The Vampire of Steel
Buffy Summers could scarcely credit her eyes. True, she had become used to the charnel-house splendor of the hidden parts of Sunnydale, things she would never have dreamed existed before she set eyes on them. But this...this was so much more than that.
Best of all, it was a thing of wonder, not of terror.
The floortiles were green and of a composition Buffy had never seen in flooring. They were highly polished and didn’t even seem to scuff or smudge when she moved her feet across them. The next quantum leap beyond Lemon Pledge, she thought. But the floor only held her attention for a moment.
When you have an ocean liner suspended from the ceiling by chains, that tends to grab one’s attention first.
“Kara,” Buffy called. “Hey, Kara!”
The Girl of Steel zipped back to her companion in an instant. “What’s up, Buffy?”
The Earth girl gestured. “That, um, thing up there, that whatever, that ship, it’s not gonna, um, like, fall?”
Supergirl smiled. “Nope. Not ever. The chains are of an alloy Kal made himself with help from Dr. Will Magnus. We’ve also got an anti-grav balancer under it. If it falls, it’s gonna fall up.”
“Oh. That’s reassuring.” Buffy walked on. There was a huge green dinosaur under the ship. Tentatively, she peered at it. The skin and musculature looked a helluva lot more realistic than any of the dino models she’d seen in museums or on TV. “Ray Harryhausen stuff,” she muttered.
“Oh, that? It’s real.” Kara ran a hand along the dinosaur’s back. “From another planet. It was already dead. Kal stuffed and mounted it. He always wanted one of these.”
Buffy’s hand jerked back from the dinosaur. “This thing is for real? It is, like, a formerly living dinosaur? Emphasis on the formerly?”
Supergirl nodded. “Yeah. Can I show you around for a second? We don’t have much time.”
The Sunnydale warrior-girl craned her head to look at the high-tech equipment lining the walls, at the three tiers of levels this Fortress seemed to have, at the unusual and seemingly-ordinary trophies alike. A pterodactyl hung on wires from the ceiling, flanked by a winged bat-creature that seemed half-human, both of them as lifeless, thankfully, as the dinosaur. There were odd, odd animals in some glass cages not far away, and...
...some of them were moving.
“Oh, ah,” said Buffy. “Not that I’m really concerned, Kara, but those, uh, zoo-things. They can’t get out, can they?”
“No, dear,” said Supergirl. “Just samples of animal life from other planets.” She took Buffy’s hands. “Look. I know this is weirding you out. Right?”
“Well, don’t feel like the Lone Ranger. When Kal brought me here, not long after I landed on Earth, I felt almost the same way. And I’m from a Kryptonian town, not Earth, to boot. Look over there, Buffy.” Kara pointed.
She was pointing at two statues, of a man and a woman, each one with an arm upraised, supporting a huge globe in one hand apiece. “Are those...from your planet?” asked Buffy.
Supergirl said, “Those are Jor-El and Lara, Superman’s parents. What they’re holding up is a model of Krypton, our homeworld.” Buffy saw Kara’s eyes misting over. She felt a rush of sympathy for her friend, and caught herself. How strange it was that she could think of herself as a friend to Supergirl.
But perhaps...no, definitely...she was.
“Let me show you something else,” Kara said, and touched one of the disks in her belt. The globe Jor-El and Lara were holding seemed to expand, to puff out, to burst into pieces. All soundlessly. Buffy almost threw a hand up to protect her face, but she sensed that something in the display was less than physical.
Kara flew towards the globe. “Just a holographic display. You’re seeing an interpretation of the Destruction. The day Krypton died, when its uranium core exploded. Now...here.” Her index finger pointed out a chunk of planet spinning into space from the blast, with something shiny upon it. “This is Argo City. It was shielded by an atmospheric dome, which held it together. That’s my hometown, Buffy. I come from this city. I was born there, seven years after the death of Krypton.”
Buffy breathed in, deeply. “I’m sorry, Kara. I’m sorry for you.”
“It’s not your fault, honey. But I never go by this display without feeling...” She sighed, looked down, composed herself. “Never mind. Let me take you where we need to go.”
“Come down here for a minute, Kara,” said Buffy.
“Just come down.”
Without a word, Supergirl flew down and lit on both feet before Buffy. The Slayer reached out, embraced her, and hugged her firmly. “Kara, I may not come from outer space, and I may not have powers like yours. But I know what it’s like to lose people. Not like you, but...you know.”
Supergirl hugged her back, gently. “Thanks, hon. Sorry to get so sloppy-sentimental there for a moment.”
“Don’t you be sorry for a thing. Now, what is it you came here to get?”
“I didn’t come here to get anything. I came here to go someplace.”
Buffy stepped back from her. “What?”
Supergirl said, calmly, “Let me show you where I have to go. I’ll have to take you to the third floor.”
“Where’s the stairs?”
“I’m the stairs.” Supergirl grabbed Buffy and flew with her up to the third level.
The Slayer had gotten used to flying with Kara by this time and wasn’t awed when her ally set her down on solid footing this time. There was more high-tech equipment up here, Buffy reflected, stuff that would make the bridge of the Enterprise in Star Trek: TNG look like a Mom-and-Pop store by comparison. She couldn’t comprehend it and didn’t attempt to.
“So, where do we go now? The transporter room?”
Kara raised an eyebrow. “You’re not far off. But I warn you, Buffy: everything you see here has to be kept a secret. Everything.”
“Stake my heart and hope to die, Kara.”
Supergirl nodded. “I trust you. Don’t ever give me a reason not to trust you, Buffy. Honestly.”
Buffy had no answer for that. Kara didn’t expect her to. The Girl of Steel walked on and Buffy followed. There was a clear plastic railing on one side of the concrete walkway and various banks of equipment on the other. A few portable seats were available. Buffy noted that all the controls on the machines, or at least what looked like controls, were not on regular human level. Flight was a pretty useful thing to have.
A little further on, Supergirl stopped and turned to her. “This is one part we don’t show to many of our visitors. I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to wait here, Buffy.”
“Well, okay,” said Buffy, a bit disappointedly. “What’s behind there? A doomsday bomb?”
The Argonian shook her head. “It’s more or less our version of the transporter room.”
“Oh.” Buffy considered. “I guess I’m a good guesser, huh?”
“Very good,” Kara conceded. “Have you ever heard of Kandor?”
The Slayer focused. “Let’s see. Uh, sorry. Xander might know about these things, he’s the big Superman fan. Like I said, I read Power Girl. Fill me in.”
Patiently, Kara explained. “Kandor was a Kryptonian city, like Argo, the one I came from. A villain named Brainiac shrank it and put it in a bottle, a few years before Krypton exploded.”
“In a bottle?” Buffy’s eyes widened.
“Yes. Buffy, I know this sounds incredible to you, but you have to remember: Krypton was a lot more scientifically advanced than Earth before the Destruction. Brainiac had knowledge even beyond ours, too. He stole cities, with the people inside them, and kept them in controlled environments in bottles. Like your ant farms.”
“Major unbelievable.” The younger girl flashed on a vision of Smallville, shrunken and put inside an industrial-size bottle like the ones in Chemistry class. People mowing their lawns, driving their cars, going to their jobs, all knowing there was a wall of glass ringing them round about and somebody looking in on them every time he wanted. She shivered.
“Yes, but it had one great benefit. It preserved the lives of millions of Kryptonians until Superman could fight Brainiac and get the bottle away from him. He kept Kandor here in the Fortress, down on the second floor, until we could find a way of enlarging it, and everyone who lived there.”
“How did you...talk to them?”
“We had communications devices. Also, Kal and I had a shrinking and enlarging device, but it wouldn’t work on everyone. Even the Atom couldn’t manage to restore Kandor to its correct size. But we could visit, and I loved doing it. Now, Buffy, we don’t have a lot of time, so just let me talk, okay?
“We finally got the enlarger device away from Brainiac and Kal and I restored Kandor to its normal size on a planet way out in space. They named it Rokyn. The thing is, it’s a phase-planet. Sometimes it exists in normal space, sometimes in another dimension. That’s an even harder concept, but I’ll go into it some other time.
“Kal and I needed to find a way of traveling to Rokyn when we needed to quickly, without having to fly through space and hunt out space warps. Or when it was out of phase with us. My real parents live there, and I’m not about to just see them once a year. So we got together with the Rokynian Science Council and worked with them on improving an invention Jor-El and an Earth scientist made, decades ago. It was a transmitter intended to send people across space. Like that Star Trek transporter. It didn’t work at the right time to save Jor-El and Lara, but...well, enough of that. Between the lot of us, we built an improved model, and it’s called a WarPort. It’s a combo of the original device, the things the Justice League uses to get up to its satellite and across dimensions, and our own designs.
“We have a transmitter / receiver in the Fortress, and there’s one on Rokyn. It allows us, or people from Rokyn, to travel to each other’s world, except when we’re extremely out of phase. I’m going to travel there in a minute, get something that may help us, and come back. I’m hoping it doesn’t take more than a few hours.”
Buffy considered it. “You say you’re going there. What about me?”
“You get to stay here. I’m sorry, dear. We have tight restrictions on who can cross and who can’t.”
“Nuts.” At the same time, Buffy was a bit relieved. Coming here to the Fortress was adventure enough. Going to another planet, possibly in another dimension, even though she’d hopped time-planes on Earth and hit an alternate future a couple of times, was a bit more of a new experience than she was ready for just yet.
Then she asked, “Why did you bring me here, Kara? I mean, it doesn’t seem as though you need me for anything. Not that I don’t appreciate it, but, well...”
Supergirl sighed. “Haven’t you figured it out yet, Buffy? First, we’re up against a vampire from Krypton.”
“Point one taken.”
“Second, you don’t want me to call in the Justice League.”
“Third, you’re a sister in arms and, yes, a friend. So I wanted to do this as sort of a gift. One way or the other, this may be the only time you get to see the Fortress of Solitude. Is that all right by you?”
“Is that all right?” Buffy grasped Kara’s hand. “Oh, Kara. Punch me if I start acting like one of those anime fangirls I see at the vid stores. I’ve seen a lot over the last couple of years...a ton of things I never dreamed existed. I know vampires, I mean, that’s my job. I’ve seen...well...terrible things. Nightmares in the real world. Demons, werewolves, bad-guy sorcerers, the whole nine yards. I’ve had to kill the vamps and demons, too. Again and again and again.” She noticed Kara flinching, but pressed on. “But this is something strange, from a different angle. It’s, well, awesome, unbelievable from my standpoint. But it’s positive. I mean, it’s a positive thing, not scary. That’s, from where I’m coming, at least, a very, very good thing. Uh, sense is being made here, right?”
“So far, you’re doing swell.” Kara smiled.
Carefully, Buffy leaned back against the plastic railing. “You know, I do what I do just about every night. I get off school, eat, do what I want for a few hours, then I spend my time touring Sunnydale’s most scenic graveyards. That is, like, what I do. I don’t even take off Sundays. There are monsters out there, Kara. Real monsters. Lots of times I wish I didn’t know about them. Before...before I did this sort of thing, Kara, I was a cheerleader. A little, fluffy-headed cheerleader. You know, one of the head girls in school, that sort of thing. If you’d told me, even suggested to me, that I’d kill something, anything, even something that wasn’t technically alive...my God. I would have run away from you and called the cops. I would.”
Supergirl moved to touch her arm, but Buffy shrank away, hugging herself. “Then I got thrown into this. I found out I had super-powers all of a sudden. Not like X-ray vision, but strength, speed, kind of a Slayer-sense...all that. There was a weird guy, somebody I really didn’t want to know, and he told me he was my Watcher. I thought he was a major pervo. But that was when I started seeing the things that most people don’t get to see. Like the vampires that were turning up and killing people. And he told me I was one of the only people in the world who could do something about it. And that I had to.
“So I did. I staked them, over and over and over again. I’d get vampire dust all over my clothes, and blood a lot of times...not from them, from me. I couldn’t even tell Mom what I was doing. And my first Watcher, Kara, my first Watcher...Merrick...died. I saw him die. I had to...well...avenge him. Little old Buffy Summers, the cheerleader girl. I had to kill the vamp that killed him.” Buffy sighed, sat down cross-legged on the concrete floorway. “Growing up in a hurry. At least that way.”
Supergirl came and sat beside her. “I’m sorry, Buffy.”
“Sometimes I am, too. I ended up burning down the high school to save people. Don’t laugh.”
“What’s to laugh about, dear?” Supergirl put her arm around Buffy’s shoulders, like a big sister. Or, Buffy thought, like a big sister’s supposed to. She continued her tale.
“My folks got divorced over that, Kara. I mean, I lost my father, my dad, over that.” Tears glittered at the corner of her eyes, but she fought them back. “We ended up moving, living in Sunnydale. I met Giles, met all the others, and found out I had a lot of work, a lot of bad things to kill, there. I wasn’t Cheerleader Girl anymore. I mean, I tried out, but that’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax. Call me Graveyard Girl. So that, when I get to see something as wonderful as this place is, even though some of it creeps me out a bit...” She paused, then looked at Kara. “You see why it’s a really nice change of pace.”
Supergirl embraced her. “I know, honey. I can imagine. Or maybe, I can’t. Can I tell you something? Then I really have to go.”
“Sure. Anything. This is your house, after all. Or almost.”
“I can’t believe what it must be like to live in your world,” said Kara. “I do what I do. I fight the super-villains, the alien invaders, what Kal and I classify ‘cosmic menaces’, and all that. But I don’t have to kill. Or at least, I haven’t yet. Vampires, demons...that’s a new arena for me. One I really don’t like. At yet, you have to deal with that, as you said, every night. I wouldn’t want to do that, Buffy. Not on that basis. So don’t you think you deserve a little credit for being brave enough to do what you do?”
“Uh. Well, we’ve compared notes before, Kara. But what I do is on a different scale. Yeah, I’ve saved the world once, but...”
“You saved the world. Only once?” Supergirl wrinkled her nose and grinned. “Isn’t that enough? How many people get to do that, even one time?”
Buffy giggled, despite herself. “When you put it like that, it does sound funny.”
“And if you hadn’t been there, what would’ve happened?”
“Uh, the Master probably would have gotten loose and taken over the Earth. That sort of thing.”
“You operate well in the place where you have to be,” said Supergirl. “I perform where I have to, the best I can. Isn’t that all we can do?”
“It is, definitely.”
“So. Don’t sell yourself short. In a way, I can admire you.”
Buffy dropped her jaw. Kara kept smiling. “Now, I’ve got to go. I don’t want you to follow me, but you can take a look around the place all you want. The sensitive stuff is on lockdown, and it won’t respond to your touch. The animals can’t get out, so they can’t hurt you, or you them. Clear?”
“Crystal, so far.”
“Two more important things. One, the bathrooms are on the first floor, on the left, not far from the opening of the hall. Two, the commissary is on this floor, down that way.” Kara pointed. “You can get what you want by verbally ordering it.”
“Verbally ordering it?”
“Think of it like ordering at McDonalds at the drive-in and you’ll be fine. But don’t try to get past the locked doors. They’re private. Okay?”
“Majorly okay. Will you be all right, Kara?”
She ruffled Buffy’s hair. “Hey. I’m only going to my favorite place for a couple of hours. Should be fine. Stay out of trouble, honey.”
“Just don’t follow me. I’m sorry. We used to have robots that could show you around, but they aren’t around anymore. See you in a few.” Kara walked to a door between two banks of equipment, touched her hand to a plate, and opened it. She stepped through. It locked behind her. Buffy looked at it for a few moments.
Then she looked around for the stairway. Thankfully, she found it. There was a tube with a platform in it that was anchored in the ceiling and grounded in the floor, with doorways for each level, as well. But she didn’t feel like trying that one.
Stairs were something that were the same in every world.
She hoped bathrooms were, too.
Willy was sitting in Angel’s mansion with a pair of headphones on, listening to his host’s collection of music. It ranged from Green Day and Pearl Jam all the way back to wax cylinders, and Angel had informed him not to even think about touching the latter, as he’d make him wish he’d never been demonized if he did. But Willy was having fun, listening to everyone from Duke Ellington on up on records, tapes, or CD’s. Hell, Angel even had 8-tracks!
If the world was going to end tonight, at least he had a good soundtrack.
Still, there was time to think about things. If this Zol-Am was as tough as Superman, opening the Hellmouth shouldn’t be that much of a problem for him. Unless the problem wasn’t strength.
From what Willy had heard, Superman had a problem with magic. Maybe that was why Zol-Am hadn’t busted the thing open like a jar of pickles already. Could he be repulsed by magic, too? Of course, being a vampire, he was already kind of a magic-spawn as it was. Wonder if that hurt him?
Obviously not. Or if it did, he was really concealing it.
Deductive thought wasn’t Willy’s strong suit. But when he got an idea, it was something so unique that he couldn’t imagine keeping it to himself. He yanked the phones off his head and out of the stereo, causing the music to become audible all through the room. Then he scurried to another phone, the kind that hung on the wall. Within seconds, he was placing a call to Rupert Giles.
“Yes?” came the voice on the other end.
“Giles? Willy here. Got me a think about the problem.”
“Oh? Enlighten us, Willy.” The demon didn’t like the snottiness he perceived in Giles’s voice, but what the hell. As a human, Willy had been a telemarketer once, and he’d dealt with Limeys beforehand. They were snotty and never bought anything from him, so it was probably a cultural trait. So he bypassed it.
“Hear me out on this one, okay? Okay. Guys like Superman have a problem with magic. Am I right on that?”
“So when our boy became a, you know, that put him at least halfway into magic territory. I’m on solid ground so far, ain’t I?”
“Oh...about as solid as I care to contemplate. What’s your conclusion?”
“Well, supposin’ he’s havin’ trouble holdin’ both sides of himself together? Like they was joined by Elmer’s Glue and they were pushin’ against each other all the time?”
Silence on the other end.
“Giles? You there?”
Giles spoke deliberately. “You may have something there, Willy. I might not put it quite like that. I’d probably think of it like an organ transplant being rejected.”
“Well, whatever. I’m a simple guy, Giles.”
“It’s all right, Willy. Even though we haven’t quite seen evidence of such, that’s a concept that bears some thinking on. I’ll pass it along to the others and see what we can come up with.”
“So you think it’s all right?”
“Yes, Willy. I think it’s eminently all right. You did well.”
The demon’s chest swelled so much he thought he might burst his black Van Halen T-shirt. “So...when you think we’re gonna get together?”
“Not before evening. A couple of our friends took a short trip. Besides, your host won’t be up before then, anyway.”
“Oh. They going to be home in time for dinner?”
“I should hope so, Willy. I should sincerely hope so. And by the way, is that Duke Ellington I hear in the background?”
“Good. If you have it, give a listen to ‘Mood Indigo’. It’s superb. Talk to you later, all right?”
Willy grinned. “Anytime, pal. Anytime.”
In the place below the streets of Sunnydale, Bill Goodwin, the demon with half his face a few inches higher than the other half, was speaking as articulately as he could to his audience.
“Ish like this,” he proclaimed. “We’ve shtooged for a lotta front guys, but thish ish the first shtime we ever been ashked ta be part of an arrmy. It’s probably gonna be more like a, I dunno, like a union. It shtarts when we open the Hellmouth shtonight.”
“Tonight?” asked a regular-line, swivel-horned demon. “No lie? After all this yeah-we-will-no-we-won’t, we’re really gonna be openin’ the Hellmouth?”
An eight-foot Bludgeoner, his massive hands hanging around his knees, spoke up. “You haven’t seen this guy, Junior. I have. Take Superman, put fangs on him, and that’s what we’re working with. Plus they say he was career military, where he comes from.”
Junior nodded. “Concept to work with,” he said.
Another one of the gathering, a gill-faced girl demon with a diving helmet full of water on her head, spoke through a vocalizer made for throat cancer patients. “But what about the Slayer, and that Slayer Mark II? What’s the plans for them?”
“The plansh aresh ta kill them,” rasped Bill. “If they schow up beforehand, during, or after the Grand Opening, they’re shtoast. Well? You in or you out? Anybody in, raise your hands.”
Hands went up all over the place.
It looked to Bill Goodwin like Zol-Am had his army.