The Apokolips Agenda
They got Jim Corrigan into the emergency room too late.
But it still wasn't too late.
That was one of the big things that puzzled the doctors. By all rights, a guy who had a bullet puncturing his aorta, the kind that made a bigger hole when it went out than when it went in, should have been toe-tagged down in the morgue already.
Jim Corrigan wasn't dead. His blood was still liquid, and it was still managing somehow to be pumped weakly by a heart that should have kicked over hours ago. He was still breathing, he was under an oxygen tent, and if he wasn't conscious, that was probably a blessing.
How long it would take him to die was a subject of the utmost concern to the hospital's gambling pool, and the wagers were as high as any they had seen in its existence.
The other things that puzzled them were the people who had come to the bedside of Jim Corrigan to keep the woman with him company. Ostensibly, they all looked normal. But they all had the mien of people you might see on a bad Stephen King movie adaptation. Except for the guy in the blonde buzz-cut, who had to be told repeatedly not to smoke in Corrigan's room and who was regarded as a true jerk by the entire staff.
When they asked who the sitting committee was, the guy had said, "My name's Constantine. John Constantine. These guys, they're my friends. Mostly. We all know Corrigan."
If the staff had been around to hear the newcomers talk among themselves the way they did when the medics weren't in the room, they might have picked up some identity pointers. Like when John Constantine said, "Stranger. I'm gonna go get him."
The man whose face seemed always in shadow turned to the Englishman, not saying anything.
Dr. Occult, who was pushing 80 years of age, made fists in his coat pockets. "That's not a good idea, John. He doesn't need to see this, that early in the game."
"Bugger that," said Constantine. "He's seen a helluva lot more than I did at his age. If he was gonna be a doctor, and his dad was, the old man'd probably have him visiting the emergency room to see what was what. Same thing here. Maybe he can be of help. Or maybe we can help him."
"Help him?" said Occult. "How?"
The Phantom Stranger spoke. "I believe I see Constantine's reasoning. In this time of chaos, others may use the opportunity to capture the boy. If we bring him here, at least we can offer him protection."
"My thinking exactly," said Constantine, scratching his face.
Occult paused, then looked at Madame Xanadu. "What do you think, Madame?"
The beautiful black-haired woman kept her hand on Corrigan's. "Let him."
Occult pointed a finger at Constantine. "If the boy is harmed by this sight, Constantine, I will hold you responsible. Personally. And I was a practicioner long before you were born."
"I'll keep that in mind, mate," said Constantine, as he began to conjure a portal.
"No. Keep something else in mind," said Occult. "Zatara and Sargon."
Constantine didn't say anything or look at Occult as he stepped into the Earth-One universe.
Several minutes later he returned with a young teenaged boy in hand. The portal closed behind them. Tim Hunter looked agog. "Stranger, and Dr. Occult," he said, hoarsely. "And, you're Madame Xanadu. But..."
"Tim," said the Stranger, in a gentle voice.
The youth was already at the bedside, placing his hands on the plastic where it covered the railing. "I remember him. That's Jim Corackle. What happened?"
"Somebody shot ‘im," said Constantine. "Somebody who didn't fancy seein' the Spectre takin' a hand in what's been happenin' lately."
Tim turned his head to look at the four others. "Where...is the Spectre?"
Madame Xanadu said, "Inside him, Tim. Keeping him alive. Even with our power added, it seems a losing task."
"So...why am I here?"
"To keep you safe from those who may seek you," said the Stranger.
"Or maybe to get you to lend us a hand," said Constantine. "Course, it's up to you. I can understand if it's too much, at your age. I can take you back."
Tim said, wonderingly, "I can help?"
"Maybe," said Constantine.
The boy swallowed, hard. "Show me how."
Occult said, "Damn you, Constantine."
"You're a little late for that, Doc," remarked the Brit.
Madame Xanadu, touching Tim Hunter's shoulder, began to tell him what he should do.
One of the tricks of time-travel to a point at which you were alive was to say a bit out of synch with the moment to which you had travelled. This was a bit that required vibrating one's body at just the right pitch, as if one were a human tuning fork. Nobody without super-powers could do it, and few of them could.
Superman, Supergirl, and Dev-Em were among that category.
It was not so many years back in the past as to be hard to dredge up from memory, even without the super-augmentation of a Krypt under a yellow sun. No, this was only a year or so after the New Gods had made their presence known on Earth. The locale was an apartment building in Metropolis, and not one of the nicer-looking ones. Kara wrinkled her nose.
"They lived here?" she asked.
"According to what Highfather told us, yes," said Superman.
So, like denizens of the Phantom Zone, Kara, Kal, and Dev descended intangibly to the sidewalk, unconsciously avoiding running children, women with bags of groceries, a tired mailman, a beat cop, and the like. Dev ran one hand through his hair, impatiently. "Never did like this century. Never. So mundane, so ugly..."
The sound made all three of them start, even as they swung their heads towards its source: a circle of glowing light. A Boom Tube. This, they knew. But the Tube was, impossibly, rammed into the side of the building, not harming it, existing in a plane probably not distant from the one they now occupied. However, when someone emerged from it, he would be rock-solid in this dimension.
"Up there," said Superman, and the three of them launched themselves up to the third floor wall, and through it.
There were the five strangely-garbed youths, the ones Superman knew as the Forever People. Amongst them was a strange, almost flat-faced male, helmeted and clothed in a short-sleeved white shirt and red gloves, boots, and trunks. But his flesh and clothes seemed to gleam like metal, and he bore in his hands a strange, gleaming, multi-edged spear.
"Must be Devilance," said Kara, watching the five young New Genesites avoid his deadly thrusts.
Big Bear, the largest of the Forever People, got his hands on Devilance's spear-haft and tried to wrest it away. The hunter from Apokolips lifted the spear and threw Big Bear overhead, smashing him into a wall. Vykin the Black tried to rush their foe and got clouted over the head.
At that moment, a cop kicked in the door and entered the room, with two of his fellows. The three of them pulled guns on Devilance. He responded by thumbing a button on his spear and, holding tightly to it, jetting out of the smashed window on a propulsion stream even the Krypts couldn't fathom.
There was a rush of air and a pinging that faded out in the room he had left behind. Superman, Supergirl, and Dev saw the Forever People had placed their hands on their Mother Box and been teleported away. The police, and the woman who was the Forever People's landlady, looked back to see empty space where five people had been.
Kara said, "Teleportation. Great. So how do we find them now?"
Superman was already phasing through the wall. "By following him," he said.
"You had to ask, Kara," said Dev, already following. Supergirl grumbled and caught up to the two of them. Devilance was easy enough to find with telescopic vision.
The hunter of Darkseid made a low-level flight path over the outskirts of Metropolis, catching some notice but moving too quickly for it to be of any consequence to him. Some seventy miles past the city limits, in an area once mined for coal, Devilance's spear sent vibrations of a certain sort to him. The spot was desolate. He descended, touched ground, pushed his shaft's head into the ground, and triggered its energies.
Superman, Supergirl, and Dev watched as the ceiling of the mineshaft collapsed, creating a hole through which Devilance descended. Mark Moonrider, the leader of the young Celestials, waved his friends away, then pointed both his hands forward and sent an energy blast of his own--his "megaton touch"--towards Devilance. The Apokoliptic dodged its path, but the burst did what Moonrider intended it to do. The ground underneath Devilance became a lava pit, dragging him down. By the time he pulled himself free, the Forever People had phased out again.
It didn't matter.
Devilance was still on their trail, unknowingly tracked by the wraithlike forms of the three Kryptonians. This time the lance led him to a remote Pacific island to which the Forever People had come. Battle was joined again, but this time Serifan, he of the cowboy outfit, plucked a "cosmic cartridge" from his hatband, touched Devilance with it from behind, and watched him fall, a frozen statue, to the ground.
The five of them walked away.
"What are they doing?" asked Supergirl. "They can't just leave him there."
Dev looked at her, grimly. "I would imagine, Kara, they're deciding whether or not to let him live."
"Oh," said Kara. "Hadn't considered that before."
"Probably they hadn't, either," said Dev, "until he forced the issue."
But Devilance was able to shake off the cold as well, thanks to his weapon's power. He confronted them again. In response, the Forever People performed a ritual. The Mother Box levitated from their grasp, rising to a spot six feet off the ground. All of them were able to place their hands on its sides, and say one word in unison:
A burst of light.
Superman gaped. He had seen it before, the day he met them. But even Devilance was taken aback by the phenomenon. Dev and Kara weren't far behind, in their reaction.
The five Forever People were gone. In their stead stood the Infinity Man.
The Infinity Man was at least eight feet tall, orange-fleshed, helmeted and visored, clad in dark blue, and seemed to be as powerful as a god. He fought Devilance in the Forever People's stead, with power far beyond their own. The two combatants grasped the lance between them, each trying to wrest it from the other. Not surprisingly, its energies were set off.
The discharge destroyed the entire island.
Kara instinctively used her vision powers to filter out the blinding light, enabling her to see what went on in the blast's epicenter. Kal and Dev were undoubtedly doing the same. But it was difficult to interpret.
Devilance's body was torn asunder. It was not pretty to look at, and he was vaporized quickly after.
But the Infinity Man seemed to dissipate in a burst of light, and was not seen again.
Steaming rocks fell into the ocean for a half-mile's radius. The waters closed over most of what had been the island, and bubbled from its heat. What was left was of no use to anyone.
"So," said Dev, "that's the way this ends up."
"Not quite," said Kara. "Highfather is sure they survived. That means they're probably in another dimension."
"Which we might be able to locate," Superman said, "if we can attune ourselves to the vibratory rate, if we can pick up any traces of it here."
"That's why we're here, Kal," said Supergirl, and flew ghostlike over the island-that-was. A few moments later, she called back to the other two. "I think I've got it," she said.
"Wait for us," said Kal, as he and Dev flew to join her. She was standing over the spot where the Forever People had last existed. Holding out her hands to the men, she said, "Ready?"
Dev and Kal took one of her hands apiece. "Ready," they echoed.
Both of them attuned themselves to the vibrations Kara was adapting herself to. Within instants, their out-of-synch selves had phased into a sideral dimension.
Their feet hovered just above a planet not unlike Earth.
Except that it was far more beautiful, more forest-like, more picturesque, than Earth had been in the times they had dwelt there. Even Dev was affected by it.
"Rao help us," he breathed. "If I ever get tired of technology, this is where I'll live."
"Not a bad idea at that," said Kara.
"Forget that, you two," barked Kal. "We've still got a job to do. Look. Do you see them?"
They looked where he was pointing. The five Forever People were standing in a road, consulting among themselves. The Celestial children seemed as satisfied as the Kryptonians with their new surroundings. After a short time of talk, the quintet joined hands and walked off, in a line. They followed the road to the horizon and were gone.
Superman looked at his two companions. "So now we know where they are. If they're still here, that is."
"Can we just stay here, and travel ahead till we're back in our own time?" asked Dev. "Seems like the easiest way to me."
"I think so, too," said Kara. "Let's give it a try, guys."
The threesome spun themselves at a velocity exceeding light. As they sensed themselves nearing the time from which they had set out, they altered their bodies' internal vibrations. By the time the color nimbi of temporal travel had faded from Supergirl's eyes, she felt her booted feet standing on the grassy soil of Adon, and smelled its fresh, clean air.
"Ah," she said. "This beats anything in Chicago. Not a smog alert for the whole planet, I'll bet."
They saw a horse-drawn wagon with hay on it, plodding down the road the Forever People had taken years ago. Kara saw Kal looking at it, with a strange and clear nostalgia. He just stood there for several seconds, taking it in. She touched his arm. "Kal?"
He looked at her, then shook his head. "Forget it."
"No," she said. "What did it remind you of?"
Superman sighed. "Of a farm. In Smallville. Come on. Let's go find the Forever People."
The teamster had been trying to keep himself awake during the trip to Five Bridges City, a few miles down the road. Actually, the horses had been down this road so often that they could have probably made the trip without his direction. That was fine by him. Drop off this load at market, take something back that New City needed. God only knew what they needed, with those five strangers having been there so long. After them, there probably wasn't anything new to see.
Then his horses neighed and began trotting so fast he almost pitched back into the wagon behind him.
As he grabbed the reins to hang on, his eyes caught sight of three figures flying overhead.
He kept his eyes straight on the road all the way to Five Bridges.
Oracle had finished telling his guests what they needed to know. "Your pathway is clear," he said, looking at Amethyst, Jennifer Morgan, Shade, Mellu, and Nightmaster. "It is up to you to walk it."
Dr. Fate's golden helmet gleamed as he stepped forward. "Then our thanks be to you, Oracle. I'll see credit done you at the end of this battle. Come, my friends, in the name of Zoro..."
"Hold, Fate," said Oracle.
The humans and not-so-humans looked at their towering host.
"What?" said Nightmaster. "Did you just tell Mr. Helmet here to hold up? What for?"
"Because of this," said Oracle, and held out both of his hands, palms up. In each of them was a vision.
On one hand, the heroes of a multiverse did battle with the villains of five worlds and more. They seemed to be hard-pressed, even being forced back along many fronts.
On the other, several figures gathered about a hospital bed in which a red-haired man with a white streak in his hair lie dormant.
Fate looked at the images in both of Oracle's hands. Then, with only a second's pause, he said to his charges, "You must go alone. I must help my friend." Saying it, he plunged forward, onto the hand which held the bedside scene, and Oracle closed his hands. When he opened them, both visions were gone.
Jennifer Morgan paused. "He is lost to us, then?"
Oracle said, "Until his task is done, yes. Yours is beginning. If you choose it."
Shade muttered, "As if we had a choice."
Amethyst touched her power jewel. "I guess I can get us where we need to go. But I could use a hand, Ms. Morgan."
Jennifer smiled, a bit warily, and held out her arms. "You can have both of mine." The two grasped hands, and the mystic energies coursed through them both, enveloping them and the ones who had come with them.
In a few more seconds time, the five were gone.
Oracle turned away from where they had been. He was not alone.
Behind him stood a figure in a brown cloak, bearing a large, heavy book bound to him by chains.
"I am glad you didn't show yourselves to them," remarked Oracle.
"I only reveal myself when I choose to," replied Destiny.
"Are the Endless lowering themselves to mortal participation again?" said Oracle, in a voice which held more than a hint of condescension.
The Keeper of the Book showed no emotion to the other.
"When have we ever stopped?", he said.
Pariah lifted his head. He didn't know that he particularly wanted to.
It would probably be easy enough to distinguish waking from sleeping. If the nightmares were more intense, he was probably awake.
His body was still under a stasis beam. Its focus was diminished about his head, to give him the power to scream. Pariah didn't know that he particularly wanted to. His throat was hoarse and probably bleeding. The space beyond him looked black as onyx.
That, in a way, was relieving. That meant Desaad hadn't yet started up his engines of fear.
He didn't know how the man could wring more terror out of him every time. By the end of the first session, he would have sworn that no fright was left in him at all. He was wrong. The next four sessions had proven that.
There was a hand, whitely violating the darkness.
In another seconds time, the hand swept away the darkness.
"Pariah," said Zatanna. "Pariah, can you hear me?"
He looked at the ones who had come for him. Were they real, or just more of Desaad's taunting illusions?
All of them women. Zatanna, the witch from Earth-One. Harbinger, the Monitor's aide. The woman from Earth-6, who was called Lady Quark. And the tall, armored woman with the power-club, who, he believed, was named Big Barda.
Harbinger rushed forward to try and touch him. He gathered his strength to speak one word: "No." With a pained expression, she realized why he had spoken the word, and stopped before she could be caught in the stasis beams above him.
Zatanna was already preparing for backwards-speak, but Lady Quark said, "No. Let me," and, pointing her hands, loosed a bolt of nuclear power at the beam-device. It sparked, flamed, burned out. The yellow beams holding Pariah prisoner faded away.
"I," said the wearied scientist, almost convinced now that this was not a dream. "You," he said, feeling the great weight lift from his chest, his arms, his legs.
Harbinger, a smile in her eyes that held more than friendship, held out her hand to him.
An instant later, the wall burst apart and Mongul, wasting no time on introductions, smashed Quark and Zatanna unconscious with one massive arm and Harbinger with the other. The girl in blue and red spun away from Pariah and rebounded from a wall, lying like a broken doll.
Pariah, anger starting from somewhere deep in his engine room and finding itself a welcome substitute from fear, tried to spring from his bed of terror. But all he could manage was to roll himself off the table and fall sprawling to the floor.
He tried crawling towards Mongul, but Big Barda was already in action. Her power-club was activated, and she smashed it with terrific force against Mongul's neck. It should have seared his flesh, should have knocked him unconscious or at least away with its great impact.
But it didn't. She did not expect it to. All that she knew was that she would not be brought down, or fail her fellows, without a fight. So Barda managed two more strikes before Mongul backhanded her, lightly, and made the pattern of white and black arrange itself in her skull.
Mongul stood among the unconscious women. Pariah, on hands and elbows, could see that. He could also see someone else, visible in the room beyond, grinning that sickly grin.
"You," he rasped, and was trying to raise himself upright when Mongul grabbed him in both hands.
"Gently, Mongul," cautioned Desaad. "You may hold him, but not hurt him. Remember, I told you about his feedback effect?"
"You told me," said the planetary conqueror. "Tell me when I get to tear Superman's head from his body."
"Bring him along," said Desaad. "Didn't they think we know enough to set alarm devices in such places as need them? Especially here? Don't hold him too tightly, Mongul."
"I was not meant for this!" roared Mongul. "I was meant for conquest!"
"And so you'll have it, oh yes, indeed," Desaad assured him, turning his back and walking down the hall. "Come along, come along. I've got a lot of equipment to get in shape if we expect to keep any sort of schedule, you know."
Mongul, holding Pariah like a toy, said, "What of the women?"
"Oh, they'll be attended to, yes, indeed. Now, will you come with me or are you going to stand there all day roaring like an industrial vent-pipe? The Master wants more results with this one, and I want to have my fun, oh, yes, indeed."
Mongul silently trudged along behind Desaad, hoping that, within the week, he'd be allowed to pulp the man's head to the consistency of a burst fruit.
Pariah looked back on the fallen women one last time. They had dared great danger to rescue him. They had failed, and were now at Darkseid's mercy. Whatever there was of that.
He realized that the fear had left him almost entirely. Instead
there was a large quantity of dry
ice, representing hatred. And the lust for revenge.
Mongul wondered for a moment, as he carried Pariah into Torture Chamber B, why the man was smiling.
But only for a moment. He found himself thinking of the women. True, they were not of his kind, but at least they were of the opposite sex. True, he'd have to get permission from Darkseid. But he doubted he'd be denied.
And, contemplating that, Mongul found himself smiling.