by Brian K. Asbury
“OK, then, I just have to open up this pad for reception, and we’re in business,” Celebrand continued.
“Now hold on, just a minute!” This was Jall Tannuz speaking. He stepped up to Celebrand as his hand hovered over the Transmat panel. “Before you throw that switch, think. What do we need this mysterious boss for anymore? We’ve done all the work here, and we should reap the rewards.”
“No, hear me out, Celebrand. This place is the greatest collection of forbidden technology in known space. There’s stuff here that could make us kings — more than kings. We could conquer the galaxy with some of the weapons rumored to be held in this Vault. So why don’t we do just that?”
Celebrand scowled. “Because it’s not what we’re here for. We came for one thing, and that’s all we’re taking.”
“Except it’s not a thing, is it? Like Elvo just said, it’s not a piece of technology, it’s a living creature. What’s it doing here, and what’s it got to do with us?”
Celebrand sighed. “All right. I don’t know quite what our employer’s connection with this creature is, but he was concerned that it was lost in this universe and was being held prisoner here. He wants it freed.”
“No!” The Custodian suddenly spoke up. “You must not free it. It is exceedingly dangerous. This is the only facility in our universe where it can be safely contained.”
“Apollo, keep him quiet,” ordered Celebrand. “Jall…”
“No!” said Jall Tannuz. “I don’t care. This is far too good an opportunity to waste. The rest of you — are you with me? Do we say to hell with this boss who has lied to us all this time, and take what’s in this Vault for ourselves?”
“Well…” began Apollo, who was clearly considering it.
Celebrand stepped forward to consult Tannuz directly. “That’s enough, Jall,” he snapped. “You’re out of order. I’m in command here, and I say the rest of what’s in this Vault is no concern of ours. I’m going to open the Transmat for reception now so our employer can transport down, and then we’re going to leave with the energy-creature and nothing else. Do you understand me?”
“Perfectly,” growled Tannuz. And his form suddenly blurred into a monstrous octopoid creature that lashed out with a multitude of tentacles tipped with wickedly sharp barbs. His first onslaught knocked not only Celebrand flying but also Elvo and Dartalg, who were the nearest of the others to him.
“Apollo!” squealed one of the two Femnaz guards who were still draped around the handsome Geeqouite mercenary.
“Stop him! He’s gone crazy!” Apollo said. The two women began to draw their weapons, but Jall Tannuz moved into them with a speed belying his present bulk. One of the two women was slashed viciously across the neck and staggered back, blood spurting; the other was knocked flying into the Transmat console and lay still.
“So — even you are against me,” growled Tannuz. “Well, see how you like this!” He waved his tentacles menacingly at Apollo, but a sudden blur in brown slammed into him, knocking him back.
“You may look like a Dhorite Octoviscer,” said Immorto, landing gracefully on his feet after his skillful drop kick. “But you’re no stronger than you are in your normal form, nor any more impervious to harm.” He lashed out again with another martial arts blow, staggering the transformed Tannuz.
Tannuz screamed and lashed out with his sharp-tipped tentacles, connecting with Immorto and cutting him deeply in several places, but Immorto pressed on with his attack, landing blow after blow. Suddenly Tannuz’s form shimmered again, and he fell to the floor, unconscious.
“That’s something to be grateful for, anyway,” muttered the young acrobat. “I don’t think I could have taken much more of that punishment.” His wounds were already sealing themselves. He moved to the Femnaz whose throat had been slashed. Apollo and Psyche were trying to stem the bleeding but were having little success.
“Here,” Immorto said. “This doesn’t always work, but let’s try, anyway.” He ripped off his torn, bloodstained sleeve and pressed it over the wounded woman’s neck. Immediately, her bleeding slowed, then stopped. “My blood has healing properties,” he explained. “And fortunately it wasn’t too late for her.”
Celebrand was back on his feet and helping Elvo and Immorto to theirs. “All right, then,” he said. “If there are no more objections, let’s get the boss down here.”
Again, Celebrand’s hand was poised over the switch, when he halted. He put his right hand to his ear. “Yes… yes, I understand. But I don’t think killing him is a good idea. We may need his knowledge. Yes… acknowledged.”
“You had a transmitter in your ear all along?” asked Elvo.
“Yes. But the Vault’s structure blocks normal transmissions. I’ve had to piggyback it on the Transmat’s carrier wave to get it through. That was our employer, in case you haven’t guessed.”
“He’s getting impatient?”
“No. By all accounts he’s a very patient individual. However, he’s concerned about the Custodian. He wants him neutralized before he transports down.”
“Why?” asked Immorto.
“I presume by neutralized you mean killed?” butted in Dartalg.
“Only if absolutely necessary,” said Celebrand. “The Custodian is an innocent party in this, after all.”
“Except that he would’ve killed us all if Psyche, here, hadn’t been able to overcome him,” Apollo said. “To hell with ‘only if absolutely necessary.’ As soon as he’s free of Psyche’s influence, he’ll turn every weapon in this Vault against our ship to stop us getting away. If he’s dead, he can’t do anything to us.”
Celebrand frowned. “I’ve said no killing before, and I mean it, Apollo. But you have a point. We certainly need to render him unconscious. Dartalg, have you anything in that bag of tricks that can put him out for a few hours?”
Elvo stepped in before Dartalg could answer. “No, he hasn’t. And I can say that with absolute certainty, even without knowing just what Dartalg has those darts tipped with. I’m from this planet, remember, and I know just what the Custodian has been genetically altered to be capable of. There isn’t a narcotic in the known galaxy that will work on him.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” muttered Dartalg. “I have some pretty potent stuff here.”
“Maybe. But you’d only be wasting it. This is far more effective.” And Elvo stepped up to the Custodian and dealt him a powerful uppercut to the point of his chin. The Custodian staggered back, and Elvo hit him a second time. This time he crumpled onto the floor and lay there unmoving.
“Ouch! Brutal!” said Immorto.
“But the best way to deal with the problem,” said Elvo, rubbing his fist.
“Remind me not to get into a fist-fight with you.”
“Don’t worry — not much chance of that. I saw how you took out Jall Tannuz. I prefer to fight battles I stand a chance of winning.”
An impatient snort escaped from Celebrand. “You two can admire each other’s fighting skills as much as you like in your own time, gentlemen, but we have work to do.”
“I still think we should’ve killed him,” muttered Apollo.
“Well, fortunately you’re not in charge,” Celebrand said. He raised his hand to his ear once more. “The Custodian is out cold, sir,” he said. “I’m opening up the pad for reception now.” His hand moved to operate the controls.
The Transmat pad began to glow. “About time,” Dartalg said, sidling up to Elvo. “Perhaps now we’ll get some questions answered.”
A shape began to form within the light. More or less human, its dwarfish, stunted body was clad in blue, and the partially bald head was disproportionately large. It sat unmoving in a hovering grav-chair. Its face sported a pencil-thin mustache but was as immobile as the rest of its body. Only the eyes moved — and they radiated an almost palpable evil.
“What the–?” began Elvo. “Who the hell is this?”
Suddenly, his sword dropped from his hands, which flew to his temple as wave after wave of mental agony stabbed through his head like a thousand blades. The others, too, contorted in pain and then stiffened like so many dummies.
The newcomer’s face still did not so much as twitch, but the eyes betrayed that he would have liked to be giving a satisfied smirk. A voice rang out in the heads of all present: “Good afternoon, everyone. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Hector Hammond, and from this moment on, the technology in this Vault belongs to me!”
The floating chair turned slowly to allow its immobile occupant to study all of the raiding party. “Good.” The voice again sounded in their minds rather than through the medium of sound. “Now let’s just make sure we’re not disturbed.” The controls on the Transmat console began to operate themselves, closing off the channel that allowed transport onto this pad.
Satisfied, Hammond then moved his chair to face the energy creature that was suspended in a containment field next to the pad. “Yes…” he said telepathically. “I sense you are everything I expected. Good, good. My long years of confinement and immobility will soon be over. And then… and then, I will use the technology contained in this Vault to achieve my dreams of conquest. If some of the weapons are as potent as they are said to be, no one in the universe will be able to stand against me.”
He turned to face his paralyzed pawns. “I suppose I owe you all some sort of apology. I deceived you, of course. But let’s face it, if you’d known who was hiring you, you would probably have been less than cooperative. Some of you, at least, have a sense of morals. Take it from me, that is a weakness.” He looked down at Jall Tannuz, lying unconscious where Immorto had felled him. “As it is, I note that there has been a difference of opinion among you. Hardly surprising — I would have been astonished if at least one of you had not tried to take the Vault’s treasures for yourselves. But that’s why most of you were recruited — that same moral sense that might have been inconvenient for me meant you were likely to follow my orders and stop anyone in your ranks who was getting too ambitious.
“As for me, well, I am sure most of you have heard of me. I have a reputation going back almost a thousand years, to those days when the Green Lantern of Earth was the biggest thorn in my side. I should have overcome that spandex-clad buffoon easily with the advanced mental powers I gained when I used that strange meteor to advance me to the next stage of human evolution and beyond. But every time, luck was against me. Even when I evolved myself further than ever, to achieve actual immortality, ill fortune dogged me, and I found myself unable to move — doomed to sit here forever, unable to enjoy any of the benefits my immortal condition should have granted me.
“But no more. No more.” He turned back to the pulsating light of the energy creature. “This entity will be my salvation, my friends. It is pure quantum energy, but more than that. I used my powers to wrest it from its home in the Quantum Two universe centuries ago, but it escaped my grasp before I could bend it to my will. Since then, it roamed the universe, lost and unable to assume its natural form. In that time, with no vestige of its home dimension to anchor its intellect, it has become a tabula rasa — a blank slate upon which I will write. It seeks a home, security, freedom from the pain and loneliness it has suffered since it came here. And I can grant it that.”
The controls on the containment-field generators suddenly moved. “I am going to set you free now, my beauty,” Hammond said. “And then you and I are going to merge. We shall become one being controlled by my unmatchable intellect, and your energies will be formed into a new body — one that not only has the power of movement, but which possesses the quantum transformation powers that you have and all of my psionic might, too.”
As if in response, the energy creature began to glow more brightly. Then the field shut down suddenly, and it was free, hovering in the air before Hammond as if waiting for him. His grav-chair moved closer to it.
And then the containment field was active again as a hand moved over the controls.
“Not so fast, Hammond. If you want to merge with this creature, you’re going to have to deal with me first!”
Before Hammond could respond, he found himself yanked from his floating chair and sprawling helplessly upon the floor. “What the–?” he began.
Then into his field of vision stepped Celebrand, a scowl on his bearded face. “There’s no way in hell I’m going to allow you to merge with that creature or do anything else to endanger innocent lives,” he said.
“Obey me, fool!” Hammond commanded mentally. “You are my employee. I paid you handsomely to recruit these others and do my bidding. Is this how you now betray me?”
“You have the gall to accuse me of betraying you when you just tried to turn us all into zombies under your mental control?” said Celebrand. “You really are something, Hammond. How have you ever survived this long without someone finding a way to kill you?”
Hammond ignored the taunt. “You can’t be resisting me like this! You can’t! Even Green Lantern didn’t have that much willpower.”
Celebrand laughed. He fingered the amulet he wore. “You think this is just for show?” he said. “Look carefully, Hammond. This is the symbol of the Psionics Institute on Titan, where I trained for three years.”
“You’re no telepath!”
“True. But the Institute takes in a number of gifted non-telepaths every year, provided they can demonstrate at least a trace of psionic talent of some sort. And to their very best students they gift a very special award.” He held up the amulet. “This device generates a field which affords some protection against psionic attack. I can’t block you completely — that’s why I can still hear your mental voice — but I can certainly resist your commands.”
He drew his gun and twisted a control on the barrel. “You might be immortal, Hammond, but you still have a working nervous system, which means you can still feel pain. This weapon doubles as a neuronic whip. I’ve never experienced it myself, but I’m told it can be excruciating. So here’s my ultimatum: release your control over the others, or learn just how much pain you can feel!”
The voice in Celebrand’s head took on a contemptuous tone. “Fool! Do you think I’m helpless?” And suddenly, the grav-chair lifted up off the floor and hurled itself at him.
Celebrand made a hasty dive to one side just in the nick of time. He twisted the control on setting on his weapon again, switching it to blaster mode. He fired at the chair as it came back at him again, blasting it to smithereens.
“That won’t save you,” sneered Hammond’s mental voice. “Kill him!”
Celebrand looked up to see Elvo stooping to pick up his fallen Powersword. Dartalg was also reaching for his weapon, as was the Femnaz guard who had been knocked out in Jall Tannuz’s attack but who had evidently now regained consciousness. Even the unarmed Apollo, Immorto, and Psyche were advancing upon him with murderous intent.
Stepping back, Celebrand hastily tried to adjust the gun controls to stun; the last thing he wanted to do was injure his comrades, but it looked as though he might not have any choice.
His quick analytical mind took in the scenario. Elvo and Dartalg were clearly the most dangerous of the group and needed to be neutralized quickly. Dartalg, in particular, warranted urgent attention; he was fitting a dart to his blowpipe, and it could be anything. Celebrand doubted that it would be a harmless knockout drug.
All six of them were moving slowly, however, almost as if they were in a dream. They’re resisting, he thought. Hammond must be stretching his powers thin to control all six of them. If only I could snap some of them out of it!
He realized that this was why Hammond had insisted on the Custodian being neutralized before he transported down. The Custodian was immune to almost all psionic influence, and had been controlled only thanks to Psyche’s powers. If he had been awake, he would have been freed when Hammond took over Psyche; and if he had not done so, there was a risk that Psyche might have used the Custodian against Hammond.
All this was purely academic, of course. Celebrand considered his options. He could run — but to where? The energy-barrier at the entrance was still active, which meant there was no way out in that direction. And the others were blocking his way into the rest of the Vault. That meant there was really only one option: fight.
All this flashed through Celebrand’s mind in a split-second, and he found himself diving to one side as a dart whizzed through the air toward him. He fired in response, but the motion made his shot go wild, and he hit Apollo with the stun blast instead of his intended target, Dartalg. Still, he mused, it was one potential attacker less to deal with, while the fact that the dart missed him confirmed that they were trying to resist. A fully in-control Dartalg would have hit his target every time.
Rolling, he tried to regain his feet, but a blast from the Femnaz’s gun narrowly missed him, throwing him off-balance and into the path of Elvo. Ducking again, he instinctively thrust out his right arm to fend off the coming blow, and Elvo’s Powersword connected with his gun, slicing it in two. Oh, great, he thought. Now I’m unarmed!
He had little time to contemplate the consequences of this as Immorto slammed into him, almost knocking him off his feet. He took a defensive stance, warding off a combination of martial arts blows. This was not good. Celebrand was a formidable hand-to-hand fighter under normal conditions, but Immorto was adept in martial arts as well as being both younger and more agile — not to mention the fact that his ability to regenerate even from death made him utterly fearless. Having to fight someone of his caliber while simultaneously trying to dodge the attacks of the others was a nightmare scenario.
A glimmer of hope came as the others closed in. He managed to grab the arm of Psyche — a poor fighter, to the best of his knowledge — and push her between him and Immorto. However, as he stepped back, he received a whack across the head from Dartalg’s blowpipe, which the former assassin was wielding like a staff. Unable to keep his footing, Celebrand went sprawling to the floor — just as Elvo closed in, his Powersword raised to deliver a death blow.
As Celebrand prepared for the inevitable, something tiny whizzed past. Whatever it was, it seemed to distract Elvo momentarily, and the swordsman hesitated. A dart? thought Celebrand. But it came from behind me, and Dartalg is in front…
There were more pressing matters to demand his attention, however. He looked up at Elvo. The wielder of the Powersword was always difficult to read due to his eyes being hidden behind his protective goggles, but his expression seemed to betray an inner conflict. Elvo was resisting.
“Elvo,” Celebrand gasped. “Fight it. You know you can. Hammond is the enemy, not me. I’m on your side.”
The others, too, seemed to be hesitating, but they were surrounding Celebrand now. As he tried to take advantage of the situation to back away, a kick from one of them — Immorto, perhaps? — sent him crashing back in pain.
“Elvo, please. You know this isn’t right. Help me.”
Elvo’s face contorted. A hoarse rattle escaped from his throat. “S…”
“Yes!” said Celebrand. “You can do it!”
“S… so… sorry…” croaked Elvo. The tableau broke. The Powersword came crashing down toward Celebrand’s head.
And a terrible scream filled the chamber.