The Apokolips Agenda
Superman took in the scene in an instant with his X-ray vision. He noted that either Darkseid hadn’t thought of shielding his fortress with lead, or that he simply didn’t care.
Snapper Carr. Of all people, Snapper Carr was in Apokolips! With him, that Human Cannonball loser who had once hung out with Lois Lane, plus a host of other also-rans whom he hardly recognized. Plus one who appeared to be Desaad, but his super-vision revealed that he was only wearing a mask.
And Orion. Great Rao. The condition he was in after the real Desaad’s ministrations made Superman nauseous. Desaad and Darkseid were with him now. The master of Apokolips was bending over his son. Had he gotten the Anti-Life Equation yet, or just started?
There were other targets, but he had to deal with those two first. Barely sparing a glance at the battle beginning to rage overhead, the Man of Steel entered the fortress of Darkseid, smashing through outer walls and inner ones, scattering Apokoliptic soldiers and flunkies wherever he went. None of them had time to register what was happening. One moment they had been standing, the next they were thrown around a room littered with rubble and containing at least one big hole.
Snapper and his group heard the thooms of Superman’s approach only an instant before they saw the wall to the side and in front of them rupture. Every one of them stopped dead in their tracks with surprise. “Supes!” Snapper cried out, and then put a hand to his mouth in remorse.
“What in blazes are you doing here?” snapped Superman. He did not look like a man to be trifled with, at the moment.
“Hey, Superman,” said the Cannonball, pulling his hood a bit lower so his face could be seen. “Long time. Remember me, the Cannonball? Good ta see ya again.”
The Man of Tomorrow favored him with a tight glance but said nothing to him. To Snapper, he said, “I’m getting you all out of here. You have no business being here in the first place.”
Mal Duncan, for all his surprise, found himself bristling at that. “Oh, yes, we do! We’re on a mission, and you’re giving us away!”
“I don’t have time to argue,” said Superman, taking Snapper in his hands.
The phony Desaad grabbed one of Superman’s wrists. “I beg to differ, Superman. As frightened as I am, as we all are, we’re here on business. We were sent here by the Phantom Stranger to get a prisoner out, and that’s just what we’re going to do.”
“Maybe,” Bumblebee found herself saying. “But that’s what we’re going to do.”
<Superman,> telepathed Lucian Crawley. <It’s Mind-Grabber Kid. Remember me?>
<I do,> Superman irritably replied. <And if you’re here, I know this mission is a total botchup!>
“We don’t have time to talk,” said Christopher Chance, in the mask of Desaad. “If you’re here to help on the mission, welcome. If not, we’ve got to get out of here before we’re compromised.”
The master of disguise saw an unsettling thing as soon as he said that. It was a look of pain and surprise on Superman’s face, followed with his knees buckling and his clutching Chance’s cloak.
He heard Mal saying, “Oh, man. Oh, man...” as he turned his head to see what Mal was talking about.
The Kryptonite Man was behind them, glowing and smiling like a cannibal at a fat man’s feast.
“Stand aside, you losers, and let me get to him,” said the green-skinned villain. “I’ve been waiting to finish business with the Big S for over twenty years.”
Snapper tapped the Human Cannonball on the shoulder. The Cannonball flashed, for half an instant, on his entire superheroic career. A few capers with Lois Lane against mobsters, and once when he had carried a spear among a small army of super-heroes at the DNA Project.
And he mentally said to hell with all of that, and activated his jetpack. It burned holes in his robe and set it afire. He didn’t care.
In the space of a second, he bent his helmeted head downward and smashed full-tilt into the Kryptonite Man, driving him back down the hallway, pinning him against the wall behind him, cracking it with the force of his thrust. The villain was gasping for breath. Ryan Chase shut off his jets, pulled his burning robe off, and threw it to the ground. Then he grabbed the Kryptonite Man by the tunic.
“We’re not losers, loser,” he grated. “We’re the Losers’ League.”
With that, he smashed an uppercut to the K-Man’s jaw. The villain’s eyes glazed over and then shut. The Cannonball let him go and he dropped like a sack of wet washing, landing on the burning robe and snuffing it out.
Mind-Grabber Kid had already grabbed the recovering Superman telekinetically, levitated him to a position parallel with that of the floor but three feet above it, and shot him down the hallway. He kept the impetus up, scooting him around corners and against Apokolips soldiers, until the Metropolis Marvel was safely out of K-Man’s range.
Snapper Carr grinned and slapped Lucian’s palm. “You done good, kid. You too, Ryan.”
“We’re compromised,” said Chris Chance.
“Don’t I know it. Let’s find this Tigra gal, fast.”
Superman being who he is, there are very few things which can daunt him. A few can be found on Apokolips. He had a grudge against Darkseid for the latter’s evildoing and for his inability to fully get his hands on the ruler of Apokolips hitherto, and he meant to have it out.
Kal felt his powers and vitality renewing themselves as he got further from the Kryptonite Man. With an effort, he tore himself loose from the Mind-Grabber Kid’s power and surged forward, flying on his own. He used his X-ray vision to check out the fortress before him, wary for more traps. Instead, he came upon a host of Justifiers, pelting down the hall, blasters out and, as they caught sight of him, triggered. Deadly energies cascaded harmlessly off his costume and body like a shower of rain.
He smiled. “So this is where the entertainment starts,” he said.
“Blast him!” yelled the squad leader. “For Dark–“
That was as far as he got before the blue-clad Kryptonian bowled him and his squad of six over, bounced them off the walls, pulled their weapons apart, stilled their signalling devices, and rendered them unconscious with carefully pulled punches, all within three seconds’ time. It took that long only because he was being careful.
“Hope you’re still on the clock, guys,” Superman threw back over his shoulder as he flew away.
In the next few minutes, the Man of Steel smashed his way through doors, crashed through walls, liberated some prisoners, kayoed jailers, destroyed evil apparati, and, in general, raised hell throughout Darkseid’s fortress. It was satisfying, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
He used his super-vision to scour the building again. Snapper and company were walking near danger again. But, an instant later, he saw the most horrifying sight he’d yet witnessed in this fortress: a chamber in which Darkseid bent over an agonized, wounded, even mutilated Orion, both of them silent, both of them alone.
Someone let out a cry of anguish and rage that caused the very stone and metal walls to shake. It went on for a few instants before he realized that he was the source of it.
Superman burst up through the ceiling of Darkseid’s fortress, smashed through several floors, upset an untold number of Apokolips soldiers, battered his way laterally through an equivalent number of stories downward, and crashed through the roof of Desaad’s work chamber like a javelin.
Darkseid whirled, his eyes already agleam, and ran into a blow that slammed him against the wall. He fought for consciousness, won, and tried to focus his Omega Effect on the intruder. But it was too late.
The contact had pained Superman somewhat. Darkseid, like Izaya, radiated a field of energy that was both protective and effective against Kryptonians, like a form of low-level magic. But he endured it. There was much more to be done.
In a whirl of red, Superman snatched Orion from the bed of torture, encircled him with his cape, and soared upward, taking the impact of the ceilings with his shoulders and head. His super-hearing told him Orion was still breathing. That was one of the few positive signs, so far.
He burst out into the open again. Above him, Metron and company were waging war against the forces of Apokolips. Superman whirled his head, sending a few pulses of well-aimed heat vision into the opposition. The flying warriors of Darkseid cried out in pain where he struck them, and fell easier prey to the New Genesites’ blows. But there were so many of them to deal with, and getting Orion to safety was his first priority.
Lightray was the first to catch sight of Superman’s burden. “ORIIIIIONNNN!” he screamed, seeing the state of the man in Superman’s arms. He zigzagged forward towards the flying men, dodging the Apokolips sky-patrollers on their flying foot-disks. He almost got there.
But not before somebody got there first.
Superman heard the BOOM behind him and almost reacted before a great force behind and above him slammed into his back, bearing him downward. He gasped in shock and pain, thrusting back and up with his flight power, but it was of no avail. He and Orion hit the turf outside Darkseid’s fortress with a terrific splat, and a powerful arm was levering his head back as they landed.
He didn’t have to turn his head to know that it was Mongul.
“You’ve made a lot of trouble, Kryptonian, for both Darkseid and me,” the great yellow alien warlord grated. “After this, perhaps I can get back to conquest. Just hold still and die.”
Kal tensed his neck muscles, smashed an elbow back as hard as he could into Mongul’s gut, heard his opponent grunt, but couldn’t feel the grip lessening. The Arkymandrite was bending his neck backward at a terrible angle. It’d take him awhile, even with his strength. But Superman could only resist his power for so long. And Mongul’s own strength was countering Kal’s attempts to raise them into the air.
He heard Orion’s heart still fitfully beating, and wondered if either of them had much longer to live.
Then a sound of whishing wind, a thump of impact, and a cry of pain from Mongul. The warlord’s grip loosened, almost imperceptibly, but enough for Kal to thrust forward, dig his strong teeth into the villain’s arm, and pull himself and Orion free. He sped a short distance, lay Orion on the ground as far from combat as possible, and sped back. For an instant, he wondered if Dev had come to aid him.
Then he saw who was standing before the raging Mongul and one word escaped his lips:
He wasn’t in time to stop her from catching a punch which knocked her across the landscape. Mongul grinned. “Very good that the both of you are together. That gives me the opportunity to murder you in one session.”
Superman didn’t trust himself to speak. He just plowed into Mongul like a freight train.
A second later, Kara was at his side, and both of them joined the battle.
Metron usually avoided battle. He preferred the realms of science, of observation. Emotions were treacherous things, and they were at their highest pitch during wartime.
But this time, there was no turning back from it. For years, he had carried a debt of guilt in his soul, dating back to the time when he had collaborated with Darkseid in order to gain control of the X-element to power his Mobius Chair. Metron had paid it back in part by giving young Scott Free the secret guidance he needed to break free of Granny Goodness’s domination and to escape Apokolips. Yet, in him, there remained the knowledge that part of the chaos that had resulted between New Genesis and Apokolips was his fault.
So he fought.
Para-demons attacked the Mobius Chair in waves. His armament brought them down. He sat in his flying conveyance, as impassive as a Mr. Spock figure. But the rayblasts from his chair took a deadly toll in Darkseid’s troops, and he didn’t regret a single one of them.
They would only fight until Orion could be liberated, and then they would all return home, he told himself. Those who survived, that is. But war against Darkseid was always a chancy matter. The cream of New Genesis was usually stronger than Apokolips’s shock troops, but the elite of Darkseid were another matter.
Below him, Bug struggled with the rank and file of Apokolips soldiers. His talents were more suited to fleeing and concealment than to battle. Still, his kicks were devastating, and, thus far, he had managed to avoid the deadly blasts of the soldiers’ weapons. Jezebelle threw herself into battle, blasting away at the men of Darkseid with her fiery eyes, and cutting them down before her.
Deadly combat. There could be no other way.
Mad Harriet and the Female Furies were doing some of the most vicious fighting in the fray. The yellow-skinned harridan lashed out time and again with her spiked metal knuckles and many she struck did not rise again. Lashina’s great whip, Bernadeth’s thermoknife, and Stompa’s great boots were destroying foe after foe. This was not a battle of super-heroes and super-villains from Earth. It was war, pure and simple.
Himon. Where the hell was Himon? He was crucial to the operation. With his escape artistry and techno-skills, he was the one Metron had assigned to find Orion and bring him back for transport. He had been a collaborator of Metron’s, he had taught Scott Free the skills he needed to become Mr. Miracle, and he was one of Metron’s dearest friends.
At that point, a new presence came to Metron’s notice. Propelled by a flying belt, arms outstretched, his visage superimposed over an android’s body, one of the elite of Darkseid was coming his way.
“Welcome to Apokolips, Metron,” said Doctor Bedlam. “I promise to get you out of here in as short a time as possible.”
The android’s artificial arms grasped Metron even as he blasted it with rays of destruction. They tore up Bedlam’s chest. The Apokoliptic grasped his throat and began to squeeze. Metron’s hands went to Bedlam’s, but did not have the strength to resist.
In his mind’s eye, he began to see the Black Racer descending.
Kara grasped one of Mongul’s arms with both of her own and blasted away at his face with heat-vision while smashing kicks at her foe’s gut. Kal was restraining Mongul’s other arm and uncorking some of his best super-blows to Mongul’s jaw, below the area Kara was burning. Both of them were showing some bruises, and hoped their enemy was feeling the same way.
I do not want to be here, thought Kara. I am tired of having to save the universe once a month. But I don’t have a choice. I’m one of the few beings with the power to do what I do...and, anyway, I owe this creep.
With a cry of pain, Mongul threw both of them away. They impacted on the side of an adjacent building, picked themselves up, and were barely in time to right themselves before the Arkymandrite grabbed their necks in a hand apiece and smashed their heads together three times, roughly. Not even the Kryptonians could take that kind of impact without pain.
But there were powers Krypts had that even Mongul lacked.
Superman launched the three of them into the sky with his flight-power an instant before Supergirl kicked her own in. The trio of grappling figures smashed their way past a level of flying Apokolips warriors almost without notice, though the latter dropped groundwards on smoking foot-discs or battered wings.
Mongul was still strangling them.
Through a red haze, Supergirl remembered her first encounter with their enemy. Superman had asked her for help in dealing with Warworld, Mongul’s planet-sized warship. The two of them had brought it down, but Kara had been knocked unconscious and sent into a realm the nature of which even Kal wouldn’t reveal to her, when she awoke later in his arms. He was very grateful to have her there, though.
Now, unless they triumphed over the monster who was crushing their necks, there would be no grateful awakening in store.
I will not be destroyed by this thing, Kara told herself. I simply won’t. I’ve survived the Anti-Monitor, Mongul, and Satan Girl, and I will damned well not give in to this yellow-faced idiot, no matter...how hard a grip...he’s got on me...
With a great effort, she bent her head forward, focused both her eyes on one spot on Mongul’s great hand, and sent forth the most concentrated, tightly-focused heat-vision beam she had ever attempted. Both of her eyes were set on one spot, and the heat she was generating made the hottest laser seem as cool as an Antarctic wind by comparison.
Evidently Kal had gotten the same idea, possibly by smelling the burning flesh on Mongul’s hand, and was doing the same for the hand that held him. She noted his face was red with the pressure that he was enduring, and hoped that she wouldn’t see him turning blue...
Mongul had to be given credit. He withstood the pain for almost ten seconds. Then he screamed in anguish in the thinning air over Apokolips and released both of them. He tried to grasp Supergirl’s leg as he fell, to keep himself aloft. Kara drew in as much of a breath as she could and brought her foot down hard in his face.
Superman hurtled down at a tangent and smashed Mongul’s jaw with both fists, following through and not doubling back until he was half a mile away, though it took less than a second for him.
Mongul was still falling.
Both Kal and Kara looked at the globe of Apokolips below them, with its huge fire-pits, and decided to drop him where it would do the most good. They glanced at each other and nodded.
Kara hit Mongul in the back, caroming off him and guiding him to a certain trajectory. He howled in pain and rage. Superman shot downward, feet-first, and thudded into the top of Mongul’s head, bouncing upward before the conqueror’s flailing arms could grab him. He was headed in the right direction, but Kara couldn’t resist one last sortie.
With a scream of vengeance, the Girl of Steel flew at Mongul from the front, both fists outstretched. He tried to grasp her, tried to crush her, but just wasn’t fast enough. She was speeding at him full-tilt, her face set in a mask of grimness. But there was the suggestion of a smile, as well.
She hit him as hard as she could in both eyes.
Mongul screamed in agony, covering his face with both hands, pinwheeling downward like a shot-up plane from a World War I battle. Superman and Supergirl guided his descent with puffs of super-breath. Three times, they cleared away para-demons and flying troops from his line of fall. It didn’t take long, in the end, but it certainly seemed to at the time.
Mongul, hands still covering his injured eyes, fell right into one of the great fire-pits.
A geyser of thermonuclear material spurted upward from his impact. Both Superman and Supergirl judged that he wouldn’t be destroyed by it, any more than they would, but it wasn’t apt to do him any good. It would also take him a hell of a long time to climb out of there, if he could manage it. For the rest of the battle, Mongul was effectively hors de combat.
An idea came to Kara while they looked at the pit from on high. She looked at her cousin. “Kal,” she said, “think we could manage to shut this place down?”
He looked back at her. “It’d be risky,” he said. “No way of knowing what kind of safeguards Darkseid has over them.”
“Isn’t that what we’ve got super-vision for?”
“Yes. But we’d better stay together on this. All right?”
“Lead the way.”
The two blue-and-red-clad figures soared away, ignoring the blasts from Darkseid’s air patrols, until they were over another one of the great pits which supplied Apokolips’s power. One of the ground-based guards saw two streaks descending at great speed and opened his communicator with trembling hands.
“Attack,” he managed to say. “We’re under attack!”
That was all he could say before the two Kryptonians plunged into the seething depths and got to work.
There had been relatively few guards before the chamber Snapper Carr’s band was headed for, and that was fine by them. Most had been drawn to the battle outside. The bad guys weren’t pushovers, but the abilities of Mind-Grabber Kid and the Cannonball were able to turn the tide. Snapper, Chris, Mal, and Karen had picked up some of the other guards’ hand-weapons as well, and, after figuring out the stun-level setting, weren’t loath to use them.
So now, after clearing away the unconscious bodies, the six of them stood before a metal door that looked about as easy to breach as that of a bank safe. Beyond it, according to the Stranger’s instructions, was the woman they had come to liberate.
“How do we get in?” asked Lucian, reasonably.
“I’m not sure,” admitted Snapper. “Anyone here have great safe-cracking skills?”
Christopher Chance, still costumed as Desaad, stepped up. “I’ll give it a try. But I’m not familiar with the sort of lock on this door.”
“Improvise,” Snapper suggested. “But fast.”
Chance bent to the door, the other five facing outward to cover him. He worked silently, feverishly. Snapper looked at the others, and gave himself over to wonder, for a moment. The lot of them were scarcely better than civilians. Ryan Chase was obviously trying to hold back fear, and doing a good job of it. Even Mal and Bumblebee looked as though they knew how much they were in over their heads.
Yet, for all that, the six of them had made a sortie into the halls of Darkseid. They had faced down opposition, even saved Superman at one point.
Altogether, Snapper decided that the Losers’ League hadn’t done half-bad, up to that point.
Christopher Chance cried out. “What’s the problem, Chris?” asked Snapper.
The master of disguise shook his hand. “Bit of an electric jolt, I think. Its obvious our host doesn’t want people tampering with his doors. But I’ll give it a go again.” He grasped part of his robe and placed it over the lock, using it as a guard for his fingers, then began again. Snapper began to have hope that they might manage to pull this off, after all.
“Look,” said Karen Beecher, in a low voice, pointing.
She was pointing at a shadow.
It was huge, cast by a being just around the bend of these damnably crooked halls. The light source beyond showed that the caster of the shadow was carrying some sort of long, clublike weapon. The thing wasn’t moving fast, but it didn’t have to be, given its probable power.
“Oh, boy,” muttered Snapper. “Battle stations, group. Kid, give us a readout.”
Mind-Grabber Kid put two fingers to his helmet and closed his eyes in concentration. “One of Darkseid’s warriors, I’m picking up. No. It’s one of Darkseid’s sons. His name is...”
It came into full view.
The being who faced them looked like a caveman from hell. His black hair was shaggy and of shoulder-length, his stature barely allowed him to walk in the hall without ducking. He was half-naked, save for a loincloth and boots, and he looked to be twice the size of a normal Earth human. In one hand he carried a club of strange crystal, which appeared to have control studs on one side. He was facing them, and he was snarling, exposing a mouth of great fangs.
“I am Kalibak,” he roared. “You may call me death.”
“Hit him!” Snapper ordered.
The Human Cannonball didn’t have to be told twice. He triggered his jets, lowered his head, and smashed into Kalibak’s labonza. It knocked the son of Darkseid into a sitting position. Mind-Grabber Kid struck him with a full mental assault. As soon as Ryan rolled free, Snapper, Mal, Karen, and Chris blasted him with their hand-weapons.
For an instant, it looked as though they might be getting somewhere.
Then Kalibak stood, roared again, and pointed his club at them. A blast of power came from its end, bowling over all six of them. He stepped forward, before any of them could recover, and raised his club.
“I should be crushing Izaya’s fellow maggots,” he grumbled. “Instead, all I have is the likes of you. Most aggravating.” The great club descended, and, paralyzed with shock, Snapper saw it was coming towards him.
Then a hand grasped Kalibak’s from behind, and stayed its motion. “Don’t worry, mate,” said a new voice. “You’ve got the likes of me, too.”
Kalibak roared again with surprise and frustration. He tried to free his arm, but couldn’t manage it. Wheeling around, he caught a glimpse of the new opposition. “Before you die, tell me your name!”
The man, dressed in the robes of an Apokolips citizen, was very cool about it. “Don’t worry. I’ll just leave you a card.” With that, his other fist shot out. Kalibak wasn’t expecting much from him.
His head rocked back as far as possible without his neck breaking and, an instant after seeing flashes of black and white, Kalibak slumped to the floor.
The newcomer let him go and faced the others. “You all right?” he asked, pulling Snapper to his feet.
“Yeah, think so,” he said. “Who are you?”
“Just a guy on some spy business,” said Dev-Em. “What are you doing here, anyway? The same thing?”
Bumblebee had managed to pull herself up against a wall. “We’re trying to free the woman they’re holding in that chamber,” she said, pointing at the door. “She’s the mother of Orion, or so we’ve been told.”
“Oh. Okay,” said Dev. “Let me give you a hand.”
With that, he reached out, buried his fingers in the metal of the door, and wrenched it off its hinges. As he set it aside, the members of the Losers’ League gaped at both the feat and the sight of the woman inside. She gazed back at them with amazement.
She was at least a generation older than them in appearance, had red hair shot through with white, and looked somewhat like the warrior of Apokolips she had been in years past. But the sorrow she had experienced between then and the present showed on her face, as well. She looked out at them with unbelief.
“Who are you?” she asked.
Mind-Grabber Kid stepped up. “Are you Tigra, ma’am?”
“I am,” she admitted.
Snapper said, “Then we’ve come to get you out. Please, come with us.”
Darkseid stood near a wrecked portion of his fortress and looked on the battle with disdain. So the fools had come to his homeworld. Very well, let them waste their power on his lesser forces before he threw his specialists into the war. This would disrupt his progress in negligible ways. The main objective had been achieved. All that was left was the sifting of information, to find what he required. It was already in his grasp.
He strode forward, towards the motionless body of Orion where Superman had dropped it.
But he cursed himself for not perceiving the figure who dropped from the skies to stand before him, before the latter was in sight.
A familiar, white-bearded, robed, staff-bearing adversary stood before him, over Orion’s body. He held the staff before him in an aggressive manner, and even Darkseid halted as he did so.
“Not a step further, Darkseid,” warned Izaya.
After a pause, Darkseid said, “Welcome back, Izaya. So you wish another taste of the power which felled you, not so long ago?”
Izaya’s eyes blazed. “In that battle, evil one, I did not use my power against you. I was Highfather, lord of peace. Today I stand before you as Izaya, the warrior, and the true father of this man at my feet. You shall allow us passage, or today you shall know death.”
Darkseid reached out and grasped Izaya’s staff with both hands. “One of us will, anyway. Prepare to greet your wife Avia. In hell.”
The battle began.