by Brian K. Asbury
Chivers was starting to clear away the breakfast dishes when Percy Sheldrake wheeled himself into the room. “Good morning, ladies. I trust you’ve breakfasted well?”
“Yes, thanks,” said Stealth, wiping her lips delicately. “Although I don’t think Rhea was very hungry.”
Rhea Jones looked down at the tablecloth. “Er… sorry, your, er, earlship, sir, I…”
Percy laughed. “Please don’t think you have to stand on ceremony, Rhea, just because I have a fancy title. The only reason for that is that an ancestor of mine centuries ago distinguished himself by committing a few timely acts of violence upon some enemies of his king. Please call me Percy — dreadful name for anybody to be saddled with, I know, but it’s the best one I have. You really wouldn’t want to hear the horrible collection of middle names my parents foisted upon me!”
Rhea giggled. Stealth smiled and got up from her chair. “You’re a good host, Percy. Considering how we beat up on your friends yesterday, I’m grateful that you even want to know us, much less feed us.” She approached him and gave him a peck on the cheek.
“You couldn’t help what you did under the influence of that evil man,” said Percy. “But you both seem good people, really. So I’m only too happy to have you stay here as long as you want.” He turned to Rhea. “If an English breakfast doesn’t suit you, I can have cook prepare something more to your taste. I’m sure she could manage some hash browns or whatever you prefer.”
“Er, no, it’s OK, er, Percy,” Rhea replied. “I’ve never been, y’know, much on breakfasts, since I was a kid. And to be honest, this morning I’m feeling a little, er…” She patted her stomach under the T-shirt loaned to her by Sandie Bremmer.
“Queasy?” offered Percy.
“Yeah. Dunno why…”
“Probably aftereffects of what Count Vertigo did to you. Chivers, please fetch Miss Jones an Alka-Seltzer, please.” The butler nodded and left the room.
“If that’s so, it doesn’t seem to have affected me,” said Stealth. “I feel fine. Appetite like a Durlan zgorvint this morning.”
“Yes, but you’re not human,” said Rhea.
“True,” Stealth admitted. She crossed to a chair and draped her white-clad figure over it, catlike.
Rhea found her way to another chair, and Percy wheeled himself toward them. “So, ladies, to business. We need to discuss whether the two of you want to have any role in our mission to deal with the Dominator presence on Earth.”
“Well, of course you can count me in,” said Stealth. “What makes you think I wouldn’t want to get involved — and Rhea, too, after what Vertigo did to us?”
“Right!” agreed Rhea, although looking slightly less sure of herself.
Percy steepled his hands. “The point, though, ladies, is that Count Vertigo is now behind bars. The Dominators are a different matter entirely. The Paladins have been involved in an ongoing conflict with them for some time.”
“And you don’t consider that our battle?” said Stealth.
“I didn’t say that. The question is, do you consider it to be your fight, or is your grievance purely against Count Vertigo?”
Stealth thought about this momentarily. “Vertigo messed with our minds — even made us think we were in love with him…” In the other chair, Rhea nodded in agreement, a pained expression on her face. “…but he couldn’t have done that if the Dominators hadn’t modified his powers. I owe them for that. And I never did like the butt-ugly disk-heads, anyway. Besides, I’m stuck on this planet. The last thing I want to see is it overrun by the Dominion. What they do to worlds they take over isn’t pretty.”
Percy wheeled his chair closer. “About that, Stealth — being ‘stuck on this planet,’ I mean. It needn’t be so, you know. There are other aliens on Earth, some of whom have transportation. I’m sure one of the Green Lanterns, for example, would be happy to take you home.”
Stealth snickered. “Home? Oh, boy…”
“Did I say something funny?”
“Not intentionally,” said Stealth. “But believe me, Percy, home is the last place I want to go. You have no idea what it’s like there.”
Rhea stood up and moved to confront Stealth. “Hey,” she said, “don’t diss Percy’s offer just like that, y’know. He doesn’t know what you told me. An’ you said there are lots of planets out there that you’ve visited. If you don’t like Earth and you don’t wanna go home, there must be someplace else you can go.”
Stealth raised her hands. “OK, OK. I didn’t mean any disrespect, honey. But who says I don’t like Earth? Sure, it’s a bit more primitive than I’m used to, but it’s kind of fun here. And I’ve got my reasons for wanting to stay a little while longer.” She turned to Percy. “So, thanks for the offer, sugar, but no thanks for now.”
“But you said–” began Rhea.
“Rhea, honey, I know we shared some girl talk back at Vertigo’s castle, but I didn’t tell you all of my secrets.”
Rhea fell silent and went back to her chair. There’s more going on here than meets the eye, thought Percy. Last night, I had the distinct impression that Stealth had been trying to find a way off-planet. But now… I wonder what her agenda really is.
“Very well,” he said, as Chivers returned with a glass of fizzing liquid and handed it to Rhea. “I can count you both in, then?” The two women nodded.
“What about Firebrand?” said Stealth. “Where’s she this morning? Did she run out on us?”
“No,” Percy said. “She’s back in Vlatava.”
“What?!” Rhea almost spilled her Alka-Seltzer.
“My friend and colleague the Knight persuaded her to take him there on an intelligence-gathering mission. We felt it best to find out whether the Dominators had any more surprises waiting for us there before we moved in in force.”
“Sensible thinking,” said Stealth. “But just one question, honey. When we do move in ‘in force,’ how exactly do we get there? You don’t have access to a teleporter or space-warper, and from what I gathered while we were there, Vlatava isn’t exactly the most open and welcoming place on this planet.”
“I’m working on that,” said Percy. “I used to be in the hero business myself, you know. I still have certain… connections…”
The arrow sped straight and true, piercing the gold area of the target dead center. “Wow!” said David Sheldrake, looking from each of the targets to the other. “Every one a bull’s-eye! How do you do that?”
Tom Archer, the Bowman of Britain, lowered his bow and grinned. “Practice, son; practice.”
“I’ll bet even Green Arrow couldn’t better that!”
“Oh, he could — take it from me,” said Tom. “I’ve seen him in action, and he’s awesome, believe me. You know that classic Robin Hood routine of splitting one arrow with another? I’ve never managed it yet, but I’ve seen G.A. do it. Of course, though, what he can’t do is this…” He raised the bow without nocking a shaft to it and concentrated. The shimmering outline of an arrow appeared as he drew back the string. Then he let it fly at a discarded Coke can sitting next to the archery butts.
It exploded in a shower of molten metal.
“Bloody hell!” exclaimed David. “How did you do that?”
Tom lowered his weapon. “This is no ordinary bow, David. It’s an ancient weapon called the Thunderbow. It creates something called arrows of the imagination. That’s what I fired at the can.”
“Can I try it?”
Tom smiled at the young Squire. He swapped bows with him. “You can, but you won’t get it to work. I don’t really know why, but it works only for me.”
David raised the bow, pointed it towards one of the butts, and started to draw back the string. But no ghostly arrow appeared. He screwed up his face in frustration, but nothing happened. “Wild,” he said. “You’re right. It doesn’t want to work for me.” He handed it back to Tom and took back his own, more modern tournament bow. “You didn’t always have this though, did you? Uncle Percy worked with you when he was the Knight, and he’s told me all about those times. But he never mentioned this.”
“No, it’s a recent acquisition. I… David?”
He stared at the teenager, who seemed to have frozen to the spot. He waved a hand in front of David’s face, but there was no reaction. “What–?”
Then he looked up to see a hooded, robed figure striding toward him from the archery butts. “Herne?” he said.
“Thomas, we need to talk,” said the legendary figure.
Tom allowed himself a wry twist of the mouth as Herne came closer. “Don’t tell me that every time I allow somebody else to touch the Thunderbow you’re going to show up and tell me off!” he said.
A smile showed beneath Herne’s hood. “No, Thomas. Your allowing the boy to try the bow has nothing to do with my appearance here.” He came right up to the pair and touched David’s head. “He has skill and is a worthy young companion, but you were right — he lacks the wherewithal to use the Thunderbow’s powers. They are for you only, my friend.”
“What have you done to him exactly?”
“I have merely suspended him in time while we talk, Thomas.”
“Talk about what?”
The expression on the hooded man’s face was grave. “I have to give you some important advice, Thomas. You and your friends must make haste, or great evil will devastate this land of Albion.”
“The evil you spoke of when you sent me to the Cotswolds to help the Paladins out yesterday?”
Herne nodded. “Unfortunately, this action seems to have accelerated the approach of the real peril, my friend. You and these Paladins have thwarted them twice now, and they are plotting a terrible revenge upon not only yourselves but this entire realm.”
“You’re talking about the Dominion, aren’t you?” said Tom thoughtfully. “Percy told me about them last night. They’re the ones who are really behind Count Vertigo.” Herne nodded again. “And you say they’re threatening the whole of England. How?”
“They have a weapon not of this world of ours, Thomas, and they are making ready to use it. It is a weapon of death on a vast scale.”
“Great Scott! How many people’s lives are we talking about, here? Thousands? Millions?”
“You misunderstand, Thomas. The weapon does not kill people — it kills plant life. It is capable of defoliating the whole of this island of the mighty, changing its green and pleasant land into a barren, sterile desert.”
“Oh, my God…”
“It would be an environmental disaster such has not been seen on Earth for many thousands of years, Thomas, and it would not only be a disaster for Albion. Killing off her forests would have an effect on weather patterns which would be felt worldwide!”
Tom rubbed his eyes. “I see what you meant by devastating. It wouldn’t kill people, but it would certainly destroy their lives.” He looked straight at Herne. “Look, my friend, this may well be out of our league. As a team, we’re only just getting started, and I honestly don’t know whether we have the raw power we’d need to defeat an enemy with that kind of technology at their disposal. But you, on the other hand, seem to have absolutely awesome powers. Will you help us to take on the Dominators?”
Herne’s cowl shook. “I am tied to this land of Albion, Thomas. I cannot leave her shores — and if her greenwoods are destroyed, I will be destroyed with them. I am afraid that this mission is for you and your fellow mortals to accomplish.”
“But–” Tom began.
“Tom? What just happened?”
Tom turned to see David blinking his eyes furiously, obviously aware that something had just been done to him but not sure what, exactly.
“Just a sec, David. Look, Herne, if you can’t help us directly, maybe you can…”
“Who are you talking to?” asked David. It was Tom’s turn to blink in amazement as he realized that Herne was gone.
He turned to David once more. “Target practice is over,” he said. “We need to go and talk to your uncle. There’s more at stake here than any of us realized!”
New Scotland Yard, London, England:
“Sit down, please, Mr. Hawkins,” said Ken Hanson, indicating the chair on the other side of his desk.
Wayne Hawkins looked at the chair, sneered, then turned it around and sat on it back to front. “You can’t hold me here, man. I know my rights. I’m an American citizen.”
“I’m afraid you’re wrong. I can hold you; in fact, the FBI have specifically asked me to do so.”
“Why? I ain’t done nothing.”
“Hey, that stuff with Count Vertigo wasn’t my fault, dude. The guy messed with my head. If you’re gonna hold me f’r that, you gotta hold them three chicks, too. They was all involved just as much as I was.”
Ken shuffled the papers on his desk. “The Home Office has already accepted my recommendation that the four of you should be absolved of responsibility for that incident, Mr. Hawkins, otherwise Stealth, Lodestone, and Firebrand would, indeed, be here.”
“Then you ain’t got no cause to hold me here. I’m leavin’.” Wayne got up and made for the door. However, a young black woman who had been standing silently at the back of the room beat him to it. “Outta my way, sister!” Wayne grunted.
“I’d like to see you try moving me,” said Sandie Bremmer with a grin. She twisted the rings on her middle fingers and suddenly transformed into a glowing white silhouette blocking the door.”
Wayne sneered. “You don’t get it, babe. Nobody stops me. Nobody can touch me.”
“Don’t bet on it, Wayne,” said Hanson, rising from his desk. “We’ve sussed how your powers work, I’m afraid. If someone tries to hit you, or grab you, or even touch you if you don’t want to be touched, you somehow cause a short-circuit in their brains, and they miss, or generally foul up the attempt in some way.”
“However,” said Sandie, “I’m not going to make any kind of move against you. I’m just going to stand here in front of the door. To get through it, you’ll have to move me. And I wouldn’t recommend touching my energized form. I’m told it’s an extremely painful experience.”
Wayne rounded on Hanson. “You can’t do this! I ain’t done nothin’, man!”
Hanson indicated for him to resume his seat. He reluctantly did so. “Yes, you have, Wayne. According to the FBI, you’re wanted for the murder of a police officer in Kansas City, Missouri.”
“Hey, that was an accident, man! I didn’t kill that cop! He fell over the balcony in the city mall.”
“I know.” Hanson referred to the notes. “He tried to apprehend you for stealing a portable stereo cassette player, but when he tried to grab you, he tripped over his own feet and was pitched over the rail.”
“See what I mean? I didn’t kill him, man! In fact, I tried to save him! Does your paperwork tell ya that I grabbed his hand but couldn’t hold on to it?”
“Yes, it does. It also says that if you’d let go of the stolen ghetto blaster with your other hand, you could probably have saved him.”
“Yeah… but I’d have broken it, dude!” Wayne said sulkily.
Hanson shook his head. “I have papers here that authorize me to return you to Kansas City for trial. However, there is an alternative. As a super-villain, you’re hardly a Luthor or even in the Mirror Master’s league. So I’m also authorized to offer you a chance to be part of a rehab scheme for offending meta-humans in the United States.”
“A rehab scheme, Wayne. A chance to make amends for your felonious life so far by doing some good. Tell me — have you ever heard of the Meta-Human Rehabilitation Agency?”