by Immortalwildcat and Brian K. Asbury
From an onion-shaped tower high above the capitol city of Qurac, a cynical eye watched the events transpiring on the outskirts of the city. A large contingent of the Quraci Elite Guard rushed to surround an alien ship that had landed in a field.
“Absolute, absurd luck! That’s all that brought that ship down! Hoo-hoo, I don’t think my buddy Qatar has any idea what the hell he’s doing down there! I know I don’t!”
The Joker had chosen to remain in the background for this little skirmish. Several days of television coverage had led him to the conclusion that whatever time Qatar Hussein might buy for himself and his nation would be little respite should the invasion force decide that Hussein had reached the end of his usefulness. “No reason for me to stick my neck out that far. I may be crazy, yessiree, but I’m not stupid! And just in case things get too ugly, I’m prepared.” He reached down to idly run a hand over the grenade launcher that leaned against the windowsill, with a half-dozen gas canisters lined up on the floor next to it.
Down below, a pair of soldiers in desert camouflage walked cautiously up to the crashed ship. Behind them, the leader of their nation exhorted on the excellent work of the communications team that had convinced the Durlan fighter ship to land. It had taken several attempts by his American-trained translators to find a language that the aliens understood. It was a dialect of Russian that turned out to be understood by the Durlans’ communications system.
Before they reached the ship, a panel on its top pushed out a couple of inches, then slid to one side. Two humanoid figures rose into view on a lift platform. They were both about five feet tall, both had orange skin, pointed ears, and a pair of antenna protruding from their fedoras. They each glanced around, each of them focusing on different persons in the crowd. As the Quracis watched, the figures seemed to melt, their skin flowing into new configurations. When they were done, both looked like native Quraci citizens, each of them taking on a combination of the features they had observed.
“To whom did I speak on the communicator?” asked one of the aliens in Russian.
An elderly Quraci, dressed in well-worn fatigues, spoke up. “That was me, honored one. I asked you to parlay at the request of my country’s leader.”
“Does this leader not speak for himself?“
“I must speak for him, as he knows not this language.”
“What does he want?”
“He, and all of us in glorious Qurac, wish to help your people destroy the western nations.”
“And he desires, in return, what?“
“Dominion over this region. We can provide maps showing the precise area.”
The Durlan pair turned to each other and spoke in a language that nobody present could understand. When they finished, they turned back to look directly at Qatar Hussein. “Tell your leader he is an arrogant, deluded fool. Why should we bother to seek his aid, when we could just as easily lay waste to this whole pathetic mud-ball of a planet?”
Hussein could not understand a bit of the language, but he could recognize the sounds of laughter from the pair. Far above, the Joker also realized where this conversation was now going. He spied Hussein pulling a pistol from his belt, and he knew that it would not do his host one bit of good unless he intervened. “Well, looks like it’s time to field-test the grenade canisters. Hope Qatar doesn’t mind me messing up his boys a little.”
Hefting the launcher to his shoulder, the Joker grasped one of the gas canisters and fixed it into place. He sighted the place where the Durlans’ feet met the ground, and fired.
The Durlans jumped as something struck the ground between them. The object exploded, releasing a cloud of sweet-smelling, clinging green gas. One of the Durlans extended his neck, trying to get his head out of the gas, but it was absorbed through his skin. Unlike the two humans who were caught in the gas cloud, the Durlans did not start laughing uncontrollably. The gas had a far different effect on them, as their flesh blistered and burned. As Hussein ordered his people back into the city, the screams of the dying Durlans filled the air.
In the void of space, somewhere between the orbital paths of Jupiter and Saturn, a ragtag assemblage of ships faced off against a squadron of Gordanian fighters. Flashes of light streaked through the darkness to erupt in dazzling displays of color as metal and polymers vaporized.
“We can’t take much more of this, Hal!” cried a distressed John Stewart as he pulled back on the control yoke of his ship. He was pressed into the seat as the nose of the ship drew, from their perspective, up and away from the looming ship before him. Electrical bursts ran down the side of the Gordanian ship like a burning fuse, until they reached the tail of the ship. John felt the explosion pushing against the bottom of his spacecraft even as he scanned the area around him for his next target.
“I know, John. I’m running on reserve power, myself!” Hal Jordan pulled back on one control rod and pressed forward on the other, then quickly brought both back to their center positions. The resulting opposing forces as his port engine drove forward and the starboard engine pressed back whipped his ship around ninety degrees in a tight circle. This presented his opponent with a narrower target, and also positioned him for a direct shot with his ship’s plasma torpedoes. “Being able to generate torpedoes directly from energy is fine, but I’ve reached the point where this baby needs to recharge for a while!”
“We’ve been fighting a holding action here for days, and we’re getting nowhere! We need to get to Oa!” added Katma Tui. She was flying one of the most maneuverable ships among the Darkstars team and was using it to deliver surgical laser strikes to their opponents. She thumbed the firing stud once more and watched as one of the Gordanian ships lost its sensor grid in a blinding display of dying electronics. “Ch’p, target G-4-H is running blind! Can you take it out?”
“I’m on it!” chirped the diminutive being at the controls of the largest of their ships. Designed to be manned by several hundred creatures of his size, automation allowed Ch’p to pilot the ship and operate its arsenal of particle-beam weapons. Katma watched, and the walnut-shaped craft skidded across the bow of the blinded Gordanian ship and unleashed several bolts of charged atoms across the vacuum of space. The ship exploded in a swirling miasma of glowing matter.
“Nice shooting, runt!”
“Way to run off those poozers, Ch’p!”
Salaak and Kilowog both offered their congratulations even as Ch’p moved on to another target. It was not necessary. The remaining Gordanian ships turned back toward Pluto, where the hulking mass of the Warworld awaited.
“Shall we follow, Hal?” asked Kilowog.
“No. Let’s head back to Earth and rethink this!” replied Hal Jordan, leader of the recently formed team of de-powered Green Lanterns known as the Darkstars.
As the smoke cleared and the maintenance bots bustled around to extinguish the flames and clear the debris, Lex Luthor wiped his face with a damp cloth and shrugged. Oh, well! It had been a long shot, but some of the machine’s components had been so corroded with age that it was a miracle it had even powered up at all. Garguax would not be happy at its destruction, but Garguax could go hang.
The more time he spent here on the Moon, the more Luthor was becoming convinced that the obese green-skinned alien was a charlatan. He suspected that most of the machines and weapons in his collection had either been stolen or jury-rigged from devices originally built to fulfill another purpose. Garguax was a mere tinkerer — no inventor or real scientist. What, Luthor wondered, could he genuinely claim was his own creation? And speak of the devil, he thought, as the fat extraterrestrial waddled into the lab.
“Luthor! What in Gorax’s name have you done? My machine! My beautiful machine!”
Luthor snorted with derision. “Your beautiful machine had probably lain around for years, gathering dust, rust, and those quaint little metal-eating insects you brought with you from your home planet. Even so, I almost got it working. It just couldn’t handle the power. Some of its components were too far gone.”
“What were you trying to do?” demanded Garguax, his eyes still wide in shock.
“Do? I was trying to get off this rock, Garguax! I need the tools and equipment I have back in my lair on Earth. The stuff you have here is either inadequate or as neglected as that heap of slag was. You said it yourself — with all the activity going on around Earth, we wouldn’t stand a chance of reaching it in a ship. If I’d been able to fix your dimensional transporter, I could’ve opened up a wormhole and simply ferried my equipment through.”
“Inter-dimensional transporter? Is that what it was?”
Luthor glared at him incredulously. “You mean you didn’t even know? Jesus!” He made for the door. “I’m going to get cleaned up. Then I’ll take a look at some of your other junk and see if I can’t come up with something to do the job from scratch.”
Garguax held up a pudgy green hand. “Wait! I want to discuss something with you.”
“It can wait. Neither of us is going anywhere while those ships are blockading Earth.”
“It concerns the girl.”
Luthor stopped in his tracks. “What about her?”
Garguax wiped a grease spot from his mouth. “Simply that I think it is time we disposed of her. She consumes food and drink unproductively, and you still have not gotten any information from her.”
Consumes food and drink? thought Luthor. You’ve got to be kidding, my fat friend. She eats less than a hundredth of the mountain of stuff you cram in your bloated mouth every day! “That’s another reason I need to get to my lair,” he said aloud. “Look, Garguax, it’s obvious that she has been trained to resist torture and drugs — I’d have broken her in the first day otherwise. And she has no fear of even mutilation. Why should she, when her regenerative powers heal up even the most crippling or disfiguring of wounds? Damn it, I even tried amputating both of her arms, and they grew back within twenty-four hours!”
“I know!” giggled Garguax. “Her screams were delicious. Yes, she does have entertainment value, I’ll grant you that!”
Luthor scowled. “I didn’t do it for pleasure, Garguax. I was trying to get her to talk. I still don’t know why she sprung me from jail or what her connection with Brainiac is. And she was talking to someone on hyperwave when you captured her. We don’t know who, because she wiped the ship’s log before you reeled her in. That information may be crucial to our operation here.”
“What operation? The invaders–“
“Invaders! Hah! Earth has been invaded before, my green friend, and Superman and his long underwear brigade have always beaten them off. This is bigger, granted, but the result will be the same. And even if it isn’t — well, whoever wins this battle will be sorely weakened. We’ll be able to move in and smash them before they can even catch their breath.”
“You seem very confident,” said Garguax doubtfully.
“I am. With your plastic army and my modifications to them and to the other weapons you have here, we’ll be irresistible.” He made to leave again.
“Even so,” said Garguax. “The girl — we don’t need her. I think we should just throw her out of an airlock, and good riddance to bad rubbish. Or would you like to take some pleasure from her first?” He licked his rubbery lips. “Of course. I should have remembered what strong appetites you Earthmen have. Very well, let us both take pleasure from her together, and then–“
“No!” snapped Luthor, genuinely disgusted. “Look, I have a device which can rip the information I want directly from her mind in minutes, if only I can get to it. And then we kill her, Garguax. And quickly and cleanly. She got me out of jail, so I owe her that much.” He pushed past. “And now, if you don’t mind, I still want to go get cleaned up.”
Garguax let him go, then slowly turned to follow, shaking his head. “Earthmen. So full of contradictions!“
Neither of them saw a figure stir on the other side of the lab — a figure that seemed to be partially inside a solid bank of computer equipment. The black-haired girl slowly moved into a sitting position, ignoring the maintenance bots, whose mass sensors did not seem to detect her. She pulled her legs out of the solid cabinet and looked around her. Muttering to herself in a strange language, she rose unsteadily to her feet, coughed, and walked through the wall.