by Brian K. Asbury
The Socialist Republic of Vlatava in the Balkans:
A streak of light weaved its way between the jagged peaks of the Balkan mountain range, behaving in a way that no streak of light should have been behaving. Sometimes it slowed, sometimes it went faster. Sometimes it seemed to stop altogether, becoming a blazing yellow fireball that looked for all the world as if it were scanning around and trying to get its bearings. Then it would move on again, as if seeking somewhere specific.
And then it suddenly dipped down toward a small, though dense patch of woodland halfway up one of the less-imposing mountains and overlooking a valley that contained a picturesque village and, nestled atop one of the hills opposite, the dark, brooding shape of a medieval castle.
The phenomenon streaked down into the trees and abruptly stopped just a few inches from the ground. There, it blazed even brighter momentarily, expanding out and then just as quickly coalescing into two human shapes.
The man blinked and took in his surroundings. “My… God! That is one str-ange sensation!” He patted his chest as if to make sure he was all there. There was a chink of metal from beneath the dull brown overall he wore.
The young woman accompanying him, by contrast, looked completely at ease. “Are you OK?” she asked. “Most people find that pretty disorientating the first time.”
He put down his duffel bag and looked around. “It’s the suddenness of it that’s disconcerting,” he said. “Even with teleporting you’re aware that something is happening. But one minute you were touching my hand back in England, the next… we’re just here. And no sensation of anything in between!” He looked at her with his head cocked to one side. “And weren’t you a redhead a moment ago?”
The girl smiled. “A few hours ago, actually, Knight. But while I was here with Vertigo, I didn’t see too many people with red hair, so I decided to go for the dark ‘geepsy’ look. “She shook her black curls. “Like it?”
“It suits you, actually, Firebrand. I didn’t realize that shape-shifting was among your many talents.”
She shrugged. “I can change my mass to energy. Compared to that, changing the colour of parts of it when I convert back is a doddle.” She grinned. “And it’s one up on Godiva, isn’t it? She’s stuck as a blonde, so I believe.”
“Mmmm,” said the Knight, thoughtfully. He peered through the trees toward the village below. “You say we took several hours to get here? I thought you could travel at the speed of light.”
“I can, Rusty. But have you ever tried navigating at the speed of light? Vlatava isn’t that easy to find, you know, and when I was here before, I didn’t exactly travel under my own steam. Even leaving, we teleported out.
“And then again, remember that we’re behind the Iron Curtain here. I had to come in slow and low — I didn’t want to be detected by Soviet radar, or God knows what would have happened. They’d have probably mistaken me for an incoming American cruise missile and triggered off World War III!”
“So, is that Vlatavograd down there? I’d have thought it would be bigger than that.”
“It is. That’s just the village to the east of Vertigo’s castle.”
“Which is that charming residence on the hillside?” the Knight said. Firebrand nodded. “All right, then. Shall we go and investigate?”
As they walked to the edge of the woods, Peregrine Redhawk, the Knight, reached into his duffel bag. Rebecca Bennett, AKA Firebrand, stared at him. “You’re not seriously thinking of wearing that down there, are you?” she said as he adjusted the visored helmet before placing it on his head.
“Hardly,” he replied. “However, my comms equipment is built into here. Also the visor’s telescopic. I’d like to take a look at the ramparts of that castle before we go out there. I assume you didn’t actually fly over it?”
“I was trying not to be seen, remember? I’m not that daft.”
“Of course.” He halted and adjusted a control next to his earpiece. “Knight to Rook, come in.”
There was a pause, then a voice responded. Perry adjusted the controls so that Firebrand would be able to hear it, too. “Rook here. I’m glad to hear your voice. We were starting to get worried about you.”
“It’s OK. Firebrand just decided to take the pretty route.”
Firebrand scowled. “I didn’t realize you were partial to crashing through mountains at the speed of light,” she muttered, “or I’d have made it more direct.”
Perry ignored the comment. “We’re overlooking the village near the castle now, Percy. How are our guests?”
“The ladies aren’t up yet, Perry. I thought I’d let them sleep in after everything that happened yesterday.”
“All right for some,” muttered Firebrand.
“Tom — the Bowman — is already out getting in some target practice with David. I think he’ll make a fine addition to the team. Sandie went back to London with Superintendent Hanson and that Hawkins character, but she should be back here this afternoon. And Dorcas hasn’t returned yet. She phoned just after the two of you left to say she was going up to Newcastle. She didn’t explain why.”
“Well,” said the Knight, “there’s no immediate hurry.” He turned up the magnification on his visor. “I can’t see any movement on the battlements. Looks very quiet — maybe deserted.”
Percy Sheldrake’s voice said, “Well, just remember you’re on a reconnaissance mission. We know that there are other people in that castle, and it may well be where the Dominators are hiding, too. One Dominator very nearly finished the four of you once — don’t try to take them on without the rest of the team.”
“I’d hardly do that, Percy, even with Firebrand’s power. Besides, I don’t even have my armor — just your old outfit under this overall.”
“Really?” Firebrand said. “You mean it isn’t in that duffel bag?”
“Suits of armor that fold up small and light enough to fit in an attaché case don’t exist outside of comic books, Firebrand,” said Perry, smiling. “OK, Percy, we’re going to go down into the village and take a look around. Knight out.”
“Take care, both of you. Rook out.”
Wordenshire Castle, England:
Percival Sheldrake, Earl of Wordenshire, turned off the microphone. He smiled at the irony. It seemed strange to be hearing someone else calling himself Knight, but he had resigned himself by now to the fact that Perry was making the role his own. A very different, more high-tech Knight than he had ever been, and with full plate armor rather than the chain mail that had been his own trademark, but he was a worthy Knight nevertheless. Now he, Percy, was the Rook — the mentor, host, and financial backer of this new team. A different role, but an important one.
He rang for Chivers, his butler. “Has Godiva telephoned again yet?” he asked.
“Not yet, my lord. Shall I contact Superintendent Hanson and ask if he can help trace her?”
Percy smiled. “I hardly think that’s necessary, Chivers. I’m sure she’ll be back when she has dealt with whatever matter has taken her up north. However,” he said, “I think it is time that you called our two young lady guests in the Lilac Room down for breakfast. They’ve had the night to consider their future — let’s find out what they have decided, eh?”
The slim, red-haired woman stood admiring her figure, silhouetted beneath a filmy negligee, in the full-length mirror. “D’you think I should, y’know, get my belly button pierced?”
The other woman, lying lazily naked on one of the beds, stretched her tawny limbs and laughed. “What for?”
“I dunno. Just seems like, maybe a good idea. Kinda sexy, y’know?”
Her roommate laughed again. “You humans have some bizarre notions, you know. Driving holes through parts of your body to make yourselves more attractive to potential mates!”
The redhead blushed. “That wasn’t what I meant, Stealth!”
“You sure, honey? I’ve been on this planet a while now, and I’m a pretty good observer. You humans are always trying to make your appearance more interesting to attract mates. Take our former teammate Wayne — with his aversion to bathing, he probably has difficulty attracting women, so he’s covered himself in rings and studs and tattoos to try to get their attention another way.” She paused. “The Khunds, now — they’re different. They adorn themselves with trophies taken from their enemies to make themselves look fierce. If you see a Khund wearing an earring, he’s probably ripped it, bloody and dripping, from a vanquished foe’s prosthetic heart while he was still alive!”
“Eurgghh. That’s horrible!”
“Sorry, Rhea, babe, but it’s the way of the universe. Diff’rent strokes, as you say here on Earth.”
Rhea tried to put the picture out of her mind and turned back to her reflection. Besides, the way Stealth was flaunting her nakedness on the bed was… disconcerting. Was the alien woman trying to suggest something? She hoped not. “Godiva has a navel ring,” she said, trying to steer back to the original subject.
“Oh, come on!” scoffed Stealth. “You can’t possibly know that. You’ve only seen her with her midriff covered up, same as I have.”
Rhea turned to face her. “I can see stuff other people can’t,” she said. “It’s these weird eyes of mine, y’know.” She indicated her totally white eyes, which showed no trace of iris or pupil. “I can see magnetic fields, and any trace of metal changes the way they look. F’r instance, I know the Earl has fillings in most of his teeth and a steel pin in his hip. An’ Godiva has a dinky little gold ring in her belly button. She wears an ankle chain, too.”
“Fascinating. Almost like x-ray vision.”
“Not quite. I can only see metal. Although…”
“Well, different folks have slightly different magnetic fields. I s’pose if I practiced, I could identify people from the way their fields look. I’ve never really tried, though.”
Stealth sat up, fascinated, her unbound white hair bouncing down to her bare breasts. “You should. It could prove very useful. Hey — what’s my magnetic field look like?”
Rhea’s eyes screwed up. “Weird. Like, totally weird. Like nobody else’s I’ve ever seen.”
“Only to be expected. I was born on a planet whose magnetic field was completely different from Earth’s. We’re also a species like no other. We’re…”
Whatever she was about to add was interrupted by a knock at the door. “Ladies? Are you awake?”
“Then his lordship sends his compliments and asks if you would join him for breakfast.”
“Mind if we take a bath first?” said Stealth.
“As you wish, madam. I shall advise his lordship to expect you in about an hour.”
Stealth fell back, laughing. “So what d’you say, Rhea, honey? Shall we hit the tub together?”
Rhea felt herself reddening. “Er… no, I don’t think so. You go first…”
“OK, as you wish.” Stealth skipped lightly from the bed and made for the in-suite bathroom, pausing at the door and giving a little grin and a wiggle of her pert bottom in Rhea’s direction before going through.
Rhea slumped back on her own bed and exhaled deeply. She made a mental note to ask the Earl if she could possibly have a room to herself while she was staying here.