The Apokolips Agenda
In blackness was where Pariah would have preferred to spend his time. He had one small satisfaction: that Desaad had tried to torture him with a complicated contraption that was supposed to work on him physically, on his nerve cells, and the thing had blown up in his face. Desaad, with blackened face, had said, "Yes. Well, now we'll have to try again, won't we?"
Pariah had actually smiled, and said, "I can come to no physical harm."
That had led Desaad down the right track. For tortures of the mind can be even worse than tortures of the body, and Apokolips has mind-probers aplenty.
Pariah could not rise from his chair, held as he was by a stasis beam
that paralyzed his lower body. Whatever he faced, he could not get
up and walk away from it. Perhaps it would not have helped.
Desaad had clamped a helmet over his head. It transmitted images from his brain to a receiver, which the master torturer of Apokolips manipulated like an orchestra conductor. He picked and choosed among the scenes of Pariah's life, helped along by a gauge which glowed more redly when it registered a pattern of fear in a certain remembrance.
The images were recorded and stored in the device's memory bank. Then Desaad began to fiddle with them, for he was an artist, and artists always reshape reality to their best intent. Some of the images were made more subtly frightening. Others were enlarged so as to knock down the viewer's mind with fear coming at him like a diesel train.
When he was ready, Desaad touched a control on the machine. "Tell me," he said, "what do you think of this?"
The images transmitted back to Pariah's covered eyes depicted the Great Experiment.
He saw Daneeta, coming into the lab, but much more slowly. The fear in her eyes was much more pronounced than it had been before. Around her, subtle things played, just out of the focus of his conscious mind. Sounds were heard, such as Pariah would never have preferred to hear in his too-long lifetime. She stepped into the laboratory slowly, and with every step, something happened to her body. It distorted, began to burn. Slowly. So that he could see every layer of skin being vaporized, all the organs beneath pulsating and bleeding and...
And she was looking at him. And saying something. And pleading with her eyes, her eyes which were still intact though her body burned and burned and burned.
"OH, GODS!" screamed Pariah. "TAKE IT AWAY!"
But it would not go away. Not even when he closed his eyes and sobbed.
Daneeta took a very long time to die. When she did, she was replaced by the faces of some of his relatives, his colleagues, his old teachers, all of them dying in precisely the same way, all of them accusing him with their eyes full of terror. The eyes which were the last things to be consumed.
Then there was the Great Hand again. The Great Hand which was altered, somehow...made more clawlike, more threatening.
And it was reaching out...
Pariah had been screaming for some time. He didn't know he could reach a higher pitch at that time, having given about as much effort as he could to the task. But he managed it, howling like a trapped animal, tears coursing down his face, sweat staining his clothes from armpits to waistband, his bowels beginning to move of their own accord.
He heard laughter. This he did not think was a simulation.
Before he passed out, he heard someone say, "I think we're getting results now."
The nightmares he had after fainting were not as bad as the ones he had waking.
He was grateful for that.
"The Forever People," echoed Superman. "Mark Moonrider, Big Bear, Beautiful Dreamer and all the rest. I'd wondered what happened to them. I only saw them once."
"Um, Forever People?" asked Kara. "I'm not quite familiar with them, cousin. Let me see..." She combed her super-memory and came up with some data. "Ah. I remember you telling me once, years ago, about your first glimpse of ‘Supertown'...which is where we are right now, correct?"
Izaya rumbled, "That is the phrase some of our younger ones used for the capital city of our world. As for ‘Forever People', it is simply a term Orion once used in derision towards Moonrider's family group, which they adopted. Just as we are known among some of your kind as...'New Gods'." Highfather looked discomfited by the phrase.
"Yeah," said Kara, wryly. "It took a little for me to get used to people calling me ‘Supergirl', too."
Dev-Em wrapped an arm about her waist and drew her closer. To Highfather, he said, "All due respect, Father, I think we'd be better off with my plan of infiltration into this Apokolips scene. We do have to learn what Darkseid's got in mind, besides raising hell on five Earths at once. We still have to get back Orion, too."
Lightray, standing beside Izaya with crossed arms, snapped, "As if we were unaware of that. The last time you attempted that, I had to save you three from the green man and the Dark Lord himself."
"Any time you want us to step back so you can go toe-to-toe with Mordru, let me know, whitepants," retorted Dev.
"Stop it, Dev," said Kal. "Izaya is Orion's foster father. If anyone can be concerned for his fate, Highfather is. But what of the Forever People, sir?"
The white-maned elder sighed and leaned on his staff, bending so that he might sit down on a bench of obsidian stone. It looked as though he was fatigued. Kara found herself starting towards him to help, but Lightray saw her and gestured her back. When he was seated, Izaya spoke again.
"Mark Moonrider and his unit are related not by blood, but by comradeship," he explained. "They formed a communal living group not long before the conflict with Darkseid began anew. The precipitation of that conflict was the abduction of humans from your Earth and of Dareema from our world. Both were done by Darkseid for the same purpose: to learn if any of those minds contained useful fragments of the Anti-Life Equation."
"Explain this Anti-Life Equation to me, Father, in a page or less," said Dev. "I know something about science, but I was a philosophy washout."
Lightray answered him. "The Anti-Life Equation is a concept which some individuals in this universe hold in part or in toto in their minds. Possibly all men have it in some small degree. This concept, when taken and possessed and wielded by a being of great enough power, will make all men slaves of the one who wields it. But that one must be mighty indeed. For lesser men, even ones who are of great stature in your world, all it amounts to is the ability to have others obey their stated wishes."
"Darkseid, of course, would have enough power," murmured Supergirl.
"The Equation would shut down all free will in the universe," said Izaya. "Only the controller would decide what actions would be taken, what thoughts would be conceived, and all would be subject to the will of--"
"Darkseid," said Kara.
"Exactly," said Izaya. "That is the goal Darkseid has sought for most of his existence. That is the thing we have kept him from finding for most of ours. And now--" Izaya gestured with his free hand. Lightray had an uneasy expression.
"Then we've got to stop him," Kara said. "Obviously."
"No," said Izaya.
"No?" Kara echoed the word incredulously.
"What do you mean, Highfather?" asked Superman. "If we're to--"
"You cannot stop him," said Izaya. "But one of the Forever People can. If we get to them in time."
Dev shifted his feet. "So how in Sheol do we find these Forever People?"
Izaya looked tired. "We will give you aid. What we can spare of our fighting force, what information we have. But, so far...we have been unable to find them, ourselves."
"Great," snapped Kara, shaking off Dev's arm and turning to face the wall. "Another cosmic snipe hunt, just after the last one. I am getting sick, sick, sick of being the last great hope for the universe. I just want to get married and have kids and a good life somewhere with the man I love, and--" She flushed, turned, met Dev's eyes. "Sorry," she said.
"Don't be, love," said Dev, touching her chin. "Not so far off from what I'd want, really, except it'd be with the woman I love."
Lightray saw a sour expression cross Superman's face. But he knew enough not to ask questions.
The Man of Steel turned back to Highfather. "Well, where were Moonrider's people last seen? And when?"
Izaya said, "They were attacked by one of Darkseid's agents, called Devilance. He attacked them with an energy weapon, his lance. The Infinity Man was said to have appeared. There was an explosion and--none of them were seen again."
"Oh, hell," said Dev. "Doesn't sound like you'd have to search for them very far. Just in a five-block radius for scattered parts, most likely."
"That's--not what we think happened," Lightray responded. "In a later encounter with Darkseid, he tapped into the Infinity Man's power to try and penetrate the Source."
"The Source?" asked Kara.
"Yes," said Lightray. "I'll explain later. But if the Infinity Man's power still existed, then, most likely, so did the Forever People."
"And one of them," said Superman, "has the Anti-Life Equation. Correct?"
Highfather smiled at him. "No, Superman. Much more important. One of them has...the Life Equation."
Washington, D.C. of Earth-X had seen many strange things in its time, not the least of which was the invasion by Nazi forces and the execution of a sitting American president. It had seen its influx of super-heroes and villains over the years, too. But nothing had gone quite like this in the last 200-plus years of its existence.
A flotilla of heroes in unfamiliar costumes had phased in through an aperture in the sky and was engaging the army of super-villains who had recently laid claim to the city. In time, the familiar faces of the Freedom Fighters joined their ranks. That was reassurring to those observers who saw them. But, with all the wholesale havoc being thrown around, from a level of several thousand feet on down to ground level, the smart thing to do was to take cover, preferably in someplace underground. To their credit, most Washingtonians were smart.
Those who could sought out familiar faces in the crowd of suits and got to busting. Captain Marvel saw Captain Nazi on the wing and changed his face. The green-suited man with the white swastika on his chest dropped and splashed down on the Mall's waterway. Wally West, the second Flash, saw a big gorilla with a bandolier around his chest and a machine gun in his hand. He took him for Grodd and plowed into him. After running over him several times, Wally realized his mistake. The fur was the wrong color. It was M'sieu Mallah, of the Brotherhood of Evil. Wally had met him before. The error was forgiveable. Even on Earth-One, there weren't that many talking gorillas.
The Icicle managed to get off a couple of blasts and popsicle a few heroes before Green Lantern of Earth-Two brought him down with a giant green cage, just for old times' sake. Unfortunately, a flying villain dropped the Floronic Man into the fray from above with pinpoint accuracy. Dr. Jason Woodrue was rather a reluctant participant, but knew his importance to the cause, and the effectivity of Apokoliptic defoilant should he fail. Alan Scott's ring wouldn't work against wood. Wood was the major component of Dr. Woodrue's body. Therefore, when Woodrue slammed into him from above, he was able to bring him crashing down to the ground and knock him cold. Another example of fitting the right man to the right job.
However, Bulletman and Bulletgirl were hardly bothered by a wooden enemy, and, gravity-helmets fully charged, linked arms and smashed Woodrue across the breadbasket, or what served for one on him these days. They banged him into a lightpole and handcuffed his hands behind it. Woodrue attempted to summon The Green to his defense, but found out that on this world, The Green was leaving him on his own.
Carol Ferris had insisted on accompanying her man, Hal, the original Green Lantern of Earth-One, in her guise as Star Sapphire. That was lucky, as the other Star Sapphire, Remoni-Notra of the old Secret Society of Super-Villains, was also on tap. The two got into a power-beam duel powered by purple jewels, and only a few observers (such as Hal, who had been around Carol long enough to distinguish her) knew who to root for. Hal had his own problems with Sonar, who was giving him havoc with his tuning-fork gun and hollering, "For Modora!" every time he scored a point.
Eventually, Firestorm got tired of watching it, pinpointed an energy-beam, and blasted Sonar's gun to slag. The Sultan of Sound yelled in pain, dropping his weapon and blowing on his hand. Green Lantern hurtled forward, ring-fist upmost, and buried his knuckles in Sonar's pudding trough. He caught the falling villain in a green net and added, sardonically, "For Modora."
The Gang, a band of four hapless villains who had once opposed Supergirl, found themselves faced by a beautiful woman in a white miniskirted costume and a jeweled tiara. "Let's mash her," suggested Bulldozer, the strongman of the group, and the other three decided it wasn't such a bad notion at that.
Isis merely raised her arms and chanted.
"Gravity by which Earth does bind,
Loosen through the power of mind!"
At that, the quartet of evildoers found themselves soaring upwards helplessly, which put some of the Justice Leaguers who were charter members in a nostalgiac reminescence of their first case with Dr. Destiny, when gravity ran wild. They were intercepted by a flying Captain Marvel, Jr, and Mary Marvel, who made short work of them and dumped them on a rooftop. Mary stood on the roof and waved to the sorceress. "Nice to have you back," she declared.
"Even better to be back," beamed Isis.
Not to be outdone, Uncle Sam and his band of Freedom Fighters joined the fray. Black Condor, the Ray, Usa, Phantom Lady, and the Human Bomb didn't know much about the out-of-town villains, but they recognized most of the heroes, and set about bashing anybody that didn't look familiar. In that, they did a lot of bashing, and did it rather well. This was their Earth, after all, and they had a reputation to uphold.
But Mammoth of the Fearsome Five had a rep to maintain, as well, and sucker-punched Sam from behind, knocking him down. He tried a stomp to finish the job, but a six-inch soldier in a blue costume grabbed his foot, wrenched upward, and threw him onto his back. Doll Man stood over his foe, hands on hips. Mammoth started to get up.
Usa was on the scene, but Sam, getting up himself, waved her back. He smiled, took off his hat and coat, and looked around. "Who wants to hold this?"
The closest person to hand was a villain, Shimmer, Mammoth's sister. Sam held the articles of clothing out to her. "D'you mind, darling?" She didn't know what to say. He plumped the coat and hat in her arms. She watched him turn around, face Mammoth, and put up his dukes.
"Okay, young feller," he said, "let's see what'cha got."
Mammoth smiled, grinding one fist into an open palm, and stepped forward.
A second or two later, he was propelled backwards into the arms of Mirror Master, who was of no help at all. Mammoth spit out blood. "What's he got in there, an invisible horseshoe or somethin'?"
The Ray smiled. "You just wish."
Sam stepped forward, landed a few more blows with the expertise of John L. Sullivan and the force of Joe Louis, and ended with an uppercut that put Mammoth on the far side of wakefulness. Shimmer, angrily, dropped the hat and coat and held out a hand to blast Sam with her molecular powers. Someone tapped her on the shoulder. Involuntarily, she turned her head.
Usa bashed her in the face. After the redheaded villainess went down, she blew on her knuckles. Then she grinned at Sam, who was picking up his clothes.
"Not a bad one for a girl," he grinned.
Usa dropped her jaw. Phantom Lady strode up and shook a finger in his face. "Once this is over, Sam, you and I are going to have a long talk about your sexist attitudes. Believe it!"
The Bomb smashed his hands together and bowled over several more Flash villains who were trying to crash the party. "Ladies, please!" he said, through the speaker unit of his hood. "We've still got business!"
Black Lightning, chancing to look over the Bomb's head, did a double take. "Yeah," he muttered. "And business just got uglier."
Antother hole in the sky was opening. It wasn't reinforcements for the heroes.
Instead, it was a wave of blackness that separated into many humanoid, flying components as it hit the open air. The Shadow-Demons of Qward were unleashed.
There was some relief to the blackness, as they saw when the wave neared them a bit. The Weaponers of Qward, the strange litle men who wielded red and yellow lightning bolts from quivers, were also among the shadows, riding their flying steeds. But in the lead was a being who did not hail from the anti-matter universe, and who, some guessed correctly, was their field commander.
Firestorm unleashed an atomic bolt at the man in green and yellow before Green Lantern, who had fought him before, could tell him not to. Mantis ate up the destructive energy like candy, and glowed in parasitic power.
"For Darkseid," he roared. "Attack!"
The motley crew which Jim Rook was beginning to think of as the Magic Squad had been transported by the powers of Amethyst, Jennifer Morgan, and Harbinger to a field in Salem which, Lyla had told him, was not on the Earth which he knew. A large tower without a door in it, which had seen some recent damage and repair, stood before them. Shade was emitting a horror-illusion now and then, indicating he wasn't any too happy with things. Mellu wasn't, either, but she told him to turn down his vest.
"So," said Nightmaster, hefting his magic sword. "Do we just hang around, or ask directions to the next dragon stop, or what?"
Harbinger looked at him coolly. "We await the arrival of the greatest human sorceror of the Multiverse," she said. "He asked me to bring you here."
"If it makes you feel any better, Mr. Rook," said Amethyst, "I don't know much more about this than you do. I've been on my Earth, and on Gemworld, but not too many of these places in between."
Jennifer put her arm around the girl's shoulder. "It's all right, Amy. Whatever comes, I have a feeling the six of us can handle it together. Even if we've never fought side-by-side."
Mellu said, "Aren't you worried for that man of yours you told us about? And he, for you?"
The Skartarian woman's face was a bit more strained. "I worry for him indeed, Mellu. And yes, he for me. But we're both warriors, and he has things to occupy him now. Harbinger took me from a scene of battle, with Travis's consent."
Jim Rook spun the hilt of his blade in his hand, making it sing a bit more rapidly. "So, Miss Harbinger...what is this all about? Why are you operating this superhero temp service?"
"Rook," said Shade, growing the left portion of his head into a monstrous after-image, "are all Earth swordsman as irritating as you?"
"Rac, please," said Mellu, laying a hand on his chest.
Before Nightmaster could make an appropriately cutting remark, their attention was drawn by a nimbus of golden light in the air before the Salem tower. It resolved itself into the shape of a man in blue and gold, descending towards the grass below. Jim Rook knew enough about magicians to know he was in a presence most potent, and held his tongue.
"Doctor Fate," said Harbinger, looking up.
"Harbinger," responded the helmeted man. "I may take no more time than necessary. Battles rage on all our worlds. But you and your fellows must go to a place which I have visited only once before, and gain information from the one enthroned therein."
"Enthroned?" asked Jim Rook. "Excuse me saying, but what wizard are we off to see, anyhow?"
The helmeted head turned towards Nightmaster. It was not reassuring that he couldn't see eyes behind the holes in the helmet.
"More than a wizard," said Dr. Fate. "Much more. By the powers of ancient Chaldea, I send you forth."
He raised his hands. The golden cape billowed behind him, though there was no wind. The gold gloves glowed with the same light that had heralded his arrival. Within a second...
...they were somewhere else.
Somewhere grayish, misty, but still apparently enough like their own worlds to possess breathable air, and solid ground on which to stand. Unless it was only their spirits that were guests in that realm, with their bodies dormant elsewhere.
There was only one other in that realm. He was, Nightmaster guesstimated, somewhere between twenty and twenty-five feet tall. He had long hair, a beard, a robe, and two eyes which glowed with mystic energy that might have dwarfed Dr. Fate's.
He had been sitting somewhere, doing something. But now he saw them, and raised up. He seemed to take a long time doing so, and did not look overly pleased. Rook hefted his sword, and tried to take point, but Harbinger swept him back with her arm.
"Who summons Oracle?" said the very tall man.
"I am Harbinger, also called Lyla, and these are my allies," said the woman, standing foursquare before him. "We have been sent by Doctor Fate to gain information. The lives of five worlds are at stake."
Oracle spoke again.
"When those of your sort call me," he said, "they usually are."
Ugly Mannheim did not like, in any way, dealing with Apokolips. Except for the facts that they dealt in weapons more powerful than anything he could buy on the streets, they had money to burn and paid better even then the uptown crew, and he got to go places he'd never been before.
Sometimes he had to go through one of those stupid holes that made a boom-boom. That was how he got here. He didn't like it, almost had to be pushed through it. But, hell, it was a job. He was being paid to do it. That was what Inter-Gang did. The hole would be there for him when the job was done. Not if. When. If Ugly Mannheim took on a job, it was always when.
He didn't know what town he was in. From the looks of it, it was not unlike St. Louis, although it didn't have that crazy arch in the sky. All that he knew was the place where he was supposed to stand, with the damper-thing in his jacket to keep away something which he was assured was bigger than flies, and wait till the guy came out whose picture he had been given.
He was loitering outside an office building. Out of it came, at about the time he had been told to expect him, the guy with red hair and a white streak in it. A great tell. With such a characteristic, one did not have to waste time sizing up too many prospects.
There was a black-haired woman with him and she was a real looker. He could miss her, or throw her in for free. Ugly did not like to do things for free. He decided to miss her if at all possible.
The guy turned his head as Ugly pulled out his piece. He could not have known what Ugly was about to do. Not without some kind of voodoo. What the hell.
The trigger was pulled once, twice, three times in close succession. Good tight pattern. Right through the chest. Ugly shot him twice more just to make sure.
The woman started to scream. The bystanders started to bystand. Ugly began to lam.
Just as he turned, he thought he saw something boiling up from this Corrigan guy's body. Like it was full of green and white smoke or something. Like he was burning up inside from too much spicy Mexican food, maybe, if he ate such. Only it didn't come out too far. It just hung around him for a second or two, and went back in.
Ugly rounded the corner. The hole was waiting for him. It went boom and glowed so that he wouldn't likely miss it. A delivery boy was between him and it. He bashed the boy across the side of the head with his piece and jumped inside the boom-hole.
It went boom again and he went for the damned toboggan ride.
Behind him, Madame Xanadu grasped Jim Corrigan's hand. She knew the reading had been exceptionally bad today for him, but both knew that what was inside him was sensible to danger, and could deal with it.
Except for what had happened now.
Now, the Spectre was all that was keeping Jim Corrigan alive, and he had to stay within him.
The Tarot card mistress looked up at the most likely onlooker to help. "Call an ambulance," she said. "Now!"
The man hesitated, then ran inside the door of a nearby shop to do just that.
Jim Corrigan, for his part, lay unconscious while the thing inside of him tried to keep him from bleeding to death.