by Brian K. Asbury
Salaak smiled in satisfaction as his power beam cut into the energy barrier. He had to hand it to the human lad — his suggestion had been a sound one, even if his mode of expressing it had been about as clear as Philoxian sulphur mud. “Lighten up,” he had said. But what he had actually meant was that Salaak should will his power beam to move up the visible spectrum of light toward the violet end.
Thus, the beam issuing from his power ring was at present an uncharacteristic blue colour. As it hit the energy barrier, though, the time differential inside it red-shifted the beam down to its familiar green hue. And since it was no longer turning yellow, he was having some success in neutralizing the field — although it was taking a tremendous effort of will and concentration. Still, he was getting there, despite the nuisance of those ridiculous so-called Rocket Reds buzzing around. This was going to take some time, but the dome of the barrier was visibly getting smaller. He felt certain that, with a sufficient degree of patience and perseverance, he could neutralize the entire field within a quarter hour or so.
Something caught his eye, though: a brighter glow moving up through the energy toward him. Now what is that? he thought. The distraction caused him momentarily to relax his will, and the barrier recovered some of its ground. Cursing, he redoubled his concentration, pushing it back again.
But that glow was still there, and coming closer. Suddenly, a white blob emerged from the green into the blue. “Sal–”
Salaak started. It had spoken, albeit briefly. But then it had vanished back into the energy field. Now it was rising again, and it emerged once more. “Don’t–”
Down it went again. Very well, thought the Green Lantern. Next time I’ll be ready for you. He formed part of his beam into a pincer. Sure enough, up it came again. “List — eek!” His power-ringed pincer grabbed the white blob and pulled it clear of the energy. It now had a very familiar shape.
Forming a floating disc, he lowered Cameo down onto it. “You!” he said. “How did you get back up here?”
“Never mind that!” gasped the Afro-Caribbean girl, changing back to her human form. “You’ve got to stop eating into the barrier! It’s a trap!”
“What do you mean?” demanded the irritable Green Lantern.
Cameo had taken the interruption to take stock of her surroundings. “Your power beam — it’s blue!” she said.
“Don’t change the subject!” Salaak snapped. “What do you mean, it’s a trap?”
“I mean, I think the device generating the time-slowing field is also a bomb. It’s counting down — to detonation, I think.”
“What? Are you sure?”
She nodded. “As sure as I can be. It makes sense. The Dominators couldn’t be sure of catching us all in the time freeze, so they built in a second trap. After all, super-heroes are pretty resourceful when it comes to figuring out problems like this. Sooner or later, somebody was going to figure out how to neutralize the field — and when they do, the second trap gets them. Boom! Remember, the Knight suggested as much before we lost contact with him. ‘They’ve somehow trapped it in a way which endangers this entire locality.’ That’s what he said.”
Salaak stared at her. “Then if I remove the field entirely…”
“The counter reaches zero, and the bomb goes off. And you can bet your life it’s not just a few sticks of dynamite, Salaak. If I were the Dominators, and I wanted to make sure I got us all, I’d use a nuclear device.”
“Then we have a problem,” said Salaak.
“We certainly do!”
“–word, it’s glowing, as if–” The sentence broke off, uncompleted. “What the hell?”
The Knight and Firebrand both looked around them. Everything had abruptly changed. They suddenly seemed to be at the bottom of a long, green cylinder of light.
“What just happened?” said Firebrand.
“I’ve no idea — but look!” The Knight pointed upward, to where a strange alien shape was descending toward them. He drew his sword and prepared to defend himself.
“That’s Salaak of the Green Lantern Corps!” said Firebrand. “What on earth is he doing here?”
“You know that alien?”
“Only by reputation…”
Salaak was now within earshot. He sent out two tendrils of light from his ring — strangely coloured blue, not green. “Hold on!” he said. “I’m going to get you out of here!”
“Wherever here is!” said Firebrand, completely confused. One of the tendrils wrapped around her waist, while the other similarly snared the Knight. Then they were rising into the air, moving up the green cylinder at a dizzying rate. Within seconds they were clear of it and being deposited onto a floating green disc next to a familiar figure.
“In the flesh,” said Cameo.
“But — but how did you get here?” the Knight spluttered.
“Knight, look at the sky,” Firebrand said. “It’s suddenly gone almost dark. What the bloody blazes is going on here?”
“It’s a long story,” said Cameo.
“And who are these people?” the Knight said, staring at several Rocket Reds who were flitting about. “None of this makes sense.”
Salaak was now hovering next to the disc, having ceased to use his power beam on the energy barrier. “It will make perfect sense if you will have the patience to let somebody explain it to you, human. Now hang on — I am taking you to the others.”
“So,” said the Knight, “for all that, we still don’t know where the Dominators are hiding.”
“We do know they have a ship not far from here, though,” Firebrand reminded him. “Remember what Magda told us.”
The entire group was now together, assembled just outside the energy barrier. Rocket Red #1 was back in his armour, and the Knight was also in the process of putting on his own full plate, which had been brought along by Salaak, miniaturized, and stored in the alien Green Lantern’s power ring.
“I know nothing of these Dominators,” said Rocket Red #1. “All I care about is that my squad has been ordered to remove this energy barrier, which is menacing the citizens of a good Socialist republic allied to the glorious Soviet Union. I want it removed.”
Salaak glared at him. “You heard what the female told us, you fool. Thanks to the boy’s suggestion, I can neutralize the time-slowing field, but if I do so, then the bomb will go off.”
“But could your power ring not contain even a nuclear explosion?”
“Perhaps. I don’t know. Are you really so anxious to put it to the test and risk me being wrong?”
Stealth stepped forward. “This is getting us nowhere, people. I have a suggestion. There is someone who knows how to turn that machine off, bomb and all.”
“The Dominators, presumably?” said the Knight.
“Of course. Dominators are very self-centred and self-protective — especially the high-caste types. They wouldn’t build something like that without a means of switching it off remotely, if only to make sure it couldn’t be used against them.”
“But what good does that do us if we don’t even know where they are?” said the Squire.
“My point,” said Stealth, “is that the Dominators are the key to removing the barrier. We should make finding them our priority.”
Rocket Red seemed to be digesting this. “You are making sense, madam. Very well — the Rocket Red Brigade will aid you in this. But where do we start? This area is very mountainous and riddled with caves. The scanners built into our armour cannot penetrate far into solid rock, and surely the alien vessel will be well-screened also. It will be very difficult to find them, even with all of us searching.”
The whole group went quiet, acknowledging the truth of what the armoured Russian had said. It was broken by Godiva snapping her fingers.
“You have something, Cas?” said Cameo.
“Possibly…” began the golden-haired beauty. She waved toward the outline of the castle, deep within the energy field and now just a dark, brooding shape in the fading light. “What they did in there was to bait a very sophisticated mousetrap.”
“With Perry and Firebrand as the bait and us as the mice,” said the Squire.
“Right. And what happens when a mousetrap goes off?”
“The mouse goes kaputski?” said the Squire. “No offense,” he added to the Rocket Reds.
“And what else?”
The Knight laughed. “I’m beginning to understand what you’re getting at!” he said.
“You are?” said Salaak. “Well, would you mind condescending to tell the rest of us, because I find this human habit of talking in metaphor irritating almost beyond reasonable tolerance!”
Godiva smiled. “It’s like this…” she began.
The tall, attenuated creature walked slowly into the control room. The brutish guards flanking the door stood abruptly to attention. As they became aware of the newcomer’s presence, the other occupants stood and bowed low until a wave of his sharp-taloned hand indicated permission to straighten. He strode up to one of his own kind, an untidy specimen with only an ugly scar on his forehead to mark where his disc of caste had once been.
“Mossst high one,” said the discless individual, again bowing. “There appearsss to be little happening at presssent.”
“Unaccceptable!” said the first Dominator, his head held high to proudly display his large red disc. “You promisssed me that all of the humansss who had opposssed us in Britain would be eliminated by your trap, ssscrapeling. Ssso far you have caught but two of them.”
“I am cccertain that the plan cannot fail, high one,” said the scrapeling. “It isss only a matter of time before they either activate the deviccce themssselvesss or the timer runsss down.”
“But what isss taking ssso long, insssignificant one?” The Dominator commander moved to another console, where one of the slaves was monitoring instruments. “I require to know what isss happening out there. Give me a report on our enemiesss’ movementsss.”
“No!” said the scrapeling.
“You dare countermand my order, worm?”
“No, high one,” said the scrapeling, groveling before him. “It is jussst that the humansss called the Rocket Red Brigade have sssensssorsss built into their armour which would detect our ssscansss and lead them to usss. Usssing our ssscannersss would thus be unwissse.”
The commander scowled. “Then find a way to ssscan them without their detecting it,” he said. “I grow tired of thisss waiting.”
“Yesss, high–” The sentence was not completed. The floor suddenly shook violently.
“What wasss that?” demanded the commander. “On ssscreen! What isss happening out there?”
One of the slaves operated a control, and the main view-screen flickered into life. It flared with light, then darkened as polarizing elements in the video pickups compensated for the glare. The cave in which the ship was berthed was visually shaking, and there was blinding light outside and a noise like thunder.
“The bomb!” said the scrapeling in a tone of satisfaction. “They have finally detonated it.” He turned to his commander. “Thisss isss a great victory for usss, high one. The exxxplosssion will have eliminated not only the humansss called the Paladinsss, but alssso the traitorsss who joined them from Count Vertigo’sss Company of Fenrisss, the Rocket Red Brigade, and the Green Lantern Sssalaak!”
“Yesss. Mossst sssatisssfying. Can we view the ssscene of devassstation?”
“Not possible, high one,” said one of the slaves. “There is a great deal of electromagnetic interference from the explosion.”
“Then let usss view it from the air,” said the commander. “Our work isss finissshed here anyway.” He turned to his underling. “I congratulate you, ssscrapeling. Thisss work may well earn you the return of your disssc.”
The scrapeling genuflected. “I thank you, mossst high one.”
The ship’s engines roared into life as he spoke. The commander nodded to the slave manning the helm, and the ship’s main shield extended forward, dislodging the piled rocks at the mouth of the cave that concealed what lay within. The ship rose up on its antigravs and slowly moved forward, clearing the cave entrance and then rising swiftly as it accelerated toward the source of the light and noise.
“There isss much sssmoke, high one,” observed the scrapeling.
“Naturally,” said the commander. “Move clossser, helmsssman, and ssscan for sssigns of life.”
Suddenly, the ship gave a lurch, pitching the two standing Dominators to the floor. Slaves quickly rushed forward to help them to their feet. “What wasss that?” the commander asked angrily.
“I think something hit us!” said the helmsman. “I can’t see anything.” His agile hands moved over the controls, switching from one hull camera to another. The screen went black, then flickered into life again, then black once more. “I don’t understand it, high one. The cameras keep failing.”
“What? How can that be?”
“I don’t know, high one. I think we must be under attack — but from who or what, I have no idea!”
As one, the assembled Rocket Red Brigade swooped down on the alien vessel, pounding it with their blasters on full power. This was a different situation entirely to when they had been attacking the Paladins: this time they were not aiming to merely subdue their targets, and could really let rip. They were joined by Firebrand in her energy form, again blasting the ship with everything she had. So far, its shields were holding up against the concerted assault, but for how much longer?
One person who could make an educated guess on that was the Knight, who was standing in the back of a pickup truck borrowed from the nearby village and magnetically levitated by Lodestone. Next to him, the Bowman of Britain fired phantom arrows, one after another, at the ship, each one passing effortlessly past the ship’s shields to knock out the cameras and other sensory pickups mounted on its exterior.
“What’s it looking like?” asked Godiva from his other side.
“Pretty grim, from their viewpoint,” the Knight replied, studying the sensory readouts on the inside of his visor. “I’d estimate we’ve already worn down at least sixty percent of their shield strength, and the damage Tom is doing to their own scanners must be leaving them wondering what the hell is happening to them!”
“Isn’t it time we enlightened them, then?” Cameo asked.
He grinned. “I think so.” He adjusted the comms controls in his armor. “Let’s see whether Stealth has got it right about the frequency range they’re likely to be using.”
“Oh, I have,” said Stealth. “Dominators are very conservative in many ways. They don’t change their traditional methods.”
He made another fine adjustment and spoke into his helmet mike. “This is the Knight, speaking for the Paladins. Come in, Dominators. Are you receiving me?”
The screen inside his visor flickered into life. A nightmarish face appeared on it. “Who are you? What do you want?”
The Knight snickered. “I don’t want to speak to you. Put somebody in charge on. Somebody with a disc.”
The expression on the Dominator’s face changed to something equally unreadable, then he was pushed aside, to be replaced by another, equally monstrous face, this time with a large red disc in the centre of its forehead. “I am the commander of thisss ssship. You are — sss-sss… you are the one called the Knight. How can you be alive? You ssset off our trap! You ssshould have been dessstroyed!”
“A little bluff on our part — special effects courtesy of the Rocket Reds’ blasters shaking the ground, Firebrand and Salaak creating lots of bright light, and Lodestone adding a little magnetic interference to confound your long-range scanners. We guessed if we made you think your trap had got us, you wouldn’t be able to resist coming out to gloat! After all, if you hear a mousetrap go off, it’s only natural to go and look to see what you’ve caught.”
“You are one of the hated Sssonsss of the Wing!” snarled the Dominator.
“Yes, I am,” the Knight acknowledged. “And I’m also the one calling for your surrender. Your shields are failing, and you can’t see where you’re going. I’d say that puts you in a rather bad position.”
“Why ssshould we sssurrender, fool? Have you any idea of the armamentsss thisss ssship isss carrying? We could sssnuff you out in an inssstant!”
A wry smile formed on the Knight’s lips. “All the weapons in Creation aren’t much help to you if you can’t see what you’re aiming at.”
“We are not completely blind, human!”
“No, that’s true. You have at least one camera still operating on your port side. I suggest you use it right now, because what it shows you might well change your mind about not surrendering.”
“What are you talking about?”
“This should be fun,” said the Squire. They all looked up to the other side of the ship, knowing that the Dominators could see exactly what they were seeing. Salaak was closing on the ship fast, towing behind him a chunk of stone from the floor of the castle. Sitting on that chunk was the trap machine, still generating its time-slowing field. However, the purple-faced Green Lantern’s ring had shrunk the field to a smallish bubble containing the machine and not much else, allowing him to move the whole thing away from the castle.
“What… what isss thisss?” the Dominator commander said, horror and astonishment intermingled in his voice.
“It’s your reason to surrender,” said the Knight. “I estimate your shields are just about on the verge of failing right now, so if you don’t surrender, Salaak is going to throw your bomb right at you and shut off the time-distortion field altogether. How’s about that for a taste of your own medicine?”