In space, somebody can hear you scream if you have a communications hookup.
The Green Lanterns had such. They were linked to a telepathic communicator through their rings. That meant Hal Jordan, Arisia, Kilowog, Salaak, Ch’p, Stel, Medphyl, Charlie Vicker, and all the rest were able to know the plight of their various fellow Corpsmen on the battlefield of vacuum. Star Sapphire had no such ring, but she was able to link through a connection provided by her gem.
Sinestro was leading the Black Lanterns of Qward in an all-out assault on Korugar. Alongside him were the Yellow Lanterns, a thin band of Korugan outlaws he had once (and currently) equipped with duplicates of his yellow power ring to fight Hal Jordan and Alan Scott; the Thunderers, who unleashed red bolts of destruction from their quivers; the Gordanians, who had long plagued the galaxy with their conquests, and a number of independent foes of the Green Lanterns. These last included the likes of Goldface, Sonar, the Blue Light (an old enemy of Katma Tui’s), the Overspider (a crime boss on Xax’s world), the Master of Decay (who offered deadly rust to Stel and his world of robots), and many others.
If it wasn’t Armageddon, it was a dress rehearsal.
So much lead had been unleashed in the direction of Sodar Jag, the Daxamite GL, that he’d had to be teleported to a parallel universe to avoid it. The Black Lanterns’ rings were less efficient than those of the Korugan warriors, but they had managed the trick of coordinating their attacks and were offering deadly opposition to several of the Corpsmen.
Sinestro was in the midst of battering down the defenses of Ch’p, the chipmunk Green Lantern (not much of a prize, but he’d have to do till Jordan got in range) when one of the Yellows flew up beside him. <New forces,> sent the Korugan. <Coming up fast.>
<Deal with them,> Sinestro sent. <You’ve got rings, don’t you?>
<Yes, Sinestro, but these ones aren’t Lanterns!>
The archduke of infamy felt like taking the subordinate’s face off with his teeth. <That much the easier, then! Do I have to do everything myself, blast it?>
The other Korugan just pointed over Sinestro’s shoulder. Snarling, he looked in that direction. He stopped in mid-snarl.
He didn’t know where the score of war-cruisers had gotten their cloaking devices, but since they were surrounding the battlefield in space without a one of them having been detected, he made a mental note to find out.
<Damn,> Sinestro swore, and turned away. <Here, finish up this one for me.> He shot off, propelled by his yellow ring. The other Korugan reluctantly tried to take up where he’d left off, turning his ring towards pressuring the ball of yellow power about Ch’p’s force-field.
The golden ball exploded and the chipmunk in the green-and-black costume burst forth with an angry look on his face. His ring hand was upraised and headed for the Yellow Lantern’s jaw. Well, thought the Korugan, how powerful could a chipmunk’s punch be, anyway?
He got his answer in a blow that almost dislocated his jaw and placed him firmly within the bounds of unconsciousness.
<Guess when your boss was giving lessons in will power, you were still gatherin’ acorns,> sent Ch’p, rubbing his knuckles. He was glad Hal had given him the summons, after helping on Earth-X. Then he, too, looked past the unconscious, free-floating red-skinned man towards the figures that were emerging from the ships.
All of them he was unfamiliar with. But some few of them seemed to match descriptions that he’d gotten from Hal Jordan, who had told him about a band of interplanetary freedom fighters whose path he had crossed several times, and who had helped other Earth heroes, as well.
The big, gray bruiser who was grabbing Goldface and smashing him right in the gold face was of the approximate size and shape of one whom Hal called Broot. A light-being was blasting away at a coterie of Black Lanterns; that one must be Auron. There were others he could get a rough i.d. on....Primus, Kallista, Tigorr, for three. There were a whole legion of others, mostly non-powered, but none non-weaponed, and they had come at a most opportune time for the Lantern Corps.
<The Omega Men,> thought Ch’p.
A white-skinned character on a space-cycle spun by, looking like he wished he could yell something stupid in the vacuum, and swung a heavy chain and hook that wrapped themselves about the necks of two Thunderers. Their lightning bolts shook out of their quivers when he pulled them behind him like a pair of unwilling skiiers.
<Wah-hoo!> sent Lobo on a common channel. <Make way for the Main Man, Greenies!>
And another of the Omegans was attacking the Qwardians with ferocity enough to make even Guy Gardner flinch. This was the Green Man, who had formerly been a Lantern himself, and he was proud to stand beside his old comrades in final battle. He sent a message clearly to the Lanterns in between blasts of his ray-weapon:
<Hal Jordan--we are here!>
The primary Green Lantern of Earth paused in his trajectory just short of the speeding Sinestro to grin in the Omega Man’s direction. <Glad you could make it,> he sent.
Star Sapphire had to materialize a shield to deflect Sinestro’s ring-blast. <Will you keep your mind on what you’re doing, Hal?>
<Sorry about that,> sent Hal as he parried Sinestro’s arm and doubled him up with a punch to the gut.
From another sector of near-space, a golden glow purled into existence. It only lasted for a few seconds. From it, a group of four persons emerged, protected from the ravages of space by magical auras provided by their leader, the wizard called Magicko. The rest of them--the Amazon known as Strong Girl, the sword-wielding Golden Blade, and the Green Lantern known as Van Thorr, the most recent addition to the heroes of the planet Thronn.
They, too, had been aided by Hal Jordan when one of their number had died. They, too, had a debt to repay.
Without hesitation, Magicko shot forth a blast of eldrich power from his hand at a flying Qwardian, who was suddenly shifted through seventeen dimensions, all of which bore a resemblance to an Earthman’s conceptions of Hell. He emerged catatonic, curled into a fetal ball.
Golden Blade swung his sword and cleaved an enemy into two parts, each of them dragging globules of blood through the void. Strong Girl hurled herself at one of the largest of the Black Lanterns, bypassing his ebony beam, and smashed him so hard that the equal and opposite reaction sent him travelling for days, totally senseless. The Green Lantern of Thronn blasted away at the foemen he had only heard referenced in his few contacts with the Guardians, but was glad to come to grips with now. For the first time, he felt himself a Corpsman.
Magicko sent a mental message that echoed through the brains of ally and enemy alike, and told all concerned who they were.
<Honor Team--strike with honor!>
Trading blows with Sinestro, Hal Jordan had to smile. It was great to have friends.
The Shadow-Demons were an angry wave of black that split up into man-shaped segments and attacked. Fortunately, the people of Adon had a powerful defense force in their behalf: the Forever People, the Magic Squad, and the Kryptonian trio of Superman, Supergirl, and Dev-Em.
Rao only knows if that’ll be enough, thought Kara as she launched herself into the fray.
“Keep them away from D’reema,” shouted Mark Moonrider. His hands were still pressed tightly to the side of the Mother Box. Big Bear, Serifan, and Vykin the Black covered the other sides, and Beautiful Dreamer, daring to look out at the impending battle, squatted beneath it, her long fingers touching the Box’s base.
To an outworlder, it might feel like a mere metal artifact. But to one Attuned, as the five young Supertowners were, it felt warm, pulsing, alive. More: it seemed to have a heart. It looked after them. But, as of yet, it still could not produce the Infinity Man.
Superman and Dev-Em pushed ahead of Kara by a nanosecond and smashed into the ebony wave, fists outthrust. “Smashed” might have been the wrong word to use, though. The shadow-beings’ substance was hard to define. It varied from immaterial to crystalline to soft and pliable to...well...something else.
And it was cold. Deathly cold. Grabbing one of them that was solid enough to grab, Supergirl couldn’t suppress a shiver. Nonetheless, her fingers tightened on its midsection, which seemed to crumple inward as if she was holding a paper cutout, and crushed it. The shadow broke into shards, fell through her fingers, and, dropping towards the ground below, reformed into its man-shape like sand taking the shape of the bottom half of an hourglass.
How in blazes could they fight these things?
Superman and Dev were dealing out powerful blows, roundhouses that could have sent moons out of orbit, but were having the same difficulties. The shadows that they smashed before them reformed around, above, and below them. Even at super-speed, it was impossible to stem the tide.
On impulse, Dev used his heat-vision on one of the shadows. It emitted a high, unearthly screech like a theremin from hell. The shadow-being seemed to change shape, to thin out, and, finally, to vaporize.
“Kara, El, hit ‘em with heat!” barked Dev. The other two Krypts were already following his lead. Six powerful beams of self-generated fury lanced out at the attacking wave of black. More screeches. More vaporization.
Still they came. Supergirl glanced towards the ground. Puddles of black were congealing, flowing together, becoming shadow-beings, and menacing the Adonites nearby. The blasted things weren’t dying, they were just evaporating and recondensing on the ground.
A young Adonite male and his girl stood perilously close to the reforming shadows, were, in fact, surrounded by them, with their backs to a wall. The man broke his paralysis enough to put himself between the attackers and the girl. But that would slow them about as long as it took for grease to spatter on a hot stove. They knew it, as well.
What they didn’t know was that a blue-and-red-clad woman would swoop down from the sky, grab the both of them up, and haul them away, out of the reach of the shadows.
“Zoth!” cried the boy. “You...you must be a Forever!”
“Nope, sorry, I’m just a Current,” answered Kara, holding one of them under each arm. She set them both down a mile distant, far out of the reach of the invaders, and was back on the battlefield within a second.
She was amazed to see the Magic Squad in a circle about the Forever People, and holding off the tide of blackness on their own.
Blasts of purple power emanated from Amethyst’s gem and battered back the shadow-men wherever she faced, shattering or melting them. Jennifer Morgan chanted incantations, performed mystic gestures, and sent bursts of shimmering light from her pointed fingers which contacted the enemy and burst within them, scattering their substance. Rac Shade hurled himself forward at the shadows, contacting them with his M-Vest and negating them with a crackle of power. Each such action cost him physically. He looked as haggard as a man having to endure an electric shock over and over again. Still, Shade pressed on, upholding his share.
Mellu Loron stood beside him, discharging a ray-weapon native to her dimension. It shattered the shadows as impermanently as Kal’s, Dev’s, and Kara’s fists, but at least it kept them back for precious seconds. Harbinger, despite her weakness, hovered over the Forever People and defended from above. Her two arms were outstretched and wherever they pointed, a bolt of power lay the shadows low. But she looked sweaty, tired, and pushed to her limit.
Nightmaster was shouting something as he unleashed the power of his humming sword against the ebon warriors of Qward. The blade’s magic properties cleaved the shadows as if they were living beings, leaving the pieces alive, but flopping on the ground, trying to make contact with another part of themselves and reform.
He reminded Supergirl of Elric in the Moorcock books she used to read. But she finally realized he was singing “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”.
Within their circle, the Forever People stood, eyes closed, hands pressed to the Mother Box, as solemn and silent as if they were at a prayer meeting.
Kara swirled around the ground-based company in a circle, contacting the shadows with her shoulder and the side of her body, knocking them away. She actually felt ice crystallizing on the side of her which hit the shadows. It couldn’t work forever, but at least she’d give the Magic Squad a respite.
Another difficulty: the outbursts of magic from Jennifer and Amethyst were weakening her, slightly. When not directed against them, magic only affected Krypts in a sidelong way, slackening their power somewhat. The difference wasn’t yet great, but it could be crucial.
“Moonrider!” Supergirl shouted. “Either get that thing working, or I’m getting you all out of here!”
Big Bear opened his eyes. “It isn’t working, Mark. We’ve got to fight.”
“Taaru, hear our plea,” chanted Mark. “Taaru, let it reach infinity.”
“Mark,” repeated Big Bear, insistently.
Vykin finally took his hands from the Box. “Big Bear speaks truth,” he said. “I will join the battle.”
Mark Moonrider opened his eyes. “Don’t break faith with me, Vykin. Not in a time like this. Keep the circle unbroken.”
Vykin was already sprinting towards the circle of black held back by Supergirl and the Magic Squad.
Tim Hunter didn’t dare touch the part of his mind that told him he was scared.
Sure, he was about ready to pull a major whackout, if he let himself. He was in spirit-form, somehow inside the dying body of Jim Corrigan, or on another plane somehow, since this didn’t look much like innards, and he was watching the inert form of the Spectre fought over by two wizards in metal helmets.
The guy in gold and blue he had met before. He was one of the good guys, Dr. Fate, from the Earth next door to Tim’s. Fate was the sorceror supreme of his world and seemed a lot more put-together than John Constantine. Certainly, he was more powerful. But the bloke he was facing seemed to have as much power as he did, or at least enough to stand him off.
The bad guy was dressed in purple and red, with a red helmet on, and he didn’t seem like the kind of guy whose face you’d want to see.
They were having a magic punch-up, sending bolts of power, magical snares, and various other things into the space between them, over the Spectre’s prone body.
As an apprentice sorceror, Tim had no idea of how he was supposed to help out.
Without turning his head, Fate muttered, “You should not have come here, boy.”
The villain hurled a ball of green force at Fate’s helmet, but it glanced off a golden shield that Fate materialized. “It gives me another advantage,” pronounced their adversary. “Let him die, or I will kill the brat.”
“NO.” Dr. Fate called upon the powers of Order and the magic of ancient Chaldea and blasted away at Lord Satanis, two golden ankhs of light forming around his hands. Satanis opened a small black hole before him into which the mystic energies were funneled, then sealed it. With an offhand effort, he sent a force-blast towards Tim.
The young mage put up his hands as if to ward off a thrown volleyball. But before the magic energies could touch him, they spattered away only a few inches beyond him.
“A shield,” Lord Satanis rasped. “ I should have guessed.”
“Doctor Fate,” said Tim, as soon as he could manage to speak. “Forgive me, sir, but what’s going on? I don’t know what this is all about, but Jim Corrigan is dyin’ outside!”
With an effort, as he counterattacked Satanis, Fate spoke. “This is Lord Satanis, an enemy of Superman’s. I am attempting to keep what little of the Spectre is left on this mortal plane. He is attempting to frustrate it.”
“And I will, Fate,” said Satanis, forming a horde of red, spike-toothed demons to gnaw at his foe. They touched a golden shield of force and dissipated. “With the loss of the Spectre, you lose your greatest weapon.”
A weapon? Tim had never thought of living beings as weapons before. A weapon, that was something you picked up and carried into battle (though Tim, thankfully, had never had occasion to pick up so much as a rock in what few schoolyard fights he’d had). But the Spectre, considered as a weapon, had to be the biggest gun the Phantom Stranger and his friends had in their arsenal.
Yet the Spectre lay on what passed for ground in this realm, unmoving, unbreathing (if ghosts needed to breathe, and Tim was fairly sure they didn’t), and unknowing of a conflict he probably could have ended with the power in his pinky had he been aware.
What the heck could a teenaged kid in horn-rimmed glasses do to change the outcome of this?
For a few more moments, Tim watched the battle. Then he raised both hands again, stepped closer, and shouted, “Stop! I mean, hold on! I’ve got something to say.”
Neither one of the wizards ceased blasting away at the other. But Dr. Fate said, “Say on, then.”
Tim swallowed, then went ahead. “As far as I can tell, neither one of you is makin’ much headway against the other. That’s right, isn’t it?”
“So?” asked Lord Satanis, unleashing yet another bolt of destruction.
“So I just thought of something. You know who the Spectre answers to. Or Who he’s supposed to.”
There was a hesitance from both warring parties. “And?” Dr. Fate prompted.
“It seems to me that if the Spectre is supposed to stay here, he’ll stay here without our interference, because that’s what he’ll be supposed to do,” Tim continued. “But if he isn’t, even you, Dr. Fate, and the Stranger, and John, and Mr. Occult and Madame Xanadu and Miss Zatanna can’t keep him with us. I know I sure can’t.”
“So, boy, what are you prattling about?” snarled Lord Satanis. “Do you suggest that we both stop fighting, and let Nature take its course?”
“Yeah,” said Tim. “Something like that.”
For the first time since he had arrived, Tim saw the two sorcerors stop hurling bolts at each other.
“I have spent time enough in this realm,” observed Lord Satanis. “If you will back away for a short time, Fate, to see what transpires, then so will I.”
The man in blue and gold hoarded sparks in his fists. “No more than thirty heartbeats.”
“No more than that.”
“And if there is treachery, I will detect it and stop it, and you.”
“You flatter your powers, Fate. But I swear by my empowerment that I will not intervene. The same goes for your whelp, there.”
“I’m not anybody’s whelp, whatever that is,” said Tim. “But I’ll leave him alone, too.” Not, he thought, that there was that much he could do for the Spectre in the first place.
The two sorcerors stepped back one step apiece, and waited.
Tim Hunter didn’t dare to speak. For the first time, he took note of the setting about them. Bare rocks that didn’t seem of a type in Earth’s geology, withered trees, no animal life visible anywhere, and a black sky above and around them which made him wonder from what source enough light came for them to see by. The four of them were the only beings he could see.
He had no way of counting how many heartbeats had gone by, but it seemed as though the deadline was getting nearer. The Spectre still stayed stretched out on the rocky ground as if on a morgue slab.
Then his feet began to turn into green smoke.
Though Fate’s visage was hidden, he seemed to look upon the phenomenon with despair. In contrast, Lord Satanis raised one mail-gloved fist into the air, triumphantly. For his part, Tim Hunter scampered over to the dissolving ghost between them and sought to grasp what of him he could.
“Tim,” warned Fate.
The boy-wizard tried to touch the Spectre, but he was already dissolved into mist up to the chest. Tim reached for the Spectre’s head. In the second he had left before the line of dissolvement reached it, Tim touched the ghost’s hooded cranium.
The Spectre opened his eyes and looked at him.
Tim shrank back.
Within another second’s time, the last bit of the Spectre had spun into white and green gas. It wafted upward on an air current none of them could physically feel, and was lost in the sky above them.
Lord Satanis spoke.
“The day is ours, Fate,” he said. “The Spectre is no more. When next we meet, call upon all your Lords of Order. They will not save you an instant from the power which sources me.”
Then he folded his arms, shimmered, and vanished.
Tim rushed to Dr. Fate’s side. “Doc...what...”
“He is gone,” said Fate. “The Spectre has passed into the Realm Eternal.”
“Can’t you...can’t you ask...”
“My prayers, Tim,” Fate replied, “are no more powerful than yours. We must go.”
“But what about Lord Satanis?”
“This battle is done. Another one will find us.”
With that, the Man of Destiny enfolded Tim in his golden cape. Before Tim could reach up to push it away from his head, both of them were within the hospital room of Jim Corrigan.
Tim felt the fingers of Madame Xanadu interlaced with his, again. He blinked, reorienting himself to Earth’s smells, touches, sounds, and sights. The first sight he saw was Madame’s face, streaked with tears.
He guessed that she had loved Jim Corrigan.
The Phantom Stranger and Dr. Occult stood on opposite sides of Corrigan’s bed, and shot a look in unison at Tim. Dr. Fate stood at the foot of the bed, his hands down, looking about as defeated as Tim had seen anybody look since the time his softball team lost a game twenty to nothing.
Jim Corrigan lay as still as the Spectre in the bed. He was not breathing. From the smell he was exuding, Tim didn’t think he was ever likely to be.
Constantine was pacing the floor and smoking a cigarette. He fumbled another out of his coat pocket, lit it on the one he was smoking, threw the old one under his heel and ground it out, and drew a long hit off the new one. Then he faced the boy.
“He’s dead, Tim,” said Constantine, without kindness.
“I’m sorry,” said Tim. “I tried to help.”
“Yeah, yeah, you tried,” Constantine snapped. “We all tried. We sent you after his soul on your bloody recommendation, Stranger, because you were the one who said he’d be the best for the job–“
“John,” said the Stranger quietly.
“–and look what’s happened!” The Brit cursed. “We’ve balled up the thing as well as if we’d taken a bloody gun and blown his gut away ourselves! Damn it, what are we here for, anyway?”
“John Constantine,” said Madame Xanadu with great suddenness and great venom, “SHUT UP.”
Constantine’s mouth was open so far Tim thought he’d surely drop the cigarette. But he didn’t. The Madame went to Jim Corrigan’s body and embraced him. If she cried, the angle wasn’t such that Tim could see.
“Not even Boston Brand was of help,” said the Stranger. “And he tried.”
“So did we all try, John,” Dr. Occult said. “Including young Hunter here. It was not in our hands.”
Dr. Fate spoke up. “It was never in our hands,” he said. “Timothy Hunter pointed that out to me. But now, what remains to us is the war against evil. And in that, let us hope we can be more efficient.”
The Stranger stepped away from the bed. “I must go now,” he announced, and kept walking towards the door.
Tim started towards him. “Stranger, where’re you going? Shouldn’t you stay and help us?”
“I must walk where the path leads me,” he said, not turning. “Mayhap it will join your paths again soon, my friends. Until then, I must remain a stranger.”
Fate’s gold-gloved hand stopped the boy. “Let him go, Tim. Let him go.”
The Phantom Stranger opened the door, walked through, and let it shut behind him. Tim knocked Fate’s hand away, ran to the door, and pulled it open.
Several doctors, nurses, and patients, one in a wheelchair, were in the hall outside. Tim looked up and down the hall. “Where’d he go?”
One doctor, clipboard in hand, stopped. “Who? Where’d who go, son? And what are you doing here?”
“A guy in a, in a kind of opera cape,” said Tim. “He just went out before me.”
The doctor looked quizzically at him, and a nurse joined him in that. “Nobody’s opened that door in the last minute except you,” said the doctor.
Tim whipped his head back in astonishment to look back into the hospital room. Madame Xanadu, Dr. Occult, John Constantine, and what was left of Jim Corrigan were still there. Fate had left without a sound. The window was still shut.
Constantine stuck his head out of the door. “You’d better send somebody
in here,” he said. “We’ve lost him.”
The Chicago cops had to figure out a way to keep a man-shaped mass of lava, a living robot, a big alien with no face, a sorceress, and a number of other bad guys under wraps now. Fortunately, all of the specified villains were unconscious. Except for Multi-Woman and Ultivac, whose metallic bodies were separated into several components by great tree roots which had sprung from the ground, entangled them, and dismembered them.
This last was the work of the Swamp Thing, who had travelled the botanical highway to the Windy City to help his friends, the Challengers of the Unknown, as well as the Forgotten Heroes, the Doom Patrol, and the Warlord. Many of the others recognized the plantworld prince from the meeting aboard the Monitor’s satellite, when they had all been summoned by Harbinger, Alex Luthor, and Pariah. Nonetheless, they were still awed.
Prof Haley was the first to grasp Swampy’s leafy hand, which still bore the foilage of the potted plant within which he’d had to manifest himself. “Glad you could make it,” said Prof, June Robbins standing beside him. “We’d have had a tougher time against this crew without you.”
“The Green...told me...of your need,” answered the Swamp Thing with some effort. “Much chaos remains...but I chose to...aid my friends first.”
Animal-Man said, “Whoa, if you’re a walking, talking plant...I guess between you and me, we’ve got the whole biosphere represented.”
Everyone ignored him, or tried to. Travis Morgan said, “Guess I’m stuck up here until somebody can give me a lift to the North Pole. Any takers?”
“I’ll fly you up there myself when we get a chance,” Ace Morgan answered. “Right now, we’ve still got a lot to do.”
“The Challenger speaks truth,” said Tempest. “Until this crisis is over, none of us may call their lives their own.”
At that, Corinna Stark, who also wore a Challengers uniform, suddenly jerked, focused her eyes, and said, “Well, some of us can claim ‘em more than others can, take it from me.”
Rocky Davis, nearest Corinna, looked at her with surprise. Her current speech pattern was as alien to her normal mode of talking as a street kid’s was to a professor’s. “Cory?”
“Nope, not Cory,” she said. “Sorry, Rock. Just wanted to let Mr. Roots there know that he’s wanted in Atlantis.”
“Atlantis?” said the Warlord, looking up.
“Not yours, the one under the water,” Corinna Stark said. “I’ve been there before. Rama Kushna’s pulling me that way, and he wants you to come along, Swamp.”
The Swamp Thing shambled up to her, looked deeply enough into her eyes to unnerve June Robbins and make Robotman ready for action, and said, “I know you.”
“Know me? I’ve been inside you,” remarked Corrina. June’s jaw dropped with astonishment. “Come on, time’s a-wastin’.” Corinna closed her eyes and fell back into Rocky’s arms. She blinked, then looked up at him.
“Why are you holding me like this?”
“‘Cause you fell down like that,” he responded.
The Swamp Thing said, “I must go.” The body he occupied fell to the sidewalk in a clump of roots, stems, leaves, and soil. The being formerly inside it was miles away by the time it hit.
Celsius and Negative Woman stepped towards the vegetable mass in wonder.
“Can anybody,” said Cliff Steele, “I mean, anybody, tell me what just happened?”
“I’ll see if I can tell you in private,” said Prof.
Rocky helped Corinna back to her feet. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“I’ve never actually fainted before.
I can’t imagine what got into me.”
Prof looked at her, considered her area of expertise, and then said, “Oh, I think you can.”
On Apokolips, Kalibak sat at his father’s feet in what passed for a throne room and waited for him to speak.
Sometimes Darkseid’s silences could be murderous to endure. He could sit for eternities, just thinking. But if one fidgeted too obviously in his presence, one chanced the mildest raking with the Omega Effect. And that was something that Kalibak was not eager to experience again.
So, despite the fact that every nerve and muscle in his primitively-formed body wished for him to be in action again, Kalibak sat by his father’s feet and waited for the word.
Finally, it came.
“It is a burdensome thing, Kalibak,” said Darkseid. “A most burdensome thing. To make war on five universes, and then on New Genesis. Anyone else would break under the strain.”
Kalibak knew not to interrupt his father, even with an agreement.
“Nonetheless, it must be done. The forces must be gathered, their rewards must be promised and meted out in part, their disobedience punished. All to keep the defenders of the five Earths occupied, and confused. All of it...nothing more than busy work.”
Kalibak dared to lift his head, and was not penalized.
“The only true objectives I have, the only ones which matter, are the one lying in Desaad’s chamber below and the one whom we have discovered to be on Adon, a dimension away. Until the one gives up his secret, and until the other is placed under control, all of this, the war across five cosmoses...none of it matters in the least.”
The brute son of Darkseid kept his peace, and dared to hope.
“Desaad has been working diligently with Orion. But the secret still eludes him. He has asked for time off to work with the outworlder, Pariah. I might give Orion into your hands for a time.”
Kalibak jerked his head up. His breathing came faster, and his hand, without conscious volition, groped for the warclub he had laid on the stone floor by his side.
“But listen well,” cautioned Darkseid. “His life must be spared. Only Desaad has the finesse to prise the Anti-Life Equation from Orion’s brain. Your amusement is not to endanger my prize. If it does, if I lose the Equation because of your impreciseness, then what he suffers will not be half of the pain you will experience. Understand me well on that, Kalibak. You will do what I prescribe, and not a fraction more.”
Darkseid looked at his son full in the face. Assured that he wanted a response, Kalibak said, “Aye, father.”
“And when Desaad returns, you are to leave off your efforts. Is that understood?”
“Aye, father,” Kalibak repeated. Then, after a pause, he said, “But may I watch?”
“No,” said Darkseid. “Desaad says you make him nervous. His science and art depend on his precision.”
Kalibak looked glum. Then, a second later, he said, “Then may I watch on viewscreen?”
Darkseid glanced at him again. “Provided Desaad knows nothing of the camera source. He does not like people to watch him at work.”
The Apokoliptic with the body of a caveman bowed his shaggy head. “Great Darkseid is most bountiful.”
“Great Darkseid is most tired and frustrated,” said his father. “You are dismissed.”
Kalibak backed away from the chamber, touching his forehead to the floor three times. Once out the door, he sprang to his feet, club in hand. Swinging the weapon like a baton, Kalibak hummed a song to himself, gave a dog-trooper in the hall a playful whack, and crippled him for life.
A lift or two and a number of corridors later, he was at Desaad’s chamber. A sensor recognized him and passed him through. Beyond the door, he gazed at the sight before him. Desaad was placing some metallic instruments in a soaking solution, then plunging his own hands into a small basin of antiseptic and scrubbing them.
It was obvious from the redness on his sleeves and tunic that he’d have to change robes before he left.
Desaad looked back at Kalibak. “Oh. Are you authorized to be here?”
Kalibak strode in, his warclub slapping against his leg. “I am authorized to be anywhere.”
The cowled man looked petulantly at him. “Come, you know what I mean. No one is allowed in here except myself, the Great One, and my clients.”
“The Great One knows that you wish to be with another client. He has sent me here to spell you while you work elsewhere.”
Desaad pulled his hands out of the solution and wiped them dry with a towel. Suspiciously, he said, “Mine is a work of great precision, Kalibak.”
“Yours is only more refined butchery than mine,” rasped the other. “But I have my orders. I will leave him healthy enough for your work. I will only keep him occupied.”
“Just so,” said Desaad. “And these orders came from Darkseid himself?”
“From his very mouth.”
“Be careful, then,” said Desaad, throwing the towel at him. “Be very, very careful.” He walked past Kalibak, who was trembling in rage. Once Desaad was out the door, Kalibak tore the towel in half.
Then he trudged over to the metal table on which Orion was lying. The paralysis beam still shone down on him, prohibiting any living being from laying hands on him and still remaining mobile. But Desaad had installed many mechanical contrivances within its hood, which could be manipulated by a control board, and not all of them were devoted to mental probing.
Many of them were sharp indeed.
Kalibak was able to fathom the control board in a short time. “My brother, for the first time, you shall be glad when Desaad returns.”
A needle-nosed device headed for Orion’s body. The warrior of New Genesis tried to preserve a stoic image.
But when it penetrated, not even the paralysis beam could prevent his muscles from tightening in agony.
At the same time, Desaad had changed into a new robe and padded on sandalled feet past a coterie of guards, down a hallway, down several levels, and into the second of his sancti sanctorum, the one which contained Pariah.
Mongul was standing on guard. “You may go now,” said Desaad.
“I may go now?” rumbled Mongul, towering even more fully, if it was possible, over the small Apokoliptic. “I may? Know you that I command an entire empire? That I have the power to stand against Superman with naught but my own strength, and triumph? That I could tear the hooded head from your puny shoulders as easily as you would tear the wings from a fly? That I could...”
“You may go, Mongul,” said Desaad. “You know I don’t like others around when I work.”
“Bah!” snarled Mongul. If it wasn’t for the fact that Darkseid was boss–for the moment–he would have shown Desaad what torture really was. Turning on his heel, he stomped out of the door.
Desaad closed the double doors to his chamber by remote control. Mongul could batter through them, and so could someone of Orion’s or Kalibak’s caliber, but they would prove bulwark against normal Apokolips guards.
With a sigh of relief, he tiptoed over to the table on which Pariah lay under a paralysis beam like Orion’s. The man’s eyes were closed.
“Sleeping?” said Desaad. “We can’t have that, oh, no we can’t. You must be up for the performance. Do you know–can you imagine how much a relief it is to be able to torture a mind, instead of having to work on a body like a common butcher? True, there are delights in the latter. But the pure refinement of hurting a mind, now, that’s a delight to be savored indeed. It demands creativity. It demands art. And a man of your capacities, well, I’m sure you can appreciate it. Now, I’ve added a few tweaks to the program, and I’m anxious to get underway. So I’ll just go over there and sound the wake-up alarm until you open your eyes, and then we can get started.”
A hand buried itself in his shirtfront.
Pariah’s eyes were open.
“Don’t bother. I’m already up.”
Desaad had time to say the word “No” three times before Pariah’s fist came up and hit him in the nose.
The gray-haired scientist rolled off the table and grabbed the whimpering torturer with both hands, hauling him to his feet from the spot where he had crumpled on the floor. “There’s an alarm system in here, you said,” Pariah snapped. “Deactivate it.”
Pariah backhanded him so savagely that his head whipped to the side. The savant himself was nauseated by his action. But it was necessary, he told himself.
“P-please,” gasped Desaad. “No more pain.”
Pariah’s fist hovered near Desaad’s face. The robed man went to a control panel, followed closely by his former guest, and deactivated the alarm. “They, they may already know,” he stammered, pressing a hand under his nose.
“Then we’ll just have to get out of here before they come, won’t we?”
Desaad stared at him, open-mouthed. This could not be happening. He could not have lost control of the situation. He could not be feeling pain.
But, as he gingerly touched his throbbing nose, he had to admit that he was.
“Is there an exit from here except through those doors?” demanded Pariah.
Desaad nodded. “A secret passageway. It connects to most of the rooms here in case of...in case of invasion.” He looked at his hand. “Oh, Source. Blood. I think I’m going to...”
Pariah grabbed him by the shoulder. “You are not going to faint. If you try to, I will certainly break your neck. Is that clear?”
Again, the Apokoliptic nodded.
“Good. Then show me the way out.”
Desaad went to the north wall of the room, shunted aside a camouflaged panel, and pressed his eyes to a scanner. A second later, a section of the wall moved inward, revealing a passageway dimly lit by overhead lights. Pariah shoved Desaad in, a hand grabbing the back of his cowl, and followed. The door closed behind them.
“Keep moving,” ordered Pariah.
Obediently, Desaad began walking forward. “How,” he began. “How did you.”
“Your artistry was perhaps too good for your purpose,” said Pariah, evenly. “After awhile, one can build up a resistance even to the fears you present. You merely scared me so much early on, that the later shocks became old business. Not that I let you know. As for how I got out, I was awake when Mongul brought me to this chamber. His attention wasn’t on me fully. I was the greatest scientist of my planet. I know how to sabotage a simple paralysis beam in seconds. From that point on–I simply faked it.”
He kept one hand firmly on Desaad’s shoulder, and added, “But there was one thing more. After all those tears I shed for the worlds I saw die, and their peoples...after all that time I spent being a victim, a pawn in the hands of Fate and the Anti-Monitor, and then Darkseid...I decided it was time to try being a hero myself.”
Desaad shivered. This man might possibly be insane. He might have driven him to that, with the shock treatment. He might even want to...to hurt him.
“Does this passageway connect to where you’re keeping Harbinger and the others?”
“No,” lied Desaad. Then a pinching movement on a nerve in his shoulder made him cry out. “Aughh! Yes, yes, it does! Stop! Stop!”
“Take me to them, and nowhere else,” said Pariah. “Or I’ll deal you out a tenth of what you’ve been dealing to other people.”
Desaad, staining the underarms of his robe with sweat, moved on, in the direction of the prison chambers.
Even Metron seemed eager for action, as much as could be told. Jezebelle thought he acted somewhat like that long-eared character in a TV program she’d watched sometimes when she was staying in Metropolis, Star Track or something. She’d thought it was a historical drama of Earth’s. But, in his Mobius Chair, he was fidgeting.
Both of them, along with Lightray, Bug, and Fastbak stood in the throneroom of Highfather. Himon, who had been the one to teach Scott Free the escape secrets that freed him from Apokolips, was also there, and the Female Furies were waiting in an antechamber.
Lightray spoke. “We cannot leave Orion to the mercies of Apokolips, Highfather. Even if Darkseid has the services of every villain in the Multiverse, we must dare them.”
“It is not from cowardice or lack of concern that I have held back,” said Izaya. “It is from fear that Darkseid might kill Orion outright if he thought he would lose him, and my need to have D’reema here before we proceed. However–“ And at this, Highfather paused, bundling up his pain within him. “–however, I cannot bear to know my son is in the hands of the butcher Desaad. We must bear knowledge that Darkseid may thus be luring our forces into a trap. Nonetheless, it must be dared. Gather your forces and go. To Apokolips.”
“What of the three whom you sent to Adon?” asked Fastbak. “Do you know of them?”
“I have monitored them somewhat,” said Highfather. “They are embroiled in battle, but the outcome has not come to pass. Go.”
Metron finally spoke. “What does the Source counsel in all of this?”
“I have not consulted it,” said Highfather. “Go!”
The five New Gods left Izaya’s presence. For a long moment, he sat in his throne, bearded head downward, clutching his staff. He dared not leave New Genesis undefended, but he could not keep himself from the conflict much longer.
He would simply have to trust Orion to his lieges, and take action on another front.
In the antechamber, just as Jezebelle was giving walking orders to Stompa, Lashina, Mad Harriet, and Bernadeth, a booming noise was heard from the throneroom of Highfather.
“A Boom Tube,” she said, and before she had finished saying it, Fastbak had thrown open the door himself and was in time to see the glowing circle fade out, leaving the room empty.
“He’s gone,” observed Bug.
“Gone where?” demanded Lashina. “If Darkseid would dare strike this close–“
“Not Darkseid,” said Fastbak, braking to a halt before them. “I saw within the Tube for an instant. It was Highfather only. I could not tell what lay beyond, but it did not appear to be Apokolips.”
“Then we’ll just have to find out where he went and go after him,” declared Stompa, her massive foot twitching with eagerness for battle.
“No,” pronounced Metron, hovering above the floor in his Mobius Chair. “We have our orders. To Apokolips we must go, to free Orion.”
“None must know of Izaya’s abscence,” said Himon. “Darkseid would invade in an instant.”
“Let us hope the matter can be kept a secret,” Metron observed. “At least, until he and we return.”
With that, Metron opened another trans-dimensional Boom Tube, large enough to take on all of them. Jezebelle flashed on the fact that both he and Himon were the creators of the Tube, and both of them were the first to enter it.
The rest followed. She and Forager were the last. The Bug said quickly to her, “Jezebelle, do you suppose we could do this holding hands?”
“Oh–“ She sighed, but gave him her hand. He took it, and both of them hurled themselves into the Tube.
The worlds between slipped by in a cylindrical warp-space. She had time to admit to herself that Bug had seemed to be nursing a crush on her for some time, but hadn’t done anything about it.
As the end of the tube loomed closer, she hoped that he’d keep it under control for awhile. At least until they’d survived, or died.
The Forever People had struck back against the shadow-demons. Big Bear hurled boulders and large objects at them, ranging from statues to oxcarts. Serifan had unleashed the powers of the Cosmic Cartridges he kept in his headband, dissipating some, shattering others. Mark Moonrider had blown apart the foes with his megaton touch. Vykin’s Magna-Power repelled all the shadows within its reach.
Shade, Mellu, Nightmaster, Amethyst, and Jennifer Morgan still battled on, and Superman and Dev-Em sought to stem the tidal wave of black.
It wasn’t enough.
The shadow-beings were now targeting the people of Adon themselves, which the heroes had feared would happen. Despite their efforts, they could not prevent some Adonites from receiving the touch of freezing death from Darkseid’s warriors, though the speedy Kryptonian trio kept the casualties to an absolute minimum–and cursed themselves for every life lost.
Harbinger stood beside Beautful Dreamer, who held the Mother Box. Supergirl, leaving off a whirlwind she had created to sweep a battalion of shadows away, saw a massive anvil of blackness deploying in their direction.
The only objective the shadows really had was D’reema. Kara realized that even as she shot in their direction, outpacing the dark beings by only a matter of seconds.
In one instant, Harbinger’s and Beautiful Dreamer’s feet were on the ground. In the next, they were planted in air, clutched under the arms of the caped girl in red and blue. If Dreamer hadn’t clutched the Mother Box firmly under her arm, she would have dropped it.
“Get us out of here,” snapped Supergirl to Harbinger.
“Where?” asked Lyla.
“I’m not a travel bureau! Just get us out!”
So Harbinger exercised her teleportational powers, lessened to be sure by the fact that a fragment of herself was a captive of Darkseid, attuned the three of them to a vibrational rate of another universe, and sent them elsewhere.
Dev-Em, blasting heat-vision at a phalanx of shadows, turned his head in time to see the three of them winking out. “Kara!” he yelled.
Superman heard it. His response was as quick as Dev-Em’s. But as quick as the two of them were, neither could outrace the warp.
“Where’s she gone?” demanded Dev. “Where, dammit?”
“Don’t know,” admitted Superman, not looking at Dev. Then both their attentions were drawn by a new sound. An explosion.
A glowing circle near the ground was its source. Through it, propelled by an energy all his own, flew a bearded and robed man holding a staff.
Big Bear, holding a boulder at chest-height, stopped and gaped. “Highfather,” he said. “Izaya!”
The lord of New Genesis lifted one hand into the air and sent a stream of white, energy-shaped bullets upward. They homed in on shadows, and whomever they hit vanished.
Jennifer Morgan grasped Amethyst’s hand. “Come on, Amy,” she said. “I don’t know what he’s doing, but let’s give that guy a hand!”
The two sorceresses ran to Izaya’s side, grasped an upraised arm each, and, with a quick assertion of spells, poured their own mystic power into him. It was not an energy Izaya was used to, but he made use of it. The Alpha Bullets emerged with greater frequency and strength.
Superman said, “Dev. While they’re on the defensive–let’s find the warp they’re coming through and close it.”
“And here I thought I was the brains on this team,” remarked Dev. The two Kryptonians employed their super-vision to find the dimensional opening, invisible to unaided human eyes, through which the shadow-demons were emerging. It was probably no bigger than ten feet in diameter, but the shadows were still coming through like soldiers from a troop carrier.
The Man of Steel and his worldsman flew to opposite sides of the circular warp and set their hands against its edges. The shadows grasped for them, covered them, assaulted them with chilling energies even they could not shrug off. But both Kryptonians exerted their planet-moving strength in conjunction. Each pressed against an edge of the warp with all his might. The shadows, knowing what they attempted , emitted shrill cries and intensified their touches.
Within three seconds, an explosion scattered Superman, Dev, and a small horde of shadows. A burst of light blinded even the two heroes for an instant. When it was done, the warp was no more, and the shadow-beings, even those clutching the two from Krypton, seemed to hang in indecision.
One of the shadows, who had been unlucky enough to be partially within the warp, existed only from the stomach up.
Then an Alpha Bullet struck him and he screeched into nonexistence.
More such bullets followed. Superman and Dev, whirling at super-speed, spun the mob of attackers off of themselves. Their uniforms were caked with frost. Neither of them could ignore the pain that the shadows had inflicted.
But, within a few minutes more, the Alpha Bullets had destroyed the greater part of the shadows, and the other heroes took care of the rest.
With that, Dev and Superman alit on the ground, near Izaya and the other converging heroes. Dev said, “Glad you decided to crash the party.”
Superman said, “I wouldn’t exactly call it a time for joking, Dev. Over 40 Adonites died in this attack. I saw them. We’ve won–but we didn’t win enough.”
“Your performance was valorous indeed, Superman,” said Izaya. “As was yours, outworlder, and that of Moonrider and his unit. I regret that I did not appear sooner. But where is D’reema? Did they indeed manage to take her?”
Amethyst piped up. “Sir, I’m sorry, but Supergirl took her and Harbinger away. They all vanished.”
“Yeah, and we don’t know where they went,” added Dev, grimly. “But we’re going to find them.”
Highfather paused, and then stated, “Only if Darkseid does not find them first.”
Lucas Carr had been many things in his time, though mostly he was remembered (by those who took note of such things) in the context of a team he had once almost been part of. After graduating college, he fell on hard times, until landing a gig as an assistant to Fred Danvers, Supergirl’s foster father. Recently, though, he’d developed his talent for cartooning again, and was drawing super-hero comics. He wasn’t in the same league as Byrne and Miller, but he was making good money at it. At the moment, he was in the midst of a BRAVE AND THE BOLD filler featuring Batman teamed with Spy Smasher.
A voice behind him said, “Lucas Carr, I have need of you.”
He got such a start from it that he knocked his bottle of Higgins ink off the drawing board. The voice was creepy, but he had met the person to whom it belonged. Still, nobody ever got used to this cat. “The Phantom Stranger,” breathed Carr. “What in blazes are you here for?”
“I cannot stay long with you, Lucas,” the dark-clothed Stranger warned. “Even now, we stand on the edge of a battlefield that engulfs five Earths, and perhaps more. You are needed.”
“Me?” He gaped. “You really want me? I mean, after that business with John Dough? And the Star-Tsar? And...”
The Stranger looked deeply into Carr’s eyes, even though the latter wasn’t able to make out much detail of the Stranger’s eyes himself. “You have wrought some evil. But you also worked much good, in the past. Now I offer you the chance to walk the right-hand path again. Speak quickly, or lose your chance for redemption. Speak, as once I had to speak myself.”
Lucas only hesitated a moment. “Whatever it is, Stranger, I’m in. Just let me call my boss.”
“There is no time,” said the Stranger, and grasped Lucas’s hand. He dragged the two of them forward, towards and then through a wall.
Lucas wasn’t sure where they were going.
But, for the first time in a very long while, he felt his finger and thumb rubbing against each other, and making a strong series of snaps.