by Brian K. Asbury
Somewhere in London:
Edward Stacker looked the tall blond man who stood before him up and down with a critical eye. “You understand the importance of this mission?”
“Of course, sir,” the other replied in a strong South London accent. “The target is to be returned to us by any means necessary.”
“You’ve studied the training tapes? You understand just how powerful she is?”
“Yes, sir. However, that power makes her vulnerable to a surprise attack. She’s too dependent on it. She’s a bloody useless hand-to-hand combatant. That’s my opinion, sir.”
“You can stop calling me sir, Plante,” Stacker said. “You’re not in the SAS now, and I’m not your sergeant major.” He seated himself behind his desk and lit up a cigarette. “I didn’t want to use you yet, of course. Some of the technology built into that battle-suit hasn’t been tested as thoroughly as I’d have liked.”
The man called Plante made no effort to follow Stacker’s lead and sit, but remained standing stiffly. “Nevertheless, si… guv’nor… I’ve put everything through its paces, and I’m happy with its performance. The suit needs a thorough test in the field. I’m ready, if it is.”
“I’m sure you are, Plante. I’m sure you are.” Stacker inhaled deeply on his cigarette. “Remember, though, that the target is not alone. According to my source at Scotland Yard, she was released into the custody of the Earl of Wordenshire, pending the tying-off of red tape regarding her part in Count Vertigo’s terrorist assault on that village in the Cotswolds. Some of her new allies, like Godiva, are known quantities. Others… well, let’s just say that their capabilities have not been fully catalogued. This new Knight, for instance, has technology at his disposal that may be the equal of anything we have been able to give you.”
“I doubt that,” said Plante, with a sardonic smile on his lips. He raised his left hand. “They tell me the EM disruptor built into this gauntlet is based on Atlantean technology captured after the fish-men attacked South Wales. It’ll take out Firebrand, and it should neatly short out every circuit in the Knight’s armor. With any luck, it’ll even give that weird Cameo bird a nasty shock.”
“Let’s hope so,” said Stacker. He glanced at the desk clock. “It’s time,” he said. “If you start out now, you should arrive at Wordenshire Castle in time for afternoon tea.”
Plante snickered. “It’s not a laughing matter, old boy,” Stacker scolded. “Percy Sheldrake is a man of habit and a firm believer in keeping up old English traditions. I guarantee that everyone in the castle will be sitting down to tea with the lord of the manor at that time. They won’t be in costume or ready for battle. You will have the element of surprise firmly on your side.”
Plante merely nodded. He picked up his silver and black helmet and secured it on his head. “I’ll get started, then,” he said.
Stacker returned the nod, and the two men exited the room, emerging in a small courtyard exposed to the sky. “Good luck,” Stacker said.
“I won’t need luck, guv’nor — they will.” Plante activated a control in his gauntlet, and jets ignited in his boots, propelling him into the air. As he cleared the courtyard walls, he called back over his shoulder to his chief. “They’ve never faced the likes of me before,” he yelled. “No bunch of amateur super-heroes is going to be a match for… Lionheart!“
As she fell, Godiva willed her hair to expand and harden, wrapping around her to form a harness and glider wings. She also sent out one tendril to grab the Squire as he fell past her. “Th-thanks,” he gasped as she reeled him in.
She looked around. Lodestone had used her magnetic powers to halt her own fall and had also managed to snare Stealth in her magnetic field, but Cameo and the Bowman were still falling. As she watched, she saw the blue-clad archer fire an arrow toward the hovering but disoriented Salaak, wrapping a silken line around the inhuman Green Lantern’s legs to halt his own fall.
“What the–?!” Salaak gasped as the sudden shift in weight wrenched him down before his ring could adjust. “What are you doing, you crazy human?”
“Saving my life — if you don’t mind!” cried Tom Archer.
“Ah, yes. Sorry. Confused there a moment,” said Salaak.
“Salaak!” shouted Godiva. “Anybody! Sandie’s still falling! I can’t reach her!”
Salaak needed no further encouragement. Trailing the bemused Bowman of Britain behind him, he dived toward the falling Cameo, only to see her change from human form to a two-dimensional, glowing white silhouette. As she did so, her rate of fall changed from a plummet to a gentle glide.
“I didn’t know she could do that!” said the Squire.
“Neither did I,” Godiva mused. “Her changed form must be nearly weightless. Pretty handy when you’re in this kind of situation. Salaak!” she shouted. “Don’t touch her! Her energy form disrupts living flesh!”
Salaak merely grunted and power-ringed a platform under the slowly falling heroine. As Cameo landed on it, she rotated the rings on her hands and became human once more, scowling up at the Green Lantern. “Just what the hell do you call that?” she spat. “Are you trying to kill us all?”
“Yeah, you pickle-faced maroon!” agreed Lodestone, alighting on the platform with Stealth. “You’re supposed to be on our side!”
“Easy, ladies,” said the Bowman as a power-ringed hand transferred him to the platform too. “I’m sure that was an accident. Wasn’t it, Green Lantern?”
Salaak, a disgruntled expression screwing up his alien features, folded two of his four arms. “Nobody told me I was going to run full-tilt into some sort of force-field,” he muttered.
“Well,” said Godiva, gliding past. “Let’s discuss it on the ground, shall we?”
Salaak nodded and headed for the ground with the four heroes on his platform, while Godiva and the Squire glided down to join them. As she descended, she took in the weird energy barrier that had interrupted their original descent. It had been sheer bad luck that their angle of approach had been toward the sun, and that this had rendered the barrier invisible. From where they were now, it was clearly visible as a faintly glowing dome. “It seems to cover the entire castle and part of the village beyond,” she said.
“Any idea what it is?” the Squire asked.
“None. I’ve never — hey, look!” She pointed to two figures standing on the battlements above them now.
“Perry — and Firebrand!” the Squire said. “They’re not moving, Cas.”
“I know. Let’s go down. Maybe Salaak’s ring can tell us what this thing is.”
The pair arrived at ground level to see the others had got there well before them. Cameo and Lodestone still looked angry at being dropped by the alien Green Lantern, but Stealth and the Bowman seemed calm enough. Salaak was standing with his ring pointing at the energy field.
“Any ideas, G.L.?” said Godiva, retracting her hair to its normal size and texture.
“Not so far, it seems,” said Stealth.
“I can speak for myself, female!” Salaak snapped. He turned to face Godiva. “Whatever this strange energy is, my ring has not experienced anything like it before. I cannot identify its nature.”
“Well, can you get through it? The Knight and Firebrand are inside this thing.”
“And they’re not moving!” said the Squire.
Lodestone’s expression suddenly changed. “Not moving? Like… you mean frozen in place?”
“Yes, Rhea?” said Stealth. “Have you thought of something?”
“I don’t know,” said the white-eyed teenager. “Possibly. I think I might’ve, y’know, seen something like this before.”
Rhea held her hands up. “Hey, I’m not sure, guys. I don’t wanna suggest anything that, y’know, might be wrong.”
“That’s OK,” said the Bowman. “No one’s going to bite your head off if you’re wrong. But if you’ve a theory, please share it with us.”
Rhea looked into his eyes and nodded. “Well, it reminds me of something I saw when I worked with the Doom Patrol…”
“You worked with the Doom Patrol?” said the Squire. “When?”
“A long time ago. An’ it was the original D.P. — y’know, Robotman, Negative Man, Elasti-Girl… before they died, o’ course…”
“Well, that’s pretty obvious!”
“David,” said Cameo, “stop interrupting and let her finish.” The Squire shrugged.
A snort of derision issued from Salaak. “I wish you’d all be quiet. This pointless prattle gets us nowhere. What do we care about long-dead heroes at this time? Let us see whether my ring can penetrate this barrier.”
Ignoring her, Salaak stepped up to the field and focused his willpower into the green energies of his power ring. A beam issued from it and struck the glowing wall. What happened next astonished everyone.
The beam hovered at the periphery of the barrier momentarily, then seemed to penetrate the energy field and move inside. However, as it did so it changed colour, shading from green into yellow before suddenly fizzling out. Salaak canceled the beam and raised his ring to his face, staring at it in utter bafflement.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” said Stealth.
Salaak cursed under his breath in an alien language. He sent out a second probing green beam, but again it turned to yellow as it passed through the strange barrier and petered out.
“Well, this is obviously getting us nowhere,” said Stealth. “OK, Rhea, over to you. What do you know about this?”
All eyes turned to the pretty American redhead. “Well… nothin’, really,” she said. “But like I said, it reminds me of something I saw when I met the Doom Patrol, years ago. There was this guy who wore a kinda clock-shaped helmet on his head, and it fired a beam which could slow down or speed up time. This looks kinda similar, y’know?”
Cameo slapped her right fist into her left palm. “Doppler shift! Of course!”
The Squire’s mouth turned up at one edge. “It’s difficult enough to figure out what Salaak’s on about, Sandie. Don’t you start!”
“I agree,” said Godiva. “What do you mean, Sandie?”
The Afro-Caribbean woman turned to them and said, “I think Rhea’s right about the nature of this barrier. It slows down time within it. That explains what happened to Salaak’s power beam.”
“It does?” said Salaak, his expression looking even more pained than usual.
“It’s the same phenomenon we see when observing distant galaxies,” said the young forensic scientist. “Most galaxies are moving away from our own at tremendous speeds. It causes the light from them to be shifted towards the red end of the visible spectrum.”
“Red shift. Right. I remember it now from my physics lessons in school,” said Godiva.
“I think a similar effect is happening to Salaak’s beam,” said Sandie. “Think about it. What happens if you move green light towards the red end of the spectrum?”
“Er… let’s see,” said the youthful Squire. “How does it go? Starting from the other end, it’s violet, indigo, blue, green…”
“Yellow!” Salaak snapped. “The next colour is yellow! No wonder my beam failed!”
“What difference does that make?”
“It just does!” grumped Salaak. “Damn! It means I’m as helpless as the rest of you to penetrate that thing!”
“Hmmm…” said Stealth, eyeing the Slyggian thoughtfully. “Rhea, assuming this phenomenon is similar to the one you encountered before, do you recall any way of getting through it?”
“No,” Lodestone replied. “Even Negative Man couldn’t get through.”
The Bowman of Britain had stood in silence during this exchange. Now he said, “Light is getting through, though, even if it is red-shifted. Maybe we could use that to our advantage.”
“I’m not sure. But an energy-field like this can’t just exist unsupported, I’m sure. Something must be generating it.”
“And if we can find what’s generating it, we can shut it down, right?” said Godiva.
“Then I can save the day after all!” said Salaak with an air of triumph. He leaped into the air, his green beam probing out every which way.
“Fun guy, isn’t he?” said Stealth with a grin.
Cameo, meanwhile, had approached the barrier. “I wonder…”
“What is it, Sandie?” asked Godiva.
“Tom’s remark about light set me thinking,” said Cameo. She twisted the rings on her fingers to transform her into the strange, glowing silhouette from which she took her sobriquet. “My energy form isn’t just light, but maybe other forms of electromagnetic radiation can get through.”
“Neg Man couldn’t,” Lodestone reminded her.
“Yes, but we don’t know that this is precisely the same sort of phenomenon you encountered then. Also, there might have been some energy component of Negative Man that wasn’t electromagnetic in nature. It’s got to be worth a try.”
“OK, go for it, then,” said Stealth.
Sandie reached out her hand and pressed it to the barrier. “There’s some resistance, but…” The hand went through. With a final glance back at the others, she moved her whole body into the strangely glowing field.
This feels really weird, she thought as she passed completely into the field. Looking out, she could see the others moving around normally, although all of them looked distinctly off-color. Blue shift, she thought. The light is affected in the opposite way from this side.
She moved toward the village, noting that there was some resistance to the motion, rather like trying to walk through water, and it seemed to get worse the farther she got from her entry point. However, she persevered and soon reached the nearest houses. Now what do I do? she wondered. She could not operate door handles in this form, yet she dared not transform back to human. There was a story by Larry Niven which used a time-slowing field like this, she recalled. And someone died in that story by being half in the field and half out of it. He was killed by blood trying to circulate at different speeds in different parts of his body. That is not something I want to happen to me!
She walked around the first house into a narrow street, where there were several people frozen in place. She moved to the first one and tried to touch her. Although her altered form was normally semi-intangible, the villager’s body stopped her hand dead. However, when she tried to push him over, he would not budge at all.
Several minutes later found her walking out of the field again close to the point where she had entered. “That was a completely useless exercise,” she said, transforming herself back to flesh. “I could walk around in there, but I couldn’t interact with anything. I think you’re right, Rhea. Time is slowed or even suspended in there.”
“Any sign of whatever’s generating the field?” asked Godiva.
Sandie shook her head. “No. But then, I don’t really know what to look for. Has Salaak had any luck?”
“Let’s ask him,” said the Squire. “Here he comes.”
The alien Green Lantern looked grim as he landed. “Nothing!” he growled. “Nothing out of the ordinary at all.”
“Are you sure?” the Bowman said. “Something must be generating this bubble of energy.”
“My ring scanned all around the area for unusual energies or power signatures from exotic technology. There’s nothing.”
“Then there’s only one answer,” Stealth said. The others turned to look at her. “It’s obvious, really. Whatever’s doing this must be inside the field.”
“In which case it’s up to me, I suppose,” said Cameo, “as I’m the only one who can penetrate it. But what am I supposed to do? As I said, I can’t interact with anything in there, and I don’t even know what I’m looking for.”
Godiva looked thoughtful. “I think it’s fairly safe to say that a machine that could create this would look fairly exotic, wouldn’t you say? Salaak, would you expect it to be somewhere around the middle of the field?”
“How do you expect me to know?”
“I just thought you’d have more experience of unusual technology than most of us. How about you, Stealth?”
“I’d say it’s likely. I see where you’re going with this, Godiva. Finding the generator would be a positive first step. Once we know where and what it is, a means of shutting it off might suggest itself.”
Godiva turned to face Cameo once more. “Then I guess it’s up to you, Sandie. Are you up for another trip inside there?”
Cameo shrugged. “Do I have any choice?”