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"I have an absolutely colossal number of questions," says Princess Nebula. "And I would appreciate answers as quickly as possible."

"Don't talk to me," says Wheelman. "This is a really rough section of road, and I need to concentrate."

The "rough section of road" is actually a vast empty field of nothingness -- no ground, no road, no scenery, not even any sky. I have no idea what we're actually driving on. And I'm starting to think that Wheelman's self-described status as the "greatest driver in the world" may really have some merit.

"Can I ask other people questions?" asks Nebula. "Or do I have to be silent like some helpless larva?"

"Just don't talk to me," says Wheelman, both hands white-knuckling on the steering wheel.

"Alright, fine," says Nebula. "Can the rest of you behave civilly, or are you all going to be the usual superhero boors about all this?"

Oh, Princess Nebula. Always with the charm. I still remember her introduction to Metro City, when she tried to turn the Ellis Towers into a giant antenna that would send a message to her alien empire -- and coincidentally, fry everyone downtown. She was so offended by our rudeness when we shut down her scheme and threw her in jail.

"I doubt we know many more answers than you do," I say. "We spent most of the night on the run -- I'll bet you had more time to analyze the situation with the Thrugs than we did."

"That's fine," she says. "Most of my questions aren't particularly about the Thrugs."

"Then ask away," says Hybrid.

"Excellent," says Nebula. "First, is there any way to make the corpse stop stinking? Or should we just incinerate her now?"

"You goddamn bitch," says Jonni. Nebula was lucky that Jonni was only aiming to maim, not kill, and she was doubly lucky that Tu'golaxug was fast enough to grab the knife out of the air.

"And that brings me to my next question," Nebula says. "What's Squid Kid's problem?"

"Keep it up, Princess," says Jonni. "I've got a lot more knives."

"Actually, I'd like to hear some more details about that," I say. "Not all of it makes sense to me."

"Very well," says Tu'golaxug in that bizarre tri-chorus voice. "How far back must my recollections travel? I have partially explained this to the rest of you. It is only this Diraxian flymonger who hasn't heard any of the story yet."

"Take that back," says Nebula. Nice to see someone get under her skin.

"I shall start somewhere close to the beginning," says Tu'golaxug. "I was hatched about 4,500 Earthly years ago in an unusually pleasant corner of the limitless and abominable Dimension of Screams. I was granted the name Tu'golaxug by my birthing parent. It means 'That Which is Small but Eats Larger Siblings and Vomits with Joy.' I spent a number of centuries eating larger siblings and other items before being promoted to the Dimensional Shriekforces and traveling to other dimensions to eat other beings for the glory of the Vilemother. Have you heard the stories about our war against your world, little flymonger? It must have been less than 1,000 years ago."

Nebula has turned a very bright shade of green and sits at the edge of her seat, as far away from her seatmate as she can.

"We threw you off our planet," she says. "We beat you, and it wasn't that hard."

"It wasn't that hard," says Tu'golaxug, leaning toward Nebula with a slightly taunting lilt in her voice. "It only cost you half your planet's population, and you only needed the assistance of a contingent of time travelers from the Assembly of Order -- who helped you even though they knew you'd eventually turn into an expansionist empire with designs on their home planet. Paladin, Silvermask, Enchantra, and Saturnix fought their way through our forces, invaded our own Crumbling Temples, and personally destroyed the Vilemother herself. None of your species accompanied them, Princess Flymonger."

"Uh, hey, Tu'golaxug," says Jonni, almost nonchalantly pulling a couple of Bowie knives out of her belt. "No offense or anything, but are you evil? Not that I've got a lot of interest in trying to figure out how to cut you out of Lenore, but, ya know... Are you evil?"

"No, I'm not, Jonni Rotten," says Tu'golaxug, relaxing back against her seat. "I suspect I was once, but the destruction of the Vilemother shattered the hivemind that united the Dimension of Screams. New existence paths opened to the hordes -- and actually, most of those were pretty evil, too. But a millennium is a long time, and I eventually tired of the Dimension of Screams and its unending appetites. The spell that bonded me to Lenore was an unexpected bonus -- an escape from my old home with a host who is pleasing and amusing -- fun, I think you call it."

"I don't know whether to laugh at you or kill you," says Nebula.

"Shut up," says Hybrid. "You are right on the edge of making me angry."

"Lenore knows nothing of my origins," says Tu'golaxug. "I would request the favor of maintaining my secret for the time being. I will reveal myself to her eventually, but I enjoy learning about the world through her eyes."

"Oh, gods above," laughs Nebula. "The Dimension of Screams went and turned into the Dimension of Fluffy Teddy Bears. We are going to invade the hell out of you."

One tentacle wraps around Nebula's throat, squeezes tight, and pulls her close. "Flymonger, you have a very foolish mouth," Tu'golaxug says. "If it ever comes down to you and me, no one will ever find any portion of your anatomy but your thin, reedy, picked-clean bones. And I am certainly -- what's the human expression -- softer-hearted than the rest of the hordes. An invasion by your kind would be celebrated by mine. The Vilemother is dead, but my siblings are cruel and thorough. And the Assembly of Order is no longer around to protect you."

"Tu'golaxug," I say, putting as much sternness into my voice as I can. "Let her go. This isn't the time or place. It'll never be the time or place."

For a moment, that sinister grin actually seems to grow a little wider, then the tentacle uncoils, and Nebula presses herself back against the opposite door again.

"And you, Princess, had better start behaving, too," I say. "You're not among people who are impressed with your bravado. We're allies, at least for now, but try to stay on our good sides."

Nebula starts to make some idiotic retort, but Hybrid interrupts her. "Alright, so I understand this much. Lenore has a human brain, so she was subject to the mind control signals. But I don't get why you were able to take control of her body at all. As far as I know, she's never been taken over by you at all. But you can seemingly operate her just fine now."

"I provide the powers," says Tu'golaxug. "And I can show my face if she uses the powers for too long without a break. But I am normally dormant, only capable of watching and listening. When my countenance surfaces, I gain some small ability to act, but it would take great effort to overwhelm her will. I can only do it now because her mind is... suppressed, as if she sleeps deeply and suffers unpleasant dreams. If I allow myself to grow dormant again, her telepathic masters will again control her body, so for the time being, it is wiser for me to remain active."

"Cool," says Jonni. "So what's with that smile? The damn thing never drops a bit."

"The smile?" says Tu'golaxug. "It is there to put you at ease. It shows how friendly I am."

"It's about as friendly as a shark," Jonni says with her usual nasty laugh. "But keep it up. It's a blast watching muggers piss themselves when they see it."

There's a sudden bump and flash of light, and the car goes into a hard skid before pulling up short next to a wall that seemingly materialized out of nowhere.

Wheelman unlocks all the doors and says, "Okay, we're here! Everyone out of the robot!"

We pile out and have a look around. It's a gigantic marble hall, decorated with gigantic columns and banners. There are weird tinkling sounds, like tiny bells, all around us.

Once we're out, Wheelman says, "Alright, Gearbox, please return to your normal bipedal form."

"Yes, Master," says Gearbox. I've seen Gearbox shift his shape plenty of times, but this time is definitely something else -- an oversized red-and-yellow SUV that suddenly rears up on its back wheels and starts... I dunno, shrinking and unwinding, for lack of any better words. The wheels uncoil into arms and legs, his head pops up from the grille, all the glass and windshields just scroll down into the body of the vehicle. At one point, he's about 10 feet tall and built like a tank, and then he just... reduces, the excess mass and material evaporating away like mist. In less than 30 seconds, he's back to his normal self.

"Listen, Gearbox," says Wheelman. "Again, I want to apologize for that. It was you or the mind-controlled speedsters, ya know?"

"I know, Greg, and thank you," says Gearbox. "It's not something I want to go through again, if we can avoid it, but I understand the necessity."

"Thanks, man," says Greg. "Glad we're cool."

"Sure," says Gearbox. "You're still a complete asshole, though, and I'm now giving myself permission to send some of your more embarrassing candid clubgoing shots to the tabloids."

"Okay, could I take a cue from the rude alien bitch?" says Hybrid, looking around the hall with an expression halfway between bewildered wonderment and exasperated fury. "Where the hell are we, and what the hell is going on?"

"Oh, yeah," says Wheelman. "Hey, everyone, welcome to Olympus!"

"Olympus?" says Jonni. "Am I gonna regret asking if you somehow drove us to Greece?"

"Not Greece, sorry," says Wheelman. "Olympus as in the home of the Greek gods."

"Oh, damn," says Nebula. "There's another huge chunk of exposition coming, isn't there?"

"Yeah, sure, why not?" says Greg. "Hey, guys, you met me yet? I'm the Greatest Driver in the World. I can drive up the side of a skyscraper, I can drive across the country in under six hours, I can drive a car underwater, I can drive a car to Olympus. Why Olympus? Well, because my dad's one of the Greek gods."

"Okay, I'll bite," I say. "Which one is he?"

"Hermes," says Wheelman.

"The messenger of the gods?" says Hybrid.

"The god of travel," says Gearbox. "Makes perfect sense now."

"Is that why you have golden eyes?" says Tu'golaxug.

"How'd you know about the eyes?" says Greg, surprised. He pushes his sunglasses higher up his nose.

"Lenore calls it 'X-ray vision,' " she says.

"Besides, everyone knew about your crazy eyes, Greg," says Jonni. "You think we can't see around a pair of fancy eyeshades? I didn't even know you thought it was a secret, you big idiot."

"Alright, alright," I say. "Greg's a demigod -- good to know. So you thinking we can get the gods to help us cut off the mind control signals?"

"Honestly, I've got my doubts," says Greg. "The mind control signals originate from Olympus, guys. The gods are behind all of this. That music was a high-potency divine mind-control enchantment being broadcast on a global scale by the Thrug warships. The music serves to suppress the conscious mind, probably with the Thrugs giving commands to people on a local level."

You remember that thing I mentioned a while back about "beat panels?" Insert another one of those here.

"Wait, wait, WAIT!" yells Hybrid. "Why are the Greek gods shooting mind control rays at the Earth on behalf of alien invaders? That makes no sense!"

"Okay, there's a bright side," says Jonni. "I don't believe in any gods anyway, and I think it'll be kind of nice to get to beat some up, just for the sake of atheism advocacy."

"No kidding," says Nebula. "Metas, both human and inhuman, are basically gods anyway. We hit them hard and fast, and we have nothing to worry about."

Wheelman shakes his head at us. "You guys, I don't know whether to laugh at how naive you are or just cringe about how over your heads you are."

"Fair enough," I say. "You're the guy with all the insider knowledge. What's going on here?"

"Okay, as for the question of why the mind control signals are coming from Olympus?" says Greg. "Honestly, I have no idea. We're going to have to find that out later. But when it comes to you guys fighting gods... Okay, first, how are you going to recognize a god anyway?"

"Dudes in togas," says Jonni. "Next question."

"Wrong," says Wheelman. "You can't see gods. They're spirits -- extremely powerful spirits, but spirits nonetheless. They do not manifest physically. They manifest through their followers and the actions of their followers. Even here, you are not going to see any gods. You will not get a chance to throw down with the gods."

"No way," says Jonni. "I've never heard anything to suggest you couldn't fight a god. All the myths are full of gods fighting mortals and screwing 'em and all that stuff. It's in books and TV shows, man."

"Oh no, don't tell me television has lied to us again!" says Wheelman mock-theatrically. "Take it from the guy who has been here more than once and who has a parent who's from this area -- I'm right about this, and 'Hercules: The Legendary Journeys' is wrong."

"Alright, so what can we do about this?" I ask. "I'm not real fond of the idea of just doing nothing to stop this."

"Well, first, being here and not being captured or killed by hypnotized super-people is a step in the right direction all by itself," says Greg. "Second, the next step for us is to go commune with the gods and learn what all this is about. We might be lucky -- maybe it's a private scheme put together by the titans or a minor god. If that's the case, Zeus will say cut it out, and the whole thing will be wrapped up."

"I don't like the idea of coming to a human godrealm and not blowing anything up," says Nebula.

"Too bad," says Wheelman. "Non-violent solutions are probably going to be the way out of this."

"The Dimension of Screams has a old proverb," says Tu'golaxug. "Do not trifle with deities. Your arm's too short to box with God."

"No way," says Hybrid. "You're kidding me."

"Yes, I guess I am," says Tu'golaxug. "Lenore seems good at it. I thought I'd try."

"Keep working at it," says Gearbox. "How do we commune with your family, Greg?"

"We can't do it here," says Wheelman. "This is my dad's temple, but his messenger duties mean he's rarely here. We'll have to go to the Acropolis. No cars in Olympus, and I'm not dumb enough to ask G-Man to transform a second time, so we're hoofing it."

"Is it far?" asks Princess Nebula. "I could fly there."

"It isn't particularly far," says Wheelman. "But we should all stick together. It's a godrealm, and travel from one place to another isn't always so straightforward. You never know how you can get lost here if you're not used to the geography."

So we all start out. It's fine weather, and the walk isn't hard. It's nice to check out the scenery. Olympus really does look a lot like rural Greece -- Karen and I honeymooned in Greece (and oh god, I hope she and Oliver are okay. Maybe I should have gone to get them out to somewhere safer), and what I see here looks a lot like that kind of hilly, rocky landscape, with plenty of plantlife. It's prettier than I remember Greece looking -- but I guess that shouldn't be surprising. There are clear and well-maintained paths to multiple other temples, with a large elevated structure in the middle that looks like a cross between the Parthenon and the Colosseum.

"Greg, why are there any physical structures at all?" I ask. "If all the gods are noncorporeal spirits, why do they need temples or trees or pathways at all?"

"They basically don't need them," says Wheelman. "The scenery is based on the beliefs of worshipers -- believers imagine the terrain as Greek, so the godrealm conforms to those beliefs. Gods don't have to manifest as what worshipers believe them to be because they have their own willpower, but the landscape forms the way mortals imagine it to be. The gods can reshape it if they want, but they usually don't bother. Why waste the effort to change the landscape's appearance when they really don't care about physical appearances."

"So, I guess a little off-topic," says Hybrid. "But what was Hermes like as a dad?"

"Completely absentee," he says. "I didn't even meet him 'til I was almost 10, when he pulled my mom and me up here to present us to the rest of the gods -- kind of a 'Look, here's what I spawned -- can we give him god powers?' thing."

Jonni pipes up next. "How did they, um..." She makes an "OK" gesture with one hand, sticks her middle finger through it, and makes uncannily realistic bedspring noises. So classy.

"They... didn't," says Greg. "Not in any way we can understand. It was an immaculate conception -- spirit meets flesh and makes a baby."

"Are all demigods like you?" asks Hybrid.

"Some have better powers," he says. "Some have worse. Some can handle being what we are better than others. As far as I know, all of Aphrodite's daughters have killed themselves in their teens. Same for the children of Ishtar, Erzulie, Qetesh, Nanaya, all the love gods. I guess it's hard to blame them."

"What the hell?" says Jonni. "That's the most awful thing I've heard of! Killing yourself for any reason is completely fucked, but why the hell would you want to die because you're a demigod?!"

Jonni is always rude and crude and violent and just generally horrifying, but that right there is why I think she's so cool -- she's been dead, and for all her rage and love of fighting, she's still dedicated more than anything else to saving lives. She gets angriest when she can't save someone, and she hates hearing about suicides. She'd never forgive me if I ever said out loud how much I respect that, but it's true.

"Well, see, if you're the son of Hermes, you get car powers, or maybe you end up a speedster," says Wheelman. "If your father was Zeus, you get superstrength, or you can fling lightning. If your father was Apollo, you get fire powers. If your mother was Athena, you end up being super-smart. If you're the daughter of a love goddess..."

"What, they end up pretty and popular, and so they kill themselves?" Jonni asks angrily. "I hate to say kids these days are all crazy, but GODDAMN these crazy kids these days!"

"No, they pass all human levels of attractiveness not long after they hit puberty," says Wheelman. "They look more like cartoons than teenagers. And their powers all revolve around sex. Imagine trying to get through adolescence that way..."

"Okay, never mind," says Jonni. "I get the picture. Still not a good reason to kill yourself, but... Goddamn, can you imagine high school, Hy?"

"Can you imagine middle school?" says Hybrid. "God, I hated middle school so much. Can you imagine how much worse it could've been?"

"Aren't there any resources for them?" I ask. "Support groups or counseling agencies?"

"Nothing," Wheelman says. "It's not like there's a demigod registry out there. The gods don't really care that much about their kids, and they don't tell the rest of us where to find each other. I didn't meet another demigod 'til after college -- as far as I knew, I was the only one in the world."

"Well, thanks, Greg," says Jonni bitterly. "I've got yet another reason to hate gods."

"Okay, I'll grant you that I'm not a mammal," says Nebula. "But so what? Humans on this planet obsess over their appearance and popularity, so I don't understand why they'd be unhappy. I mean, do you have any idea how many females in Metro City apparently wish they were built like Miss Mega? Seems like a waste of body storage capacity to me, but --"

"Princess," says Gearbox. "Just... just shut up."

"And everyone else," says Wheelman. "Please sheathe those weapons and powers, okay? Like now, before we get to the Acropolis. We can cut her up another time, I promise."

We pause on the threshold of the Acropolis. "Okay, listen up," says Greg. "This is what we can expect once we get inside. There's going to be... Wait, actually, I have no idea what we can expect when we get inside. I've been here twice, and both times, there was no one in there but me. So never mind, keep your fingers crossed, try not to be needlessly blasphemous."

Well, okay, I've been in a few research conferences where I had less planning or prep time. But the fate of the world isn't at stake at most research conferences...

So we all walk into this huge, empty, open-air stadium. There are a huge number of seats in the stands, and burning torches everywhere. There's an iron brazier in the middle, and Wheelman takes a nearby torch off its stand and uses it to start a fire in the brazier.

"Okay, everyone settle, it may take a moment before we can commune with --"

He goes completely still and silent.

"Greg?" I say. "Everything okay? Hello?"

"Well, they've killed him," says Nebula. "Or rotted his brains. That's what gods do, right?"

"You need to be quiet," says Hybrid. "Maybe we all have to help light the fire? Everyone go get a torch somewhere."

But before we can move too far, Greg says, "Did you all hear that? That wasn't just me hearing that, was it?"

"Yeah, man, it was just you," says Jonni. "You quit moving and didn't say anything. What happened?"

"Turns out they won't communicate directly with mortals, just with, well, me, I guess," says Wheelman. "And they didn't have anything to tell me but bad news."

"What did they tell you?" asks Tu'golaxug.

"Well, we're sunk," says Wheelman. "It's not a minor god running the mind control scheme. It's Zeus himself. He's using the Thrug ships as global broadcasters for the mind control signals."

"But why?" asks Gearbox. "I don't see the motive for letting the Thrugs conquer the world."

"He doesn't care what the Thrugs do," Greg says. "He says he's tired of seeing worship of the old gods decline, so he wants to use mind control to make everyone worship them again."

"But it isn't true worship!" says Hybrid. "Tu'golaxug said their minds are suppressed -- there's no devotion, no thought behind anything! Does he just want them mindlessly bowing in temples and making sacrifices?"

"The Thrugs are likely to engage in widescale looting," says Gearbox. "If we're lucky, they'll hollow out the planet for minerals. They'll destroy the planet no matter what."

"What about the rest of the gods?" I ask. "Can't they do anything?"

"No, they'll follow his lead," says Wheelman. "Most of them don't seem to care one way or the other, but they do what the king tells them to do. It sucks, but I don't know what our next move could be."

"Come on, there's gotta be something we can do!" says Jonni.

"We could issue a challenge," says Greg. "But that isn't something you do casually."

"Great," says Hybrid. "We issue a challenge!"

"Hell yeah!" adds Jonni. "We issue a challenge, Greek fucktards!"

"I'm in," I say. What the hell, when in Olympus...

"Same here," says Gearbox.

"I am willing to participate in this," says Tu'golaxug.

"Oh good, finally some fighting," says Nebula.

Wheelman facepalms. "Goddamn, guys, you could've at least let me explain what a challenge would entail first."

"There better be some fighting," says Nebula. "If this is something like a debate challenge, I'm going to be pissed."

"No, there'll be fighting," says Wheelman. "If our side comes out on top, they'll relinquish their plans and shut down the mind control rays. If we lose, they kick us all back to Earth, and we spend probably a few short minutes on the run before all those mind-controlled speedsters take us apart one atom at a time."

"Okay, stakes are high," I say. "I'd still rather challenge them than let them dominate the planet."

"Yeah, who do we fight?" asks Jonni.

"If you guys would've waited a little, I would've explained that it isn't that simple," says an increasingly irritated Wheelman. "You don't get to battle the gods directly. They're spirits, they're insanely powerful, but they don't really do physical combat. They manifest through their followers."

"So where are their followers?" asks Gearbox. "None of us worship them -- no, wait, we have to fight you?"

"No, I won't even get to participate in this," says Greg. "House rules -- demigods aren't allowed to assist mortals in these challenges. I can observe, I can advise you, I don't get to fight."

"So again, who do we fight?" asks Hybrid.

"A corporeal challenge requires corporeal combatants," says Wheelman. "The gods manifest through you. That means you have to choose a god as a patron to allow them to, basically, become you."

You remember those beat panels, right? Put another one right here.

"That's messed up, Greg," says Gearbox.

"I'm not even sure how that would work," says Hybrid.

"I'm just telling you the rules," says Wheelman. "And you can't just pick any random god. It has to be one that you have some significant affinity for -- if there's no similarity between you, they can't even act through you."

"I object," says Nebula. "This is completely ridiculous. I don't even know these gods. Human mythology isn't anything I've studied. How can I pick one of them as a patron when I know absolutely nothing about them?"

"That isn't even something I can tell you," says Wheelman. "It's a matter of your mind and spirit selecting the right one for you. At best, it'd be guesswork on my part."

"Well, okay, how about we just go for making it a quick fight?" Nebula says. "Which one of them is the most powerful?"

"Most powerful?" says Gearbox. "I suppose Zeus is the king of the gods, but the mind control plot is apparently his scheme."

"So he's the guy in charge?" says Nebula with a smile. "Even better. Whoever picks him can just decree that the challenge is over and rule in our favor. I pick Zeus."

"No, I mean that may be a bad idea," says Gearbox.

"It'll work," says Nebula. "We're even both royalty. I select Zeus as my patron."

BOOM.

There's a literal crash of thunder, and Princess Nebula is suddenly 30 feet tall. Her armor has gone from sleek red to overblown red and gold. Her eyes and all four of her hands are blazing with electricity. She looks down at her new armor, looks down at us, and smiles.

"This," she says in a voice that echoes like a blast of artillery, "This is very nice."

"Oh, damn," says Wheelman. "This is going to be worse than I expected."

"Nebula!" yells Hybrid. "Remember what you said! All you have to do is declare that the mind control scheme is cancelled! Say that we've won, and the whole Thrug invasion is over!"

"That's all I'd have to do, isn't it?" says Nebula. "Because I'm in charge of the gods, right? I can call the whole thing off by myself, can't I?"

"Crap," says Jonni quietly. "Throwing knives, Bowie knives, tonfa, brass knuckles. Why didn't I pack a goddamn warhammer?"

"No," Nebula says with a grin. "I'm not calling it off. I'm going to rule everything. I'm going to rule everything."

"Pick your patrons, people!" Wheelman yells. "Pick your patrons, or we're all dead!"

"I'm going to take over Olympus," says Nebula. "I'm going to take over your puny mudball planet. I think I'll take over the entire universe. And all I have to do is mash you worthless superheroes."

She shoots a gigantic bolt of lightning at us. I don't even think she was trying to hit us -- just showing off and trying to scare us. We all scatter.

There's another crash of thunder. At first, I think Nebula is shooting more lightning bolts at us, but I look back and see a 25-foot-tall yellow-and-red robot facing off against the alien/god fusion. There are sparks and flames pouring off of him and actual volcanic lava leaking from his joints.

"I have chosen Hephaestus, god of technology, as my patron," says Gearbox. His voice sounds like a factory. "Stand down and cease your hostilities. Your madness for power has clouded your mind and endangered the planet. Do not force me to completely fuck you up."

"Idiot machine!" Nebula laughed. "You're a robot blacksmith -- I'm the all-powerful queen of the universe! There's no way I can lose!"

She shoots him with immense, sizzling bolts of lightning, and he answers by morphing his arms into gigantic chainguns and unleashing a few hundred rounds of white-hot rivets.

This is chaos. At least Nebula isn't focused on the rest of us, but we could still get wiped out by accident. And I'm not sure Gearbox can handle her by himself.

Another crash of thunder, and there's a huge, hairy animal on the other end of the Colosseum, at least 15 feet high at the shoulder, equipped in green and black armor. Part wolf, part tiger, part crocodile, all rage and fury. It roars like a thousand lions and leaps upon Nebula, only to get batted back to the ground.

This is insanely dangerous. I start laying down some ice to slide on and make for the Colosseum's entryway -- there's at least a little shelter there. I grab Wheelman as I pass him. Tu'golaxug has the same idea -- she's got Jonni wrapped up in a pair of arms while she tentacle-sprints past me.

"That's Hybrid, right?" I yell at Wheelman. "What the hell happened to her? I don't know any Greek gods of monsters!"

"Looks like she picked Artemis," says Greg. "Goddess of hunters, but also goddess of wild animals."

Hybrid has jumped onto Nebula's back now and is trying to sink her fangs through the alien's armor, all while Gearbox continues to pump giant rivet-bullets at her. But Nebula is still holding them off easily.

"Okay, get with it, guys," says Wheelman. "Everyone pick a patron god and get out there. I have no idea if all of you will be enough to stop someone with Zeus' power, but it's the only shot we have."

"I'm not sure I can do it, Greg," I say. "I'm a scientist. I know magic just involves moving different kinds of formulas around, but I can't wrap my skull around it -- Iota and I have actually tried before, to see if we could program spells into a computer, but we just couldn't do it."

"Don't think of it as spells!" yells Greg. "It's religion, not magic!"

"I'm not doing it," says Jonni. "I don't do religion. Me and my whole family got killed because of someone's religion, and there is no way in hell I'm going to pledge to serve any gods!"

"Dammit, you guys, do you realize what's at stake?" yells Wheelman. "This is not a matter of getting your philosophical fee-fees hurt, this is -- WATCH OUT!"

Hybrid comes tumbling at us, end over end, her fur singed from one of Nebula's lightning bolts. The structure of the entryway shields us from a direct hit, but when she crashes into the wall, it blows apart from the impact. All of us are thrown to the ground as chunks of marble and granite rain down around us.

As Hybrid leaps howling back into the fight, the rest of us start to pick ourselves up. "Everyone okay?" I ask.

"Never better," says Wheelman. "Can't wait 'til Nebula and/or Zeus really turn their attention on us."

"I regret to inform that not all of us are okay," says Tu'golaxug.

Jonni got hit by a huge shard of broken marble. Her head is lying in the corner, and the rest of her body is in three major pieces.

"Well, crap," I say. "She usually keeps some heavy duty sewing material or duct tape somewhere on her. Everyone look around and see if you can find it. We'll have you stitched together as quick as we can, Jonni."

"Uh, Kelvin, I'm not sure that's going to do any good," says Wheelman.

"What? She comes back from worse stuff than this all the time, you know that."

"Yeah, I know," says Greg. "But she doesn't look too good. I mean, worse than normal."

Tu'golaxug is kneeling on the ground holding Jonni's head in her tentacles. Jonni's jaw is slack. Her eyes are open and glazed.

"Jonni Rotten?" Tu'golaxug says. All three of her voices sound hushed. "Jonni Rotten, come back. Lenore will be anguished."

"Oh god," says Greg. "We're -- We're too close to the Underworld. Hades has her now."

"No, no, no," I say. "We can stitch her up. She'll be fine. She'll -- Dammit, where's her gear? Jonni, blink your eyes, girl, blink your eyes, please!"

Tu'golaxug stands up quickly, putting Jonni's head down next to the largest piece of her torso. "Gregory Brachemann," she says. "Gregory Brachemann, I do not know these gods. They are not the ones I worshiped. I do not know them or what they do. Tell me which one I should choose. Tell me quickly."

Greg looks at her. I can't see his eyes through his shades, but he's got the kind of expression I wish my face could still hold. "God of ritual madness," he says. "Dionysus."

There's a crash of thunder, and a 20-foot-tall blob of monstrous, convoluted blackness has taken the battlefield, trying to wrap itself around Nebula. She fires bolt after bolt of lightning at all three of them, laughing.

Greg stands up, too. He's holding both of Jonni's Bowie knives. "Kelvin, can you get past the science or can't you?"

"I don't know, Greg," I say. This is all too damn much. The battle's beyond my ability to comprehend anymore, and we've just lost Jonni, and... "I really don't know."

"Fine," he says. "Find something to cover her, then come out and join us. If we can't be gods, let's at least try to help."

"I thought you weren't allowed to fight in a challenge," I say.

"I'm not," he says. "Fuck the rules. Cover her up and come join us." And he heads out into the Colosseum.

Damn. Damn, damn, damn. He's right, I can at least try to ice up Nebula's feet, try to make it a little easier on the rest of them. It just sucks that we're all going to die.

I find a banner that got knocked down and go to cover up Jonni's body. It's a big purple banner, made of -- I have no idea what it's made of. I'm not a fabric guy. Heck, it may not even be a fabric that exists on Earth.

I cover her up. She was abrasive and crude and violent and borderline obscene, and I'm pretty sure she hated not being completely dead. I think she hated all of us and hated almost everyone in Metro City, but I once saw her run through a raging fire and get burnt almost down to her bones to haul two kids out of a house fire. The kids did nothing but scream at her, and the media made her look like a monster, but she kicked so much ass. She deserved better than this.

I look out the entryway and start to psyche myself up for this. There's a giant lightning-slinging alien holding off a colossal morphing robot (who has transformed his arms into giant laser cannons by now), a gigantic howling monster, an enormous cloud of inky darkness, and one little demigod trying to figure out how to run in there and jab some knives into her Achilles tendons. There are worse ways to go out.

"Goddamn it, get this shit off my face," says a voice behind me.

Jonni pulls the banner off of her and starts to sit up. It's the ugliest, most lurching motion I think I've ever seen, since her torso is in two pieces and part of her hip is separated. She lifts her head up onto her neck and glares at me.

"What are you looking at, Hypo," she growls. "Never seen a dead body before?"

"We were pretty damn sure you were dead for good, Jonni," I say.

"I had to do a little convincing this time," she says as she staggers to her feet. Her body is actually mending itself -- her right leg and hip gluing itself back to the rest of her body, her torso reattaching itself, her neck and head re-joining faster than I can see the tissue adhering. She's wearing black leather armor now, decorated with skull motifs.

"Wow, Jonni," I say, unable to keep the wonder out of my voice. "I thought you weren't going to get into all that god stuff."

"I don't serve any gods," she says with a nasty grin. "But I don't see anything wrong with making gods serve me."

She walks past me into the Colosseum, growing taller with every step. "Don't stay on the sidelines, Hypo," she says. "Pick one of them and make 'em work for you. Try Poseidon -- he's a water god, right? Or maybe Athena -- Gearbox already claimed the technology god, but I could see you matching up well with Athena."

And she's off, 25 feet tall, waving a silver-and-black sword over her head, screaming profanity at the top of her lungs.

Okay, if she can drag a god out of the Underworld, I think I can do this. It's not about me -- it's about fighting for my friends, for my family, for my planet. Poseidon is the obvious choice, but I'm not sure -- I'm more than a bunch of ice powers. I love learning almost as much as I love Karen and Oliver, but the power of the God of the Oceans would be incredibly useful now. I don't know which one to choose.

Did anyone ever say I could choose only one?

There's a crash of thunder.

Ten seconds later, I'm right there with them. Thirty feet tall, as much ice water as I am ice. I am endless crushing depths, I am tidal waves, I am storms. I am schools of fish, I am voracious sharks, I am patient whales, I am lifegiving coral. I blind Nebula with sea water, I bind her feet in ice floes, I chill her with Arctic waters.

And even as she shrugs off my attacks with all the others, I am sharing ideas with my fellow heroes.

I remember Gearbox's fascination with human music and art, and I remind him of Apollo's status as a god of music, poetry, and art.

Thunder crashes, and he assaults Nebula with proton cannons and super-sonic boomboxes.

I tell Tu'golaxug about the Greek goddess of chaos and discord.

Thunder crashes, and she binds Eris to make the battlefield even more chaotic.

I remember Hybrid's tendency to spin pirouettes when feeling stressed, and I point out that, though not a god, Terpsichore was the muse of dance.

Thunder crashes, and the monster dazzles with both fury and beauty.

I suggest that Jonni has as much in common with Ares as with Hades.

Thunder crashes, and her weaponry and armor get an upgrade.

Nebula is rocked back over and over, but she still bounces back. She's angry, maybe frightened, but she still has power we may not be able to match.

"You can't stop me!" Nebula screams. "I rule all the gods! It doesn't matter what you do, how many others you aspect with! I'm still in charge! I'm still the most powerful ever!"

But I don't believe she's the most powerful. And I tell the others what I'm thinking.

I remind Hybrid about the planet that gave birth to her, to the creatures making up her DNA, to her adoptive family, to the very concept of dance.

I remind Gearbox about the planet that gave up the materials used to forge his body and that brought forth the long-vanished mind that created him.

I remind Jonni about the planet she was born and died on, stocked full of an endless variety of life.

I remind Wheelman about the planet where his mother calls home, the planet he's crisscrossed in multiple cars formed of steel and oil and plastic.

I remind Tu'golaxug about the planet she's adopted as her new home, about the host body she hides inside, about the friends and family of that host body who have become, by extension, her own friends and family.

I remind myself about the planet I've spent my life studying, about the people I've tried to save there, both as a scientist and as a hero, about Karen and Oliver and how much I want to get back to them, even if it's just for nights of board games and small bare hands touching my frozen fingers.

And I even remind Princess Nebula about the planet she desires more than anything to possess, greedily, hungrily, but with ultimately endless and beautiful devotion.

I feel -- no, we all feel -- seven billion human lives, billions more animals, billions more plants, shocking geothermal forces, churning oceanic and atmospheric power, millennia of glory.

Gaia.

"Thunder crashes" is a wholly inadequate description.

We don't even fight. A whole consciousness, even divided in seven different ways and filtered through multiple  different intellects, both mortal, artificial, and divine, cannot war against itself.

The mind control signal falters and dies. Even Zeus, so hungry for power and worship, knows now that it was a foolish scheme.

"The crisis is not at an end," one of us says. I can't tell who -- I might have said it. "Invaders still threaten Earth."

"And with the plot to control the minds of the population at an end," says another. "The war will enter a more direct phase."

"We must return to aid in the battle," says another.

"Yes, though these new powers will fade outside of Olympus," adds someone else.

"They will fade slowly enough to enable us to use them to the Earth's benefit, for a time," says another.

"It is as all things should be. Divine to the divine, and mortal to mortals."

"We should depart now. The transition back to the corporeal plane will take time, and we should not force Earth's defenders to stand on their own for too long."

A flash of light, and Olympus is again home only to gods.

Earth has an invasion to stop.

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