy somewhere out there in the wilderness, and off you went.
You'd been told finding a mime in the Canadian forests would be hard, but the problem ended up solving itself when she noticed your camp and got you with a blowdart. You awoke in her cave. At the time you thought it was a natural feature in the mountain. Only much later would you learn that she had dug it by making exaggerated digging motions for hours on end. She had much to teach you.
You learned how to encase yourself in a box that wasn't really there, to walk down stairs that didn't really exist, to hunt with arrows you didn't really have. But her greatest gift was mano de risa, and with this you became unstoppable. The name "Noodles Ivanovich" is embedded in the whirling tape reels of KGB computers and in the fitful dreams of KGB agents. They have scores of agents whose techniques range from unconventional to unnatural, but nobody quite like you. In subsequent missions you would receive the highest honor a spy can get: The Russians started trying to win you over to their side, rather than simply killing you. You wouldn't have been the first to defect - there is The Magician, of course, and Jim "Paintin' Fish with Jim" Iggowicz, the most feared man in public access television - but you were never interested in joining their side.
On your last day with Helvetica, you asked her why she'd come to live a life of seclusion, rather than going to work for the highest bidder. She looked at you - through you, even - and then performed an elaborate pantomime. She threw her head back, fell to the floor, did the worm for a bit, stood back up, grabbed her heart, snapped her neck, and then flapped her arms for two whole minutes. At the end, you nodded and left. You have no idea what the hell she was trying to tell you, but you didn't want to look stupid in front of the deadliest woman in Canada. And so you walked forty miles to the nearest telephone, which was nailed to a tree. Half an hour later you were in a helicopter and on your way to a fresh op, at a car dealership that was opening in Muncie, Indiana. The whole way there it ate at you that you didn't understand what Helvetica had been trying to tell you. It eats at you still.
The tunnel is getting light again; you've come up to a storm drain, casting shadows down into the sewer. There's a ladder here, and if Vladimir was close in his directions, you've finally arrived at the TV complex. As you scale the ladder, you have time to grab an item out of your inventory, or else just surface empty-handed. What'll it be?
Ỳ̸̧o͡͏̴͡u҉̧ ̵̢͘͜͢p̢̛̕̕͝u̵̡̧t̴̕͡͞ th̷͞͡e̡ ͜te͝͠l͜e̢s͢c҉o҉p̕e̶ to ̛y͝o̶ur̨ eye
You lower the telescope again. Standing directly above you, snorting in annoyance, is Fuckbastard, the angriest horse in the history of the world. You heard stories - legends - about him from Eli, the trading post operator who rescued you from the wilderness after you went to Helvetica Neue for answers you didn't find. Eli said Fuckbastard was immortal.
You scale the ladder and step onto the street. How did Fuckbastard get to Russia, though? And... how do you know who he is? You feel warmth tricking down your upper lip and wipe it away. It's fake blood from your rubber nose. Ú^h͟-oh́.
DANGER UNSPECIFED PARAMETER...
You suddenly remember that you've always known Fuckbastard. The two of you went to high school. Totally.
Friend or not, he still doesn't like you. He doesn't like anybody. You briefly make eye contact and he kicks a passing taxi so hard it spins around into the other lane and heads back the way it came. You need to show him you're on his side, quickly, before the cops come.
I use the the combination Helvetica Nue's mime hand gestures and angry horse snorts to communicate to Fuckbastard. Recalling how I used to convince him to be my tutor in chemistry, I point to my explosive watch and mime:
"I know you must be wondering how I survived our last encounter, Mr. Bastard, but that is a question for another time. Ivan Bozonov is late for a very important standup act... in hell. Will you help me deliver the final punchline?"
At last, he paws the asphalt twice with his hoof. You approach him - nervous, but not showing it - and climb on. Moscow looks remarkably different on horseback. It's calmer up here. You feel a sudden wave of exhaustion and shake it off. Clowns don't get to be tired.
"Ever wanted to be on TV?" you ask Fuckbastard, and then you're off.
Fuckbastard runs so fast that the air turns cold, and the cars around you turn into a blur, punctuated here and there by the odd motorcycle or tractor. In front of you, the broadcast tower of the TV station looms. You can see birds circling around the top. The dossier you got at the beginning of all this said that the tower was strong enough to reach halfway around the world. The signal is probably screwing with the birds' navigational abilities, overriding their sense of north and south, making them hallucinate military parades and dancing ears of corn.
There's a guard station at the parking lot, and you see the security guard ambling out of his hut. He takes one look at the horse coming straight at him and ambles right back in. Fuckbastard crashes through the gate arm without even slowing down.
He jumps a wide flight of steps and lands on the top, skidding to a halt so hard his horseshoes spark on the granite. There's a revolving door here, and he cocks his head at it, testing it with one hoof. Inside, you can see some men in suits backing away slowly. You decide this is a good time to dismount.
"It's okay," you tell Fuckbastard, "I can go on foot from h-"
He turns around and mule kicks the entire door off its axis and into the lobby. You peer into the darkness and can see it lying in a twisted-up heap against the back wall. It looks like a shattered glass windmill.
"Okay," you say, "thank you, I'll just-"
He gives you a warning snort and walks in. You follow a few steps behind.
The lobby is full of plastic plants that somehow seem to be wilting. There are posters on the wall that say things like OUR GOAL - 10,000 LAUGHS A DAY and COMRADE, DO YOU LIKE EXCITEMENT? Fuckbastard walks over to the counter and rings the bell with his hoof. A tired looking man in an acetate suit sticks his head out of a door in the back.
You shift flawlessly into your performance voice. "Greetings, comrade!"
"Hello," he says warily. You watch his eyes flick back and forth between you and Fuckbastard. Fuckbastard is now eating some of the plastic lobby plants.
"I know what you must be thinking," you say, straightening your tie.
"I would like to see your papers," says the man behind the counter. The fluorescent light twinkles off his forehead sweat like diamonds.
"I have something better than papers! I have dance!"
He tries to stop you, but it's too late, the dance is upon you now. You start with a kozachok, keeping time to the theme from The Price Is Right in your head. Feeling your leg muscles limber up, you decide it's time for some of the People's State Approved Breakdance moves. The floor is made of asbestos tiles, but there's a fresh coat of wax on them. Yes, this will work.
You're three steps deep into a maneuver called Let's Complete the Five Year Plan in Four Years when a door at the back of the room opens up. You smoothly spin down and face the woman approaching you. She's about 25 and skinny, wearing a microphone headset that's trailing a heavy cable back through the door she walked out of.
"Hello," she says. "I'm Olga Bidiokamera, the production manager for Proletariat Kids' Fun Time Extravaganza. Are you Noodles Ivanovich?"