Zoners: Part 5
This is what had happened:
In Separatists' Alley, that land where tyranny and anarchy held equal sway and both were bent towards a hate of Rokyn's government, Vakox had landed the stolen hovercraft and patiently awaited the arrival of the hoverpark guards. The Phantom Zone projector was at his feet, the two boys were sitting either beside or behind him, scared as rabbits, and a gun with five high-powered bullets still in it was stuck in his belt.
Bar-Bann, sitting behind him, moaned, "I think I gotta go."
"Either go in your pants, or wait for the man here to show you where to go," replied Vakox.
Four guardsmen approached the hovercraft. Their uniforms were worn leather, they affected the black floppy hats that were marks of Separatist outlaws these days (as opposed to Kandorians' headbands), and the arms they had holstered by their sides were decidedly not stunners. Hal-Lorr figured that they were packing weapons in other places, too...less visible places.
The black-bearded man in the lead spat on the side of the hovercraft, then leaned an arm on it, his other hand casually by his pistol. "Unauthorized?"
"Yes," said Vakox patiently. "I want to see your chief."
One of the others snickered. Blackbeard silenced him with a sideways look. "Sir, 'case you don't know, the chief is a mighty busy man. He don't take kindly to headbanders, which you and your friends look like, you don't mind me sayin'."
Vakox, not blinking, pulled up the Phantom Zone projector. "Ever see one of these?"
The four guards stopped doing what they were doing and focused. None of them had ever seen a Zone machine before, but they knew what it was.
Blackbeard looked at Vakox with new respect. "You're a--"
"That's right," said Vakox, in clipped tones. "Now take me to see your chief. He'll be angry you've kept me this long. Oh--and show these boys to a rest room, will you?"
Blackbeard turned to his men. "You firelizards, shape up! Lay a hand on this guy and you'll answer to me...and I really like answering. You! Come with me and our guest. You! Take these kids to the latrine before they stain their drawers, then bring them along. Kick the sand, now!"
The main town of Separatists' Alley was as close to the Old West of Earth as it got this close to New Kandor. Gambling dens, cathouses, pleasure-mist halls, and all the rest, plus the usual businesses without which a town can't properly run. Even the postmen and teachers and schoolteachers carried guns, though, and knew how to use them.
The Moderators ("police" was about the only dirty word in the Separatists' vocabulary, though "headbander" was getting there) carried guns, stunners, electro-whips, and, sometimes, concealed blades when they really had to make a point.
The Separatists believed that the Kandorians wanted them to kill themselves off, given enough time. They may not have been wrong in that belief.
At any rate, the current chief, or mayor, was one Fhi-Zor, with a face that looked like hardpan dirt and a mind like a stropped razor. He wore one of the biggest black-hats in town, with a thin white band around its crown. Periodically, he stuck a silver coin within the band. This usually coincided with a funeral in town.
He had eight silver coins in the band, and was rumored to be working on number nine. Or maybe number ten...after all, he might have forgotten one somewhere down the line.
Fhi-Zor sat at his desk with no less than six guards hanging nearby, as Vakox was escorted into his presence, the Zone projector under his arm. One of the guards had his gun, however.
"Chief Fhi-Zor, Professor Va-Kox," said Blackbeard, in greeting. "He's from--"
"He's a Zoner," said Fhi-Zor, succinctly.
Both men waited for each other to say something, sizing each other up.
Vakox broke the silence. "I'll come to the point. We've got an operation underway. I'm going to release several of my partners from the Zone. We've got Kara Zor-El as hostage. Give us sanctuary, and we'll make you rulers of Rokyn within two weeks."
Fhi-Zor kept silent for two seconds, then said, "They won't turn it over to you just for her."
"We know that. It's bigger than that," Vakox replied.
Neither took his eyes off the other. The guards feigned stolidity, but they hung on every word.
"How big?" said Fhi-Zor.
"Big enough," replied Vakox. "You've heard about what we've done so far. Just a preliminary."
"Kidnapped a girl, a headbander, and two kids, and lost the headbander," allowed Fhi-Zor. "Killed a couple of guards, blew up a building. I could make that look like small change in an afternoon."
Vakox leaned closer, putting his free hand on the desk. "Yes, and you'd lose it in another one. They'd mobilize and wipe this place off the map. How'd you like to have it all?"
"The angle?" asked Fhi-Zor.
"Give us sanctuary, give us help, you'll learn it."
Fhi-Zor waited, then said, "Not very much to go on, is there?"
Vakox straightened up. "Just our reputations."
"I could have my boys take that out of your hands, empty out that Zone, and make you all do backflips whenever I wanted," said Fhi-Zor.
Vakox snorted. "Bad business. I haven't got time to waste. You think I'm the only one on Rokyn with a projector? Either throw in, or waste time, and let them get her Out when they figure out where she's being held. This thing is on a tight schedule. Only way to make it work. Shoot me, let me go, or work with us."
For the first time, Fhi-Zor seemed to smile.
"Not the only alternatives," he said. "But let's see what you've got. Blackie, cover him. If he pushes that black button, paint the wall with his brains. You, Vakox, point the thing over there. You boys back off and give him room to operate."
Vakox, musing for one nanosecond on how easily idealists turn to outlaws, pointed the Zone projector towards an empty area of the room, and clicked on the viewer.
Within seconds, he had a bead on Jax-Ur, Kara, and company.
He pressed the white button.
Kara Zor-El, Jax-Ur, General Zod, and Faora Hu-Ul tumbled into the room.
Fhi-Zor grinned mirthlessly.
"Son of a babootch," he said. "I always did want to meet me an actress."
Kara hit the floor at a crouch, scanned the scene, and lashed out at Vakox with a spin-kick. He wasn't prepared for it. It hit him hard on the side of the head and knocked him flying. The projector hit the floor and smashed its lens.
Her action was more instinctive and vengeful than planned, but she was glad she did it. After being trundled through everything so far like a woman in a trunk, it was time she struck back.
Zod looked at the broken projector and at the moaning Vakox and dropped his jaw. Faora was snarling, about to leap at Kara. Zod stood his ground, knowing the situation at a glance and judging that it would be quickly resolved.
Fhi-Zor barked an order. Still crouched, Kara saw several gun barrels pointed in her direction.
For a second, she felt her old rush of Earth-born confidence. Lots of crooks had pointed guns at her, and lots of crooks had found their bullets ricocheting off her steel-hard body.
Then she remembered: this was Rokyn. Her body was only normal flesh and blood.
A lot of that flesh and blood would be scattered all over the room, if she didn't watch herself.
"Freeze!" shouted Fhi-Zor. Kara froze.
Fhi-Zor jerked his head at Blackbeard. He holstered his gun, took a pair of electrocuffs from his belt, and went to Kara. She stared daggers through his eyes. "Mighty brave of you, six armed guys against one woman," she said, coolly.
"All it would take is one woman against one woman," purred Faora,
with malice and arrogance. Kara said nothing. Blackbeard took
her wrists and cuffed them behind her. She thought about back-kicking
him where it would hurt, but decided not to shop for trouble just
Jax was helping Vakox to his feet. He was still shaking his head. Kara took some pride from the fact that these idiots hadn't expected her new, improved strength and fighting prowess.
But for all that, she still wasn't eager to go against Faora.
"You know where to take her," said Fhi-Zor. "Then we'll talk with the Zoners."
Faora turned to Fhi-Zor. "Just a minute." Blackbeard caught the cue, and held Kara's arms to keep her steady. The Horu-Kanu mistress walked over to the blonde captive.
Faora's hand slashed out and cracked her forcefully across the cheek, making her head spin to the side and bump Blackbeard's chest.
Then Faora's knee came up hard into Kara's gut, and the heroine expelled an "Aaaah!" of breath. Black and white light flashed before her eyes, and she sank towards the floor, her knees contacting it even as Blackbeard held her up by her wrists.
Faora grabbed Kara's head by the chin and said, "That's something I've been waiting to do for years."
Then she spat in Kara's face.
The Drygur Moliom sighed, sitting at his desk. His aide, Nightwing, Flamebird, the Master Executioner, the Chief of Justice, and a couple of guards were standing in his office, trying to figure out what to do next.
"They're on a timed plan, and so far it's working like a chronometer," admitted the head of Rokyn's government. "And like it or not, I don't have all the time in the world to devote to this matter. Len-Tarr, you'll have to take it from here. I have a state to run."
"Acknowledged, sir," said the Justice Chief. "We'll keep you informed, as always." Then he shot a glance at Nightwing and Flamebird. "Thank you for your help, gentlemen. We'll take it from here."
Flamebird was astonished. The remark was as good as saying, "You're not involved in this case anymore." He was on the point of an outburst when Nightwing's black-gloved hand on his shoulder restrained him.
"Thank you, Chief Justice," said Nightwing to Len-Tarr. "Should you need us, you know what frequency to reach us. Let's go, Bird."
The two masked men left the office, the two guards accompanying them. They were escorted back to the parking site for the capital building. The guards hung back there, and Flamebird asked, sotto voce, "You really mean to let this one go, Wing?"
"Of course not," replied Nightwing, equally softly. "Len-Tarr knows that, too. But there's no profit in making him or the Drygur look bad to their faces. This way, the government's official contact with notorious vigilantes is minimized."
"Vigilantes to them, heroes to just about everybody on Rokyn," muttered Flamebird. Then both looked to their right. Two men were approaching. One was old, the other young.
"Excuse us, tanthi," called Zor-El. "We'd like to offer our help."
Hal-Lorr added, "Amend that, Nightwing, Flamebird...we insist on offering our help."
Len-Tarr, the Chief of Justice, had guessed Separatists' Alley might be a refuge for the Zoners. But there was only one working monitor allowed there, and it was in Fhi-Zor's office, and he claimed straight-faced that neither Kara Zor-El nor the Zoners had been there. His voice was filtered in a manner as to fool stress-analyzers. Len-Tarr was still suspicious.
"I'm going to send in some Rangers to check," said Len-Tarr.
"Then I would like to invoke the Delay," said Len-Tarr. "You can wait for two days, can't you, Tanth Tarr?" His face was bland, like that of the master cardsharp he once had been.
The Delay had been an integral part of the pact made between the government of New Kandor and the Separatists. Essentially, all it was was a law allowing the Separatists' government to halt a proposed action by the federal government from taking affect for two days.
The Separatists claimed that, since their state was run a lot more loosely than that of New Kandor, it was needed to get affairs coordinated properly before the action was implemented.
In reality, as both sides knew, it was to give the Separatists time to bury evidence (and sometimes bodies), clean up appearances, figure out what to show inspectors, and decide what line of trash to talk to the Rangers that showed up.
There had been a battle over it in the Halls. But the Separatists had insisted on it, and dropped hints that there would be bloodshed if the Delay was not accepted. New Kandor could have wiped out the Separatists. But that would have meant making war on Kandorians.
And, despite the enmity between the two factions, that was something Rokynians were loath to do.
Len-Tarr finally spoke. "Two days from this moment, Chief. One second past the deadline, my men will be there for the inspection. In force. You will let them in, I'm assured."
"Looking forward to it," said Fhi-Zor, and broke the connection.
The Chief of Justice swore under his breath. He would activate the few sleeper agents he had in the Alley. But in this case, there was a high risk of disclosure. Who knew what the Zoners knew? They might have been invisibly eavesdropping on everything that occurred in Fhi-Zor's domain.
And God help the headbander agent that was caught in Separatists' Alley.
Rao help them, indeed.
Hal-Lorr and Bar-Bann were left uncuffed in one of the holding cells together. Kara Zor-El was in the cell next to them. The cells of the holding facility, as it was called, were in the basement of the city courthouse. They were walled with ferroconcrete and fronted with metal doors, each of which had a barred window at face-height and a slot a foot below that for meal-trays, which was opened with a key. There was a cot, a water-bucket, an overhead lamp, and a john inside the cells, and that was as ritzy as it got.
When Kara had been taken to the cell, one of the guards uncuffed her while the other stood in front of her with a gun. His smile indicated what he was doing to her mentally. She kept her expression sullen and neutral.
"The great Soo-per-girl," said the guy in front. "How's about it? Gonna get out of this one with your heat vision, or your super-strength? Or maybe you're just gonna blow the door off its tracks?"
Kara said nothing. She brought her freed hands in front of her and rubbed her wrists.
"O' course, we might be by for a little party later on," the thug grinned, evilly. "You know, it could be nice. I never had me a movie star."
Kara looked down at her feet.
Then, in an instant's time, she smashed her foot right up to the place in his body where he'd really feel it. Not enough to injure, but sure as Sheol enough to hurt. Before he had time to gasp, the woman's right arm scythed out and cracked him a hard karate blow to the side of the neck, jarring his gun as he held it. He dropped to the floor.
All of that took place within three seconds.
But Kara couldn't turn fast enough to avoid the guard behind her slamming a gun butt into the back of her neck. She groaned and went down on one knee. The pain of the blow, added to the abuse she'd taken from Faora, overcame her.
The standing guard pointed his gun at her and said, "You get the hell in there! Crawl!"
Gathering her strength, Kara got up, stood, and walked towards the cell. The guard yelled, "I said, crawl, dammit!"
The heroine turned to face him, cold as a cobra. "And I say...shove it."
She stepped into the cell and the metal door moved on its tracks, cutting off the cell from the corridor beyond, and locking.
Kara made her way to the cot, sat down, rubbed the hurt place on her neck, and sighed. She refused to admit defeat. There were people looking for her at that very moment. The Separatists were going to catch king-hell for harboring her during her kidnapping.
Still, if they were keeping company with Jax-Ur and his friends, something bigger than just a snatch-job was in the works. Ur and Zod never played for anything but high stakes.
Okay. Think, Kara, she told herself. Why the four of them? Why just them? There were a lot of Zoners, and Jax had worked with more than those three.
First, Jax. Obvious choice for ringleader...brilliant scientifically,
good plotter, knew how to make a Zone Projector from scratch if need be.
Plus his leadership abilities. Jax was the only
man in the Zone General Zod would defer to. There was no way Jax-Ur would be left out of any operation.
Second, General Zod. Great military tactician, the man you wanted on your side to make sure an operation worked. Excellent with nuts-and-bolts details, good leadership qualities and the ability to defer to other authority if he recognized it, a megalomaniac but not without reasoning abilities. Also a good fighter. Zod was always Jax's co-plotter. He was there to make sure things worked. So he was included.
Third, Faora Hu-Ul. The most feared fighter in the Zone. She was the muscle of the bunch, and wouldn't have been left out of any plot that had something to do with Kara. Good enough reason.
So why Vakox?
The more she thought of it, the more curious his place in the operation became. There were others who could have taken the fourth spot, including Kru-El, who had worked well with the others in the past. Vakox was only a fair fighter, didn't have the leadership qualities of the other two men. What did he have that Jax-Ur didn't?
Well, he was a biologist.
Before Kara could proceed down that track any further, she heard a boy's voice.
"Tanthi Zor-El! Tanthi Zor-El! Can you hear me? Please, talk to me!"
It was a boy, all right, and he sounded desperate...which, given
the circumstances, was
reasonable. He must have gone to the barred window in the door. Kara got up and pressed her face to the bars. All she could see was the blank concrete wall ahead.
"I'm here. Who are you?" she said.
"Tanthi Zor-El, my name's Hal-Lorr! I'm sorry...I got you into this."
"I did too, Tanthi Zor-El. My name's Bar-Bann. I'm really sorry, too."
She hesitated a second or two. "Okay, boys, maybe you can tell me what this is all about. First off, are both of you all right?"
"Yeah, we're fine," said Hal.
"This is fine?" opined Bar.
"One of you give me the story," she said. "The other can fill in details afterward. You first, Hal."
And Hal-Lorr gave her the story.
Afterward, Kara pumped Bar for what he knew, and then said, "All right, boys. As far as I'm concerned, you're forgiven."
"Thank you, tanthi," said Bar, and Hal echoed it.
"But it still doesn't tell me anything about what these guys have planned," she went on. "Did Vakox say anything about what they're working on?"
"He didn't say much of anything from the time we got into the 'craft until we came here," said Hal.
"Well, there was 'Shut up', and 'Get your head away from the door, you'd kill yourself if you jumped from up here,' and that was about it," amended Bar.
All three said nothing for a few seconds. Then Hal said, "Tanthi Zor-El, can you get us out?"
Kara held the bars in both hands. "Don't know, boys. But if I do...either you'll go with me, or I'll be back for you. That's a promise. I may not be Supergirl anymore...but I'm not licked yet."
"Thank you, Tanthi Zor-El," said Hal. "Thank you very much."
Bar-Bann said, "Tanthi Zor-El? Is it all right to ask you a question?"
"Well, we're not going anywhere just yet, so I guess you can ask it," allowed Kara. "Won't guarantee I'll answer it, but I'll try."
Bar continued, "Do you think you can take Tanthi Hu-Ul in a fight?"
Kara drew in a deep breath and then let it out. The silence hung so long Bar was about to apologize, but Kara answered him.
"I guess before this thing is over, son, we'll all find out."
Flamebird took the blindfolds off Zor-El and Hi-Lor and helped them out of the Nightcar into the Aerie. Both men looked around with awe at the equipment, the vehicles, the trophies, the uniforms, everything that made up the headquarters of Rokyn's Knights of Justice. (Flamebird liked the phrase, Nightwing hated it.)
"We don't have more than a regulation day to get this done," said Nightwing, hands on hips, facing the two newcomers. "I will tell you this once, and once only. If you go on this mission, you risk your lives and ours. This isn't a stupid holomovie. If you agree to accompany us, you will obey my orders without question. If you have any problems with that, say so now, and be taken home."
Zor-El, grim-lipped, stood silent before his host.
Hi-Lor swallowed once. Flamebird could tell the kid was nervous. But he evidently cared about Kara. He also had never seen action before. Maybe that was good...he was less likely to be afraid before they got there. Maybe.
"Are you in?" asked Nightwing.
"I am," said Zor-El, flatly.
"Count me in," said Hi-Lor. "Let's go kick their asses back to the Zone."
"Take it easy, brother," smiled Flamebird. "After you've been to Separatists' Alley, the Zone'll look like a pleasure palace."
Zor-El grated, "After I get back Kara, they'll be lucky to have enough of those scum left to put back in the Zone. What do we do?"
Nightwing gestured towards a couple of chairs, above which hung two metal hoods suspended on arms. The hoods would fit over the heads of persons who sat in the chair.
"Have a seat, please. Once we're done with this part, I'll outline the operation."
Zor-El and Hi-Lor sat in the chairs. Nightwing and Flamebird placed the metal hoods over their heads, then went to a computer and began making adjustments.
Flamebird wanted to pass small talk with Nightwing, to bring down the atmosphere of grimness. He wasn't as big a joker as Robin of Earth, but he tried to offset his partner's nature a bit.
One look at Nightwing's face told Flamebird to forget about it.
The girl who worked at the catering service that supplied the prisoners with meals wanted to go along with the guards this time because she had never seen Kara Zor-El up close and personal. A couple of new guards had replaced the ones Kara had had her encounter with, and one of them was about to read Xyla the Caterer the riot act about such stuff. But the other, Jer-Rink, had shared a few nights with the black-tressed girl, and guessed from a shift of her eyes that he just might get lucky again that night.
"Okay," he said. "This once. But you know why."
Xyla returned his gaze and smiled. "Yeah, I know why. C'mon, please, sweetie, open the gates!"
Jer turned a key in a lock, pressed his face against a plate of glass for a laser-scan identification, and heard the massive metal portal slide back on its tracks. There weren't too many cells occupied that night, and it didn't take them long to cover all the inmates that came before Kara Zor-El. She pushed her big cart of dinner trays through the echoing passageways, humming and half-singing a popular song as she went.
She had her talents, thought Jer-Rink, but what Rao had given her in one area he had not given to her vocal chords.
A couple of male inmates made jeering remarks to her and she gave them back, unruffled.
By the time she got to Kara's cell, with the guards preceding her, she was shaky-handed with excitement. Kara was sitting on her cot, washing her face with water from the bucket. Jer banged the cell door with his gun-butt. "Dinner," he called.
He unlocked the metal plate covering the slit for the tray. Xyla grinned, shyly, just like a girl in an autograph line for a movie idol.
Kara came to the door bars and took hold of the tray as they slid it through. It had a covered dish containing meat and vegetables, a small dessert in a plastic cup, and a broth-drink in a squeeze bottle. She didn't say anything, but noted the change of guards.
"Uh...Tanthi Kara?" said Xyla, looking eagerly through the bars.
"That's me, or so they say, honey," said Kara, without enthusiasm. "What's your name?"
"They call me Xyla," said the enthusiastic girl on the other side. "First off, let me tell you how much I loved you when you were Supergirl. I had so many pictures of you on the wall that my dad thought something was wrong with me. And I got one of those bikinis like you wore when you had the big match with Black Flame, you know?"
Kara grinned. "Well, thanks, Xyla. I can use all the friends I can get, right now. You're a sweetie."
"Don't get too close to the bars," warned Vir-Donn, the other guard, and prodded her back a bit with his gun barrel. She backed off.
"Well, like, I really wanted to see you...just so you could maybe remember me...when you get out," said Xyla, and pushed her face forward as close as she could before Jer grabbed her shoulder.
"That's enough, honey," he said. "Let's move on. Have that tray empty in an hour and all the dishes on it, hear me?"
"I hear you," said Kara, and took the tray back over to her cot. She uncovered the dish and began to eat. Well, not any worse than airplane food.
Xyla proceeded on the rest of her rounds. She breathed a bit easier, now. True, she was going to have to give Jer his big payoff.
But when Shyla Kor-Onn signed on to be a sleeper agent, her boss had told her that such stuff might have to be done.
Elsewhere, Fhi-Zor paid a visit to the hospital lab where all personnel had been cleared out except the four Zoners and some guards. Vakox was busy. Jax-Ur assisted him where he could, but, in the life sciences, Vakox was clearly his master.
"So you really think you can have this thing ready by the end of the Delay?" said Fhi-Zor to Jax.
Zod answered for him. "If we did not beleive we could get it done within the time alloted to the operation, sir, we would not have begun. Simple as that."
Fhi smiled outwardly while writing off General Zod as a military tight-ass he could do without, when the thing was over. Faora was overseeing a meter and reporting results to Vakox.
Jax-Ur said, "This can gestate within three hours' time. After we're done, the only thing left is to plant it, and then give the, ah, headbanders the ultimatum."
Impressive. Fhi had to ask the next question as casually as he could. "And what do they call this stuff, Jax? Any particular name?"
Vakox shot a glance at them. "Of course it's got a name," he snapped, and went back to his work.
Fhi-Zor shook his head. "Okay, okay. What is this stuff? Scarlet Jungle rot? Ultra Nosedrip? What?"
"Oh, it's got a long, complicated scientific name," smiled Jax. "But we just like to call it by its usual handle.
"We call it Virus X."