2100 A.D.: Present Time Minus One-Hundred Eleven Years…
"I like what you've done with the place," Gabriel O'Hara commented as he entered St. Patrick's Church. The sentence was rarely uttered in the squalid section of New York known as Downtown.
Father Jennifer D'Angelo shrugged as she followed him inside. "I really haven't done anything with the décor since the last time you were here," she admitted. "Unless you're easily impressed by light cleaning."
"No, I mean whatever you did to actually get a congregation in here," he gestured to the pews, which were filled with actual parishioners rather than just the homeless, "keep doing it."
She smiled. "I've made a bit of progress in spreading The Word to the masses. After all that's happened in Downtown this past year, it seems people are finally ready to listen."
Gabe looked at her, a number of different emotions warring on his face. "Let me guess ... you include me among the ready ones?"
"That's entirely up to you."
Uncertainly, he sat down in one of the pews. "Well, I've never really had a problem with Christianity -- at least not as much as my brother, but...."
"But ... I dunno." He paused, collecting his thoughts. "What did Dana think of all this? The religion. I don't think she ever said anything about it."
Father Jennifer sat next to him. "My sister, too, had doubts. She was very much like you: close to accepting the faith, but so very far away."
Gabriel stared at the ceiling, willing his tears not to form. They did anyway, and stung his eyes, so he squeezed them shut; the tears streamed down his cheeks. Dana's murder was a month ago, but still too raw. "Could ... could you tell me about her?"
"You mean what she was like as a child?"
"Yeah. And just ... anything."
So she did. In hushed tones, she told him quite a bit about Dana D'Angelo's early life, her childhood and teen years. She had quite a few interesting stories to tell -- some Dana had already told him, most she hadn't. He wanted to hear them all anyway.
As Gabriel listened, he watched the church's many candles cast flickering shadows onto the Catholic architecture, shadows that danced like goblins.
It occurred to him how much the light was not only responsible for banishing the darkness, but for
creating it as well.
2211 A.D.: Present Time Minus Seven Days, Three Hours, Twenty-Nine Minutes
The scientist brought up his gauntlet, scratching under the blond locks of hair poking out from beneath his domed helmet. Aaron Lycosid was in training to become a member of the elite Octet, the eight-man ruling body of the Spider Society city-state. It had been a dream of his ever since he was a boy; to help people, to serve on the Council and fight for his cityscape.
However, as a twenty-something intern, his days usually consisted of getting the senior scientists coffee and maintaining his assigned sections of the chronalportation device. In his days as an intern, he’d gotten really good at operating the complicated machinery, to the point where he understood everything about the device and could almost run the thing himself. Most days, things were interesting enough to keep his mind occupied.
Of course, today was something of an exception. It’s not every day The-Future-as-Aaron-Knew-It was being wiped out by temporal paradoxes.
Right now, Aaron was busy keeping the chronal-viewer device stable, letting his fellow scientists and his superiors gaze into their technological crystal ball and observe their past in real time.
Aaron straightened out his blue bodysuit – a uniform only the most respected city-officials wore – and gazed into the portal, reviewing the events once more in his mind. He’d been at the chronal device when it had registered two temporal paradoxes which threatened to de-stabilize the timeline and re-create history in ways no one could possibly predict. As a precaution, the Octet had decided to enable the chronological seals at the edges of the city. Seven of the eight members of the Octet were required to activate the seals, leaving only The First, and his direct superior, the Spider-Man.
Spider-Man. Gener Tyr himself. The highest of the high. President of the city-state, and leader of the thousands who reside there.
Aaron was honored and humbled simply to be in the Spider-Man’s presence, as certainly all of the other scientists must have felt. But, like them, Aaron was adept at dealing with pressure and keeping a level head. He kept searching his mind, reviewing the day’s events was calming and helped him figure out how best to direct his focus on the crisis.
The Octet was on their way to activate the seals, which would keep the city safe from the changes in the timeline under Spider-Man and his Octet were able to repair the damage.
The plan? Simply to switch the Spider-Man of 1996 with the Spider-Man of 2099, and not interfere. Their Spider-Man’s plan had worked perfectly. Gener’s predecessors had realized there was a problem in the timeline, and were on their way to the source of the time disturbances in both eras to correct the problem.
Aaron took a moment to admire his leader’s vision, despite being unable to understand exactly how it had all fit together so wonderfully, “He’s on his way there! This is excellen—!”
“Wait.” The six-armed leader said darkly, glancing at the wall behind him, “Something’s wrong. I can feel it!”
The entire chamber began quaking and rocking, Aaron and his fellow scientists swaggering with the sudden loss of solid footing. Aaron looked around, wondering where the cackling was coming from.
Suddenly, the walls to the chamber exploded inward, heavy debris clambering headlong into the unsuspecting scientists. Aaron ducked behind a panel, watching his friends Garrison and Drake beheaded by remnants of ceramic pillars. He heard a heavy hum from the chronalporter; the sound of heavy machinery powering down. Debris from the wall continued to rain down in thunderclaps on the ground.
“Fools! Did you think you’d be allowed to do whatever you wanted?”
The demented shrieks piqued Aaron’s attention. He rose from behind his panel, anger and confusion swelling beneath his frame, only to greet a colossal hole in the wall; the portal smothered in choking black smog tinged with the glow of red and orange from the fires feeding it.
Aaron could hear the mad cackle on the other side before the monster – the goblin – revealed himself. The armored monstrosity flew out from the hole insanely, the smoke scurrying to get out of the demon’s way. The fires set off by the pumpkin bombs glinted eerily off his jade armor, his cybernetic glider making strange mechanical clicks and whirrs beneath him. He smiled through his skull-shaped mask, the way a skeleton might.
He looked directly at Aaron and three surviving scientists behind him, “Did you think I couldn’t manipulate my own agents? Wrong on both counts!”
“Don’t we have a flair for the dramatic, today?” A familiar voice coughed from the far-end of the lab. It was Spider-Man. Thank God. But Aaron could see he was badly injured.
“Well, well!” The Hobgoblin shrieked with joy, dodging the impact webs with ease, “If it isn’t the fool himself! Well, as long as you’re not dead, why don’t you make yourself useful?”
Aaron barely had time to blink, watching in horror as the Goblin made another pass, tossing five pumpkin bombs directly at him and the scientists behind him.
“NO!” the Spider-Man screamed, leaping toward the bombs despite the muscles tearing in his ribcage. Six arms moving in concert, the Spider-man spun long strands of silk toward the deadly bombs, pulling them to the side in order to keep them away from their targets. Aaron and the other scientists dove for cover, as the bombs went off, one-by-one. Three burst harmlessly in the air, sending orange shrapnel overhead. One hit the chronalporter, cracking the casing. The last bomb was only three feet away from the Spider-Man when it went off.
The Spider-Man’s ribcage took the brunt of the blast, sending his limp form flying across the lab.
The Goblin cackled, “Here, have another!”
As the Spider-man crashed into the far wall and landed, the Goblin sent another three pumpkin bombs onto the fallen hero’s trail; concussion grenades bringing the wall down on top of him with a final crack of orange thunder.
“And now, to watch this cursed timeline end, once and for all! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA!” the Hobgoblin’s screeches echoed through the chamber, bringing his screaming glider out the massive hole he came in – out into the puke green skies and acidic fresh air of the city.
Aaron wiped the soot off his face, rising from his hiding spot. He ran over to the debris pile his leader was trapped under. He’d barely gotten away from the bombs in time, thanks to the Spider-Man. But from where he’d taken cover, Aaron had managed to see everything. The crash into the wall. The pumpkin bomb that had buried his leader. And right now, Aaron had no way of telling if his interred leader was alive or dead.
“Help!” He screamed futilely. “I need some help, NOW!”
The intern coughed the dust out of his mouth and kept tossing the concrete and pummeled brick to the side in desperation. Slowly, so slowly, a limp figure began to emerge. Limp cybernetic arms, covered in a fresh layer of dust. Two boots, now. A leg, obviously broken. And with each part of the Spider-Man he uncovered, the bloodier the debris he was lifting became.
Aaron gasped, finally tossing aside the last of the wet rubble. Aaron’s tears soaked the ground as he looked upon the hero’s inert form, chest shattered and mopped with fluids. His mouth, the same that had uttered proud and inspiring speeches and led his fellow countrymen for the past nine years, leaked pulp and crimson by the barrel-full. Wet sounds came from his leader’s lungs. The legacy of the Spider-Man was about to die.
“…aaron…” A weak voice choked out.
“Sir,” Aaron breathed, momentarily ceasing his cries for aid.
“…the arms … you have to…”
“Yes, sir.” Aaron nodded his head intently, “I’ll find the First immediately, so he can…”
“…the first … is dead…”
“What?” Aaron’s eyes went wide.
“…he died … in the first assault…”
“My God,” Aaron mumbled, realizing the scope of the attack for the first time.
“…not … not walking away from this … aaron …” Spider-Man breathed shallow, “the … the arms … you have to take … the arms…”
Aaron looked the four cybernetic arms attached to his dying leader incredulously, “Sir, I can’t…”
“…listen … to me …” Gener growled forcefully, “…the rest …of the Octet are … halfway across the city by now … if I don’t pass the arms onto the one who would follow me … they will die with me … the mantle of the Spider-Man … dies … with me … that’s … unacceptable…”
Aaron sunk his head. “I understand.”
“…thank you…” Gener exhaled sharply, grunting from the pain of the punctured lung. “… they … bond to your … nervous system … they will bond for life…”
“Yes, sir.” Aaron said.
“…know it’s not fair … of me to ask this, Aaron …” he uttered, “…but your country needs you, son … the world needs … you…”
Aaron held his breath, watching his leader’s eyes gaze off into nothing.
“…go get ‘em, son…”
Gener Tyr’s eyes glossed over, the final exhale passing from his lips. He finally relaxed, broken frame sinking into his concrete bed.
The Spider-Man was dead.
Aaron did not pause to grieve, watching instead as the cybernetic arms attached to his leader’s oblique muscles suddenly sprung into motion, detaching themselves from their deceased host in a mesmerizing blur of motion and a buzz of mechanical whirrs and clicks. They slithered away as a snake slithers from its den, twitching and moving with a life of their own.
He’d read about the mechanical limbs in school. The Arms of the Spider-Man. Symbiotic organisms designed over a century ago by the city-state’s ancestors to symbolize the power and legacy of the Spider-Man.
The Spider-Man, for whom the entire Spider Society city-state had been named and modeled after. The Spider-Man, whose legacy had been passed from person to person down through the decades. Spider-Man, leader of the city-state, serving the country with his loyal Cabinet, the Octet. The Octet, whom were trained for years as servants and scientists, tapped to carry on the legacy in case of a tragedy such as the one Aaron was presiding over now.
But they were gone at the moment. The First was dead. The Second, Third, Fourth and so on all scattered throughout the city, safeguarding its borders from instabilities in the time-stream. And the only one still conscious – maybe even the only one left alive – was Aaron.
The blonde-haired scientist watched as the cybernetic arms clustered together, seeking a new host. They were cybernetic symbiotes, unable to sustain themselves for too long without a human host. Without a human body to bond to, the arms were beginning to slow and shudder and topple into one another. The arms were dying.
There was no choice.
Aaron held out a nervous, quaking hand out to the arms. They sensed his warmth, and stretched out toward him with smooth, elastic gunmetal grey tendrils, jutting out from the shoulder joints. The bio-electricity sparkled brightly along their tips.
Never in his life did Aaron ever think he would actually see the arms up close. Hell, for that matter, he didn’t even think he’d actually meet the legendary Spider-Man until just recently.
And now, he was becoming the Spider-Man.
Present Time Minus Seven Days, Three Hours, Three Minutes
Spiders couldn’t fly. It was a documented scientific fact. They could leap impressive distances, climb pretty much any surface, and use their webbing as parachutes to catch the wind, but the concept of flight was absolutely beyond their capabilities.
Even the Spider-man of previous centuries could only jump, climb, glide, or websling.
The Spider-Man of the twenty-third century didn’t particularly care about that. Especially not Aaron Lycosid; there were other things to be concerned with at the moment. He soared across the ruined desert separating the Spider Society City-State from the ancient rubble of what was once New York City, jet boots howling violently beneath him.
Spider-Man (Aaron still wasn’t used to that moniker) blazed a path across the dark green sky, still trying to balance his weight with four extra arms attached to his sides. It was all still so surreal. Thankfully, there was a lot of work ahead of him, allowing him to keep his mind off things.
A steady blip pulsed from his gauntlets, guiding the Spider-Man’s flight path. Just after the arms had bonded to his nervous system, melding their electric pulses into his spinal column, the chronalporter had started bleeping like mad. As it turned out, there was a break in timeline continuity. Elements of the past were being swept into the present like flotsam trapped in a free-rushing tidal wave. No doubt this breach was the Hobgoblin’s doing. The band of techno-sorcerer nomads he commanded were obsessed with destroying the timeline and re-starting from scratch. The paradoxes Aaron and the scientists had recording earlier were probably also related in some way.
Aaron had commanded the Octet members to finish sealing the city behind him, so that even if he failed and history was erased, they could try again to right things. He’d cut off communications before they could ask him why he was calling the shots instead of Gener. There hadn’t been time for lengthy explanations.
Aaron sped over blackened char that had once been a suburb of Manhattan. The blip on his gauntlets became louder, more pronounced. He was closing in on the source.
He dodged the black skeletons of buildings, weaving his way through one of the few still-standing buildings in the rubble. As he approached what was once the city center of Manhattan, he heard the muffled growls of incendiary explosions.
Aaron silenced the boot jets and dropped to the ground. The newest Spider-Man on the block had one advantage: The Hobgoblin thought he was dead. The fate of the timeline was at stake. The continuity of the universe itself. He had to play to win.
Crimson boots slapped the uneven ground -- ground composed entirely of fallen buildings and long-dead monuments to civilization lost.
“You think to stop me? To avert what I’ve come here to do?”
The Goblin’s shrieks. The Spider-Man ran toward the direction of the battle, hoping he wasn’t too late. He rounded a corner, and looking above saw a sight that shocked him to his very core.
They were here. Miguel O’Hara and Peter Parker. The Spider-Men of Yesterday, brought to the here and now by a temporal vortex still swirling in the distance, phasing in and out of space-time. Progenitors. Heroes. Legends. And in true form, they were tackling the Hobgoblin. Up close and personal.
Aaron took a second’s pause to watch as the legends fought with vigor against a foe with obviously superior technology.
“Idiots!” The wide-eyed Goblin screamed in the skies above, “The twentieth century was just the beginning, Spider-Man! A hundred years later, Chapter Two was writ! But all good things come in threes, and the final chapter, is written in my time. Despite the efforts of some poor benighted souls to try and change the way things will be!”
Spider-Man glanced up at the villain circling overhead, noticing 1996’s and 2099’s Spider-Men regrouping inside the remains of a skyscraper. Aaron brought his attention back to the maniac in the green armor, watching the demon sculpt two glowing objects from the psycho-machinery in his gauntlets. They shimmered with violent golden-red energies. Not pumpkin bombs.
“So I’ve fashioned these cyber-organic devices. I call them Retcon Bombs! They’ll blast you out of the timestream as if you’ve never existed. Goodbye, Spider-Men!”
By the time the demon tossed the bombs at the Spider-Men, Aaron was already running toward the two Spider-Men. His cybernetic arms shot out on instinct, twin thwips sending two strands of webbing at the retcon bombs, stopping the deadly weapons in their tracks.
. “No!” Aaron felt a sense of satisfaction as the Hobgoblin stood atop his glider, agape with surprise. “No, I killed you! It can’t be…Spider-Man?!”
“I don’t believe this…” Peter Parker said as he and Miguel leaped down from the building, “Spider-Man 2099, 2211…”
“…when it reaches 2500, sell!” Aaron said smartly, taking command of the situation. “Fall back, gents! You’ve done your job.” He tried to make his voice and word choices sound as much like Gener’s as possible.
“What was it?”
“Can’t tell you, son.” Aaron continued, concentrating on keeping the retcon bombs from hitting anyone. “It’s confidential. Plus, it involves a lot of math.”
Aaron found his target and, keeping the Hobgoblin to his back, leapt toward the swirling temporal vortex with the retcon bombs in tow. “Now stand back and let my guided webbing do the rest!”
“Aw, I think I’m gonna puke.” Peter said.
Aaron tossed the retcon bombs through the portal, sending them straight to the source of the temporal paradoxes. The Spider-Men and the Hobgoblin watched in awe as the machines at Fujikawa industries in 1996 and Alchemax Incorporation in 2099 on the other sides of the portal, which were inadvertently pulling apart the boundaries of space-time, suddenly ceased to exist.
“NO!” The Hobgoblin screamed as the vortex burst into a maelstrom of light and chaos. The quartet were blinded by the rays of trans-temporal energy, shrieking in violent agony as the timeline sought to fix itself.
The retcon bombs did their work well. They erased the machines from existence. No machines meant no paradox. The Spider-Men could not have arrived in the future if there was no paradox. The raging vortex pulled the heroes through its searing bright maw, yanking them back to their own timelines.
Suddenly, the fiery vortex simply collapsed upon itself, sealing the rift of explosive temporal energies neatly back into the myriad undercurrents of the universe. The timeline had sorted itself back out.
But Gener was still dead.
The Hobgoblin collapsed on the rubble, cursing angrily. “Damn you, Spider-Man. Do you know what you’ve done? Decades of work. Decades of planning the paradoxes, decades of time-travel, decades of subtle manipulation. Moving technology here. Having a merger there. Decades of planning the destruction of this timeline, and now you’ve swept it all away!”
“I fail to see that as a problem, son.” Tyr had a habit of ending most of his sentences with 'son', so Aaron felt it was appropriate to do so as well.
“Look around you Spider-Man!” The Hobgoblin screamed hysterically, “The world has failed! Armageddon has come and gone! We’re too late to change anything in the here and now. This section of the timeline is damaged beyond repair. Our tribe has spent decades seeking out the way to sterilize the timeline before it skewed into this hell! We were so close…”
“So close to destroying everything that was left from the Apocalypse.” Spider-Man stood over the beaten foe. “You’re pathetic.”
“You have no vision!”
“You’re going to jail. You’re going to jail for nearly un-making existence." Through clenched teeth he added, "and murder.”
“The hell I am!” Hobgoblin yelped, lunging for the Spider-Man’s throat. Aaron side-stepped calmly, and landed a one-two punch to the Goblin using six arms. The green demon landed several feet away.
“That was for Gener.” Aaron said. He webbed up the unconscious anarchist in silence, and headed back toward the City.
Present Time Minus Three Days, Nine Hours, One Minute
Not far from the City, Aaron Lycosid looked on at the thousands of mourners about him, huddled together on an old dock above the putrid waters of the bay. They had their Sunday best on; ‘Sunday Best” these days being little more than the tattered costumes of long-dead heroes.
Plastic cut-out wings adorned shabby Viking headsets. Battered foam Mjolnirs were gripped tightly in the hands of countless mourners, with multi-colored capes trailing majestically behind them. Some clothed themselves in ragged versions of the classic Spider-Man costume, replete with silver webbing on red and blue spandex. Others cloaked themselves in a more contemporary version, with the red spikes on the arms and the scary eye pincers that struck fear into the hearts of the cowardly and fearful.
They packed the dock tightly, these masked Daredevils and patriotic Captains. Scarlet witches, Strange doctors and Gods of thunder and mischief wiped away their endless tears with gloves and gauntlets. Barrio Men stood firm alongside Ani-Men as feminine Wolverines and masculine Heras held their beloveds together as they looked on at the cold ocean before them.
Nearly the entire populace of the Society of the Spiders was gathered there with him, all eager to pay their last respects to a fallen hero.
The raft attached to the dock shook and creaked loudly from the bellows of the stormy ocean. Crackles of thunder threatened to send waterfalls of acid rain upon the gatherers. The pungent odor of kerosene bathed the dock, carried by wild winds from the gods; winds heralding the imminent travel of a lost warrior to the heavenly shores of Valhalla.
Aaron watched as his assistants loaded the last of the fallen warrior’s worldly items onto the rocking husk that could barely be called a boat. Thousands of years before he was born, Viking warriors would be given the honor of a tall, sturdy vessel to carry their dead to the shores of Valhalla, where the dead could battle with honor amongst the finest warriors from beyond the grave for all of eternity.
All they could offer the dead man today was a cobbled-together raft, fitted with splintered wood railings affixed with string to keep his personal effects on-board despite the rocking and battering of the waves. And a patchwork sail, made from donated cloth from the sacred costumes of many of the city-state’s denizens. Hardly a mighty vessel to carry their honored dead across the Rainbow Bridge, but it would serve. It would have to. And Aaron figured that the fallen warrior at his feet would not mind too much. After all, he’d carried the mantle of leader to the Society of the Spiders. The man before him knew what hardships the world had faced after the Ragnarok of 2112. He knew that the Society would do their best to give their once-president a decent burial.
He had been the Spider-Man of 2211, after all.
Aaron sighed, crossing six arms heavily over his chest. Rest easy, Spider-Man, he thought, looking down at his fallen hero, I’ll lead these people in your stead. I’ll do right by you. No matter what.
He glanced over at the pained faces on the docks, watching as his assistants stepped off the boat. Aaron nodded respectfully at the fallen hero one last time, and walked across wooden planks softened slightly by kerosene slicks. As he walked back to the dock, he caught no one’s gaze. His mind was elsewhere, caught up once again in times past.
Aaron delivered a mighty speech to the masses in need of leadership. He paid his final respects to the fallen Tyr, and swore to uphold the values and duties of the mantle of the Spider-Man faithfully, for the rest of his life.
The congregation bowed to the man on the patchwork craft, a final send-off to the Valhalla-bound hero. Aaron struck a match and lowered it to the oil slick below, leading to the vessel. The strings tying it to the harbor were cut instantly by two members of the Octet, who then pushed the raft outward toward the sea.
The gatherers watched in silence as the boisterous sea claimed the fiery raft, pelting it on all sides with sprays of pollution-thick salt water. As the wretched craft seared and bubbled in flames, a hazy jade fog swept in from the east and cradled the sailing vessel. The mourners watched, heavy-hearted, as the red glow ebbed out further towards the sea. They lifted dense-aluminum umbrellas above their heads as the stratus above blanketed them in searing, biting rainfall. They watched as the fire drifted out to sea, and could only bring themselves to file away in huddled groups long after the red glow had disappeared.
Aaron stood at the edge of the sea long after the many thousands of mourners had filtered off of the docks and headed towards the city-state poised along the edge of the coastline. He gazed out toward the depths in silence, barely noticing the only remaining member from the city-state still waiting there with him.
“You don’t deserve it, you know,” Jenna Sosippi seethed, gripping the umbrella handle with fierce resolve. Jenna Sosippi. Once Second Leg to the Spider-Man. The next-in-line to carry the mantle of the Spider-Man following the death of the First in the Hobgoblin raid. As far as rank went, she was technically privy to the arms of the Spider-Man following Tyr’s demise.
Instead, due to unfortunate circumstance, she had now been promoted only to the role of the First, Aaron’s second-in-command. Her lips pursed together, fiery auburn eyes meeting Aaron’s glance as he turned his head to face her, “You are an Octet-member in training, Aaron. That’s all you’ll ever be to me, despite what those arms might tell you. You only inherited the mantle under duress.”
“He was dying, Jenna,” Aaron Lycosid said forcefully, glaring into her eyes with a fire of necessary authority, “I was the only one who was close enough to inherit the arms before they became inert. The city was depending on me to save them from the Hobgoblin. Tyr entrusted me with the mantle of the Spider-Man because there was no one else.”
“There was me!” Jenna spat, “I was next in line! You should have followed the mandates of rank!”
“You were halfway across the city with the rest of the Octet fixing the temporal barriers that kept the city safe from the ravages of the timeline shifting!” Aaron shouted at her, gesturing his six arms out in frustration, “Even if I could have repaired the communication equipment and contacted you in time, there was no way you’d make it back to the Sanctum before the cyber-symbiotic arms died! We needed a Spider-Man right then, and I stepped up to the plate.”
“You raided his corpse and defied the natural order, Aaron,” Jenna sneered, pointing her finger at Aaron in absolute contempt, “That makes you nothing but a loser in my eyes. I’ll follow your orders. I actually respect the chain of command. But if you screw-up, and I know you will, I’ll have the Octet appoint me Acting Spider-Man in a heartbeat and make sure you spend the rest of your life ROTTING in prison. Are we clear?”
Before Aaron could protest, Jenna had turned and was pacing back towards the city, her slim figure tensed and silent as she dotted the dirty sand with a trail of footprints, which washed away quickly as the rain continued to pelt the shoreline.
The Spider-Man watched his First stride toward the city. She was too far beyond reason to argue with now, especially with the sting of the funeral still fresh in her mind. She’d calm down eventually. He’d have a talk with her in a few days and sort things out.
But for now, he watched as the sludge waves pelted the sand about him, the storm showing no signs of settling down anytime soon.
Present Time Minus Three Hours, Five Minutes
The storm had long passed, and a restless Spider-Man soared over the sunlit expanse of the city.
It had been three days since the funeral of former Spider-Man, Gener Tyr. And only half an hour since Aaron had had a very irritating discussion -- if it could be referred to as such a docile term as ‘discussion’ -- with Jenna. At best, it had been a fuming debate somewhere near the level of the Third World War. Still, arguments between Octet members weren’t uncommon. After all, spiders in close proximity don’t necessarily tend to get along very well.
Soon afterward, Aaron had taken to the skies, seeking to let their seething emotions calm before they killed one another. Not that soaring around the city would help the two resolve their differences, of course. But, it certainly wouldn’t hurt.
He felt the breeze of the windswept city-state sweep under his half-face helmet, cooling his jaw as he twirled around, completing a semi-spiral in mid-air before uncoiling and coasting along the updrafts with six arms and two feet spread wide. He smiled, breathing the air deep into his lungs.
This was what life was all about. Sure, there would be time to learn from the past, to plan for the future, naturally. But living, breathing, existing in the moment…if you couldn’t find time for that, what was the point of doing anything? This, Aaron figured, would be where he and Gener had differed in their world-views. Gener would spend all day in the lab, studying chronal anomalies and running pointless simulation drills until reality seemed surreal from the doldrums of work.
Aaron, on the other hand, had no problem taking time to relax.
He laughed loud and heavy at the sheer, joyous thrill of it all.
Through the enhancements on his mask’s lenses, Aaron could see the individual welds in the buildings throughout the city. They were all cobbled together from retro-fitted mass and leftover machinery from an earlier era. An era when things were much better.
Now, a few hundred nomadic tribes of people travel between maybe little more than a dozen piecemeal city-states cobbled together from the lost technology of the Reserves and salvaged hardware from the Second Heroic Age. The Society had come into contact with at least seven of the fractured city-scapes which dotted the shattered landscape of the Americas, according to the information they gathered from the passing nomads. The skies are green with waste and the lands nearly devoid of life. The surviving nanotechnology is almost exclusively used to produce mass quantities of edible foodstuffs and fashion protective garments from the terrible rains and hurricanes that sweep the globe. The charred remains of twenty-first century cities are the only standing monuments left after an apocalypse which nearly wiped out the world.
Despite it all, the Spiders had truly made something from the wreckage of the previous century. Sure, the high point of civilization had floating cars and glittering walkways. Sure it had a sturdy worldfront, with corporations held together at a stalemate peace. But it was a world without freedom. A past under strict corporate control.
And while it may have been a world of unparalleled technological achievement, it was a world where the wildest of innovations were abused for the sake of power and profit. Where things like fine clothing and brake-neck speed cyberspatial data flow were taken for granted. No one back then ever even considered it could end. How could they? The corps had them too well brain-washed.
They should’ve paid more attention to the world around them, because it did end. And in the aftermath of that horrific apocalypse, just shy of a century later, the world could still end. All that the Society of the Spider had accomplished could easily be trampled to the dust. Hell, a cadre of nomadic techno-fetishists like the Hobgoblin sorcerers had breached the city’s defenses through a mystic back door and slaughtered both the previous Spider-Man and the previous First. If Aaron had not survived, the Hobgoblin anarchists might very well have shattered the timeline and forever killed the legacy of the Spider-Man.
This new Spider-Man swore that he would never take anything for granted. That he wouldn’t let the day-to-day business of being head of state blind him to the wonders of living.
That was why Aaron was swinging about the glowing city-state amidst strands of poly-morphic webline in the summer’s dawn, taking in the breeze and praising the Gods for the breath he drew every second; even if much of the atmosphere was scarred with waves of smog and light black rain swishing in from the obsidian cirrus clouds above. Century-old scars from the fall of civilization.
Life was a gift. And despite being tapped to protect the lives of his countrymen, he wouldn’t let that stop him from living his.
The SMAN suddenly lost his aerial center of gravity, still new to having four extra appendages where there had once been none. His body dipped to the left, heavy with unknown mass and threatening to spiral the new leader of the free world into the garbage-laden ground beneath him.
Thinking quickly, the Spider-Man coiled himself together, becoming a pencil’s breadth in a dirty, windy sky. He spun, a twig in the lethal breeze, recovering a semblance of equilibrium.
And suddenly he sprung into motion, guided webbing instinctively leaping from his extra arms. The synthetic silk finding a solid perch in a welded drainage pipe, Aaron pulled hard on the webline, pulling himself clumsily toward the building. He crouched awkwardly along the side of the welded metal and stuck there temporarily with a light electro-magnetic charge from both his gauntlets and his robotic arms.
Despite being named the wisest figure in the city, he still had some things to get used to.
Then he felt the steady vibration of his left wrist gauntlet. Tapping along the circuitry, the static image of the spider-symbol worshipped by much of the city-state faded to Jenna’s stern visage. “So, how’s your little AWOL trip?”
“Fun,” Aaron snapped back. “Get to the point.”
“There’s a call for you, Aaron. Fuzzy transmission from a nearby tribe of nomads. You’ve been briefed about the Bunyans, I presume.”
“Bunyans,” Aaron shook his head solemnly, then recited from memory, “a tribe of frontiersmen and women influenced by the legend of Paul Bunyan. Cutting down polluted trees for firewood and living off the land.”
“You get a gold star.” Jenna’s voice would be almost sultry if it wasn’t laced with such contempt. “Their travels have taken them a little too close to the Old Detroit Disaster Area. They’re asking for assistance and medical aid to anyone who’s listening.”
“Poor souls,” Aaron muttered, adjusting the settings on the gauntlet’s viewscreen. “Patch me through to them.”
"Yes, sir." She added, with a final twinge of hate as the Bunyan tribe appeared on the line.
Present Time Minus Two Hours, Forty-Four Minutes
Aaron made a beeline for the main chamber of the Web, not even bothering to walk. He flew through the narrow corridors of the buildings as fast as he could manage. Time was not on his side.
The vidlink conversation with the Bunyans’ chieftain had been brief but pleasant. He and Aaron had tried to hammer out the logistics of carting a population of over two hundred irradiated people to the shelter of the Spider Society. The idea was a headache in the making, but before the talks could get very far, the connection had been cut off.
Then Aaron found out why.
“Confirmed,” the Octet’s Fourth, Bobb Arctos said now as Aaron flew into the room and touched down, wanting to hear it all again. “Their transmissions have stopped, sir. Probes aren’t reading anything out there. It’s like … it’s like they don’t exist anymore.”
“How is that possible?” Aaron breathed.
“Sir!” Rhonda Pardosa, Aaron’s Third, shouted. “Chronalporter’s picking up some weird vibrational frequencies. Some timeshifting … my God … I think you should see this, sir.”
Aaron and Jenna ran over to the time-scanning display on the chronalporter, watching as Rhonda pulled up the images of the timeline. The Octet watched in hushed whispers as a completely different view of their past played forth before their eyes.
An image of Kron Stone being eviscerated, his Venom symbiote eventually being duplicated and bonded with several Alchemax corporate raiders.
An image of Atlantis being brutally destroyed by agents of Alchemax.
An image of a Downtown workers protest being met by weapons fire. Boru, a well-known political activist and leader of the Downtown Unions, ruthlessly slaughtered.
By the Spider-Man. By Miguel O’Hara. The newest corporate tool on the block.
An image of Miguel and Hikaru Takegi celebrating, when they should be bitter enemies.
An image of the Goblin Church sweeping Downtown in the void left by Boru’s death.
An image of the beloved mother, Conchata O’Hara, committing suicide.
An image of the Apocalypse.
An image of the Spider-Man being publicly slaughtered in the revolution.
The images slowly faded into static, as an empty silence filled the room.
Their history had become completely wrong. Something in the past had happened to change history. Something had changed with Miguel O’Hara. Apparently, in the new timeline, he was no longer the savior the Society knew him to be. Instead, he had given into the corporate pressures. He’d become a corporate stooge. Instead of a gleaming hero, he had become a footnote. Instead of a force for good, his reputation had become tarnished. He was now destined to become just as corrupt and lost as any of the corporate heads of state in the early twenty-second century.
And apparently, the only reason the Spider Society hadn’t been affected was because the chronological seals at the edges of the city were protecting them. For how long they would be effective against the timeline shifting, no one could say.
“This’ll ruin everything.” Spider-Man mumbled quietly.
Jenna Sosippi leered sidelong at the leader.
“Regular Einstein, you are.” She said.
Present Time Minus Forty Minutes, Seven Seconds
The chronalporter was a masterpiece of Einsteinian and Richardsian physics principles. It had been cobbled together from ancient technology salvaged from centuries-old laboratories, but so much care had been put into its construction that it looked anything but ancient.
Lab technicians and engineers worked tirelessly, re-integrating replacement equipment from the Hobgoblin’s attack a week ago as a bevy of scientists worked on recalibrating the finer, more delicate instruments. The machine had been fixed that morning, along with most of the communications equipment. All that was left to repair were some of the back-up generators and most of the lighting fixtures – leaving the room shrouded in darkness, save for the hypnotic glow of the computer screens.
"Powering up chronalporter and viewer now," Bobb Arctos, the on-duty Fourth announced as Aaron approached the platform. "Optimal timewindow and timebridge capacity in T minus ten seconds."
"Thanks, Bobb," Aaron replied, his fingers and thumbs clenching into fists and relaxing over and over again in a steady rhythm. It was a nervous habit of his, and it was hard to hide whenever he was wearing the Spider-Suit because his four robotic hands mimicked his real hands' movement.
He forced himself to relax. Everything was riding on this….
"Two ... one."
He stood near the teleportational portal and studied one of the chronal-viewers off to the side. The large circular tables projected three-dimensional images of any subjects the chronalporter locked onto in a given timeline. As the main computers ran an alignment search on the proper spot in time and space, Aaron watched as static energy danced and swirled in the holo-image like a snowstorm.
The static quickly achieved a level of clarity similar to an old television suddenly receiving a coherent signal with the adjustment of antennae. That bit of communications technology was a century or two before his time, but Aaron was, for obvious reasons, a student of history. New York as it appeared at the end of the twenty-first century became visible in three dimensions, and Aaron had to admit he was impressed. Sure, the monolithic skyscrapers that dominated that era had been made possible by a heartless corporate drain on every last available resource ... but there was nothing like it in the twenty-third century. All of those impressive structures were now crumbled, decayed ruins.
Aaron's eyes studied the image, peering across the office building spires in search of someone in particular.
There. Gliding on air currents. Dressed in midnight blue with bright red designs.
He watched his predecessor land on the side of a building and climb to the top. Halfway up, the Spider-Man of 2100 started muttering to himself. "Increase aural sensitivity by fifty percent," Aaron instructed Bobb.
It was fairly well-known that Aaron considered Miguel O'Hara to be his favorite incarnation of the Spider-Man mythos. He couldn't help but find himself drawn in by O'Hara's struggles with power and responsibility. It was an inspiration.
“Kron Stone was a jerk-off. The world will be better with him gone.”
On the other hand, O'Hara's words weren't nearly as inspiring.
"Guy's a real prince," Bobb intoned as he worked the controls. "I can see why you're into him so much."
"Bite off," Aaron whispered, trying not to miss anything O'Hara was saying.
“What part of ‘making the world a better place’ don’t you understand?!” O'Hara was gesturing with his arms for good measure.
"Who's he talking to?" Bobb asked. "Is he talking to us?"
O'Hara's arms fell limply to his sides. “Great. Not only am I talking to myself, but I’m arguing with myself as well. Good job. I should just send myself off to the Wellvale Home for Crazy People. Probably argue with myself over doing that, too.”
Aaron let out a relieved breath. "Good. He can't see or hear us yet. Temporal intrusion level is steady, right?"
"Right," Bobb confirmed. "The timebridge just extends far enough for us to see the era; it won't make itself known on his side until you give the word."
“I promised myself that I would make this world a better place, O'Hara went on, still trying to convince himself of these things. "Kron Stone is a sociopath, and a murderer. He’s been that way for years, even since the Alchemax School. He … he can’t be rehabilitated. And even though I want that shocking bastard to rot in a cell for the next fifty years, I have a responsibility … a responsibility … to….”
Aaron listened, hanging on his idol's every word.
“Dana…” O'Hara whispered, sounding as defeated as he looked. He fell off the rooftop and thoughtlessly sent off a webline from his wrist to another high-rise building. He swung toward that building, and -- as if on autopilot -- crawled up the side of it to the roof.
There O'Hara sat, head resting in his arms. He was still clad head-to-foot in his Spider-Man costume, but he couldn't have seemed more human and vulnerable. "All right, this is it," Aaron asserted as he watched. "I've got to talk to him."
Bobb glanced up at him. "But -- are you sure about--?"
"Yes. I've got to reach him through direct means, or he'll never pull out of this downward spiral." With that, Aaron turned from the viewer and stepped onto the waiting chronalporter platform. As soon as the platform's pressure-sensitive plates registered his weight, they glowed brightly, and the chronal energy enveloped his body. Behind him, he could hear Bobb shouting about him. The voice sounded very distant, echoing in a constant time loop as Aaron disconnected himself from his home era.
"Something's wrong!" Bobb's words repeated.
Aaron could feel that much all by himself. His body felt as if it were no longer made of flesh and bone, but the kind of static interference he'd noted on the chronal viewer before it'd properly 'tuned in' to 2100.
Not good at all.
And the past Spider-Man was looking right at him.
"Miguel O'Hara!" Aaron shouted. "Can you hear me?! I need your help! I'm Aaron Lycosid, the Spider-Man of 2099, and -- oh for crying out loud, I can't even hear myself!" Indeed, it was kind of hard to make himself heard when the very act of shouting required drawing air into his lungs ... and Aaron existed as an energy being. A wave packet, spread across several seconds at once instead of solidly existing from one moment to the next.
An embarrassing fate for a Spider-Man if there ever was one.
Desperately, like a drowning man grasping for the nearest solid handhold, Aaron reached out O'Hara.
Weirdly, his fingers actually gripped Spider-Man's shoulder. Apparently, he was just enough in-phase with reality to do so, however temporarily. That was a good sign. Giving Miguel's body a few experimental shakes to make sure there was still contact, Aaron gulped in a deep breath of sweet (polluted) New York air, and tried shouting some more.
"Miguel! Miguel, we need to talk, and -- testing one two three. Dammit!" As soon as he'd started talking, he felt himself go intangible again, his ability to hear himself vocalize diminishing as well.
He'd lost phase again. Maybe this time for good.
Now he couldn't even see the New York 2100 environment. As far as his eye could see in every direction, there was a cascade of electromagnetism, a latticework of energy that would have been a humbling and awe-inspiring sight if Aaron weren't so royally disgruntled at his failure. He sank to his knees...
...and realized there was solid ground beneath him.
Just like that, he was back in his home era, and he celebrated by coughing out the lungful of old New York atmosphere.
He realized that not only was Bobb crouched over him, asking if he was okay and explaining what he had to do to get Aaron back, but the rest of the Octet was there as well, calling him twenty different kinds of idiot.
"You are not using that chronalporter again," Jenna scolded him. "You almost smeared yourself across the entire time-space contin--"
"Yeah, I know," he shot back, his voice tight with frustration. "But we still have to make him see. We're out of options. The moment this machine is fixed, I want Miguel O'Hara brought here so we can have a nice long chat."
Jenna was already in Aaron's face, but she somehow managed to lean in closer. "Oh, so now you want to smear him across the space-time--"
"Work the bugs out of the 'porter and it won't be an issue," he shot back. It wasn't the first unpopular order Aaron had given in his short time as the newest Spider-Man, and it wasn't going to be the last.
"Say that last part again," the Spider-Man of 2100 demanded, his finger poking Aaron's armored chest. Right on the spider design.
"You mean the current year," Aaron responded calmly, "or the part where I'm the Spider-Man of this era?"
Miguel O'Hara paused. "Yes."
"I'm Aaron Lycosid, newly-minted Spider-Man of the year twenty-two-eleven." He pronounced the year slowly and clearly, to eliminate any misunderstanding.
"Why am I not in 2100?" O'Hara asked, adopting the same slow cadence to point out how condescending it sounded.
"I brought you here so I can make you aware of the consequence of your current behavior -- and yes, I'm using the word 'current' loosely."
O'Hara rubbed the bridge of his nose, his full-face mask still on. "And that consequence would be...?"
"A chain-of-event reaction that would not only wipe out this timeline, but create an even worse one."
Miguel continued rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Oh, thank god. For a second there, I thought it was going to be something serious. Can I go home now?"